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Disheartening - difficulty in translating
Thread poster: Ardonia
Ardonia
United Kingdom
May 20, 2016

Good evening all,

I'm coming to an end with my postgrad translation course and have recently registered as self-employed, so just starting out in the translation world.

I've only dabbled in smaller translation jobs throughout my courses and found that I was constantly doubting my linguistic ability and double-checking every sentence I was translating, afraid of making the tiniest mistake. I was also recently offered a financial translation job from a colleague and, at first glance, thought I could handle it (due to financial translation texts on the course). However, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the technical terms, sentence structure and specific abbreviations/terminology of the text, to the point where I rather embarassingly had to return the job as I had no idea what the text was trying to say.

As a result, I'm feeling somewhat disheartened and have called into question my ability to translate. I'm sure this sounds like giving up at the first hurdle, I'm just not sure if this is something that was common among translators starting out. I'm not fishing for motivational quotes or encouragement, but it would be nice to hear if anyone else experienced a similar issue when starting out and questioned their skills. Similarly, where to go from here...

Thanks,
Donna


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 23:02
English to Croatian
+ ...
Some points. May 20, 2016

You say you had training at the Uni. Perhaps now you could look for a senior mentor to guide you and help you get started?

When you are not sure, you research. Use resources, glossaries, etc. Also, you may want to stick to subjects you are familiar with, for the beginning.


[Edited at 2016-05-20 22:10 GMT]


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Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 22:02
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Hi and welcome! May 20, 2016

Caution is a good thing! In my book, it’s far better to be cautious than overconfident. Confidence comes with experience and experience comes over time with work. One day you won't be the new kid on the block. Until then, be gentle with yourself and get someone to proof-read your work…

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Rachel Waddington  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:02
Member (2014)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Welcome May 20, 2016

Hi Donna,

You did the right thing. Better to admit honestly that you bit off more than you could chew than to deliver work that was not up to standard. I'm sure there are some in your position who would have said nothing and delivered nonsense. Well done for being professional enough not to do that.

Self-doubt is actually a good thing, because it means you are aware of your shortcomings and limitations. The important thing is that you use it to drive you to improve your work. Finishing your postgrad is not the end of your education as a translator, but the beginning of a process of lifelong learning and self-improvement.

Where you go next is up to you - maybe looking for a job before diving straight in as a freelance would give you a chance to gain some experience and confidence. Getting a more experienced translator to proofread your work is also an excellent idea.

Anyway, don't beat yourself up - translating is a hard job. We all have bad days and we all doubt ourselves at times.

Rachel


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The Misha
Local time: 17:02
Russian to English
+ ...
Whoever told you you can become a competent translator May 20, 2016

through "translation studies" did you a great disservice. Naturally, you found it difficult to understand that financial text - apparently, you don't know much, if anything, about the subject matter. That's the second - utterly crucial - component they probably forgot mentioning at your school. The way it looks at this point, you have two choices (assuming, that is, you know your languages well enough):

1) Get an in-house translation job (if you can find any, that is; in my neck of the woods, there's no such animal as an in-house translator, and if there is one or two somewhere, they must be starving) where they would work you to death and abuse you in any way they can yet put up with your lack of experience in subject matter fields. Hopefully, you'll pick it up little by little once you begin specializing in this field or that.

2) Decide what areas you want to specialize in - and go get a real job in that industry. If it's finance, become a clerk or a secretary at an investment firm. Or a law firm, if that's what interests you. Learn what you can on the job - and read, read read. Briefs, memos, college manuals, how-to books - whatever helps you to learn the "industry speak" and its ins and outs faster. Heck, you may even consider going back to school at night or part-time to learn that other crucial component the proper way. Hopefully, after a few years you'll get there.

Most successful translators I know (myself included, technically, since I never studied "translation"--I studied languages) never went to school to become translators. They learned a trade (engineering, law, medicine, whatever) and then had a "second coming" as translators, leveraging their industry experience AND language skills (me, when I realized that a BA in English alone just didn't cut it, I went out and earned an MBA in Finance--on my own time and dime). I am afraid no amount of "mentoring," whatever that is, is going to make up for that.

Sorry to rain on your parade like that. I am not snickering or anything. I am just exasperated to see, time and again, how someone has apparently been sweet-talked into putting the cart before the the horse with that "master in translation" scam. Best of luck to you, and soldier on. You'll get there if you put your mind to it.


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Raymond Peat  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:02
German to English
Start small with short, easy texts or subject matter you now about May 20, 2016

Don't be too hard on yourself. A degree, bachelor, masters or even a PhD, is only an entry ticket into any profession. It takes years to build up practical skills and confidence. It's normal to be anxious when you start out on any new task until you know what is expected of you. You are allowed to make mistakes, but it's best not to repeat them.
I did not start from the same position as you. As an engineer with good writing skills and a reasonable command of German, I started on part-time abstracting of German patents to produce short summaries in English. Despite me being the language go-to-guy in the engineering office, it was very much harder than I had envisaged, made worse by not having the fine collection of software, reference books and dictionaries I have now. However, it was ideal in that I could choose how many I did in a week and could see I was improving over time, which built up my confidence.
In my experience, if you decide to go down the freelance route, you will need another job to make ends meet for a year or two. In my case about four. Start small, perhaps short texts on subjects you know about. Allow yourself plenty of time. Be prepared to turn down jobs you can't do. Hope for some lucky breaks. Some turned up for me, so why not you?
I would imagine local in-house translation posts are quite difficult to find, at least until you can offer experience. People have worked their way into the translation industry as full-time/part-time employees in jobs where language skills are required but are not the main skills required, e.g. working in a translation agency on the project management side. I'm sure you'd soon pick up contacts in the industry, discover the standard of translation work required and the sort of things that cause problems, which you can then avoid in your own translations. Perhaps someone who has done this might like to comment?
Persevere. It's worth it. I count myself very fortunate to be doing a job I still love well into my sixties, with no plans to slow down yet.
Anyway - that's my view from my narrow but deep 21 years of experience as a self-employed translator.
Good luck! It certainly helps.
Ray


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Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:02
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Normal May 20, 2016

Ardonia wrote:
...double-checking every sentence I was translating, afraid of making the tiniest mistake.

Double or triple-checking is not unusual, nor is it wrong.
I was also recently offered a financial translation job from a colleague and ... I became increasingly overwhelmed by the technical terms, sentence structure and specific abbreviations/terminology of the text

So you took on a highly specalised text, realised it was too much for you and wisely backed away before you did too much damage. Not a bad result.
Similarly, where to go from here...

Onward. Upward. As in any career, if you're feeling comfortable then you're probably coasting and if you're coasting right at the start of a career you're doing something wrong!

Dan


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Specialisation May 21, 2016

Ardonia wrote:

Good evening all,

I'm coming to an end with my postgrad translation course and have recently registered as self-employed, so just starting out in the translation world.

I've only dabbled in smaller translation jobs throughout my courses and found that I was constantly doubting my linguistic ability and double-checking every sentence I was translating, afraid of making the tiniest mistake. I was also recently offered a financial translation job from a colleague and, at first glance, thought I could handle it (due to financial translation texts on the course). However, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the technical terms, sentence structure and specific abbreviations/terminology of the text, to the point where I rather embarassingly had to return the job as I had no idea what the text was trying to say.

As a result, I'm feeling somewhat disheartened and have called into question my ability to translate. I'm sure this sounds like giving up at the first hurdle, I'm just not sure if this is something that was common among translators starting out. I'm not fishing for motivational quotes or encouragement, but it would be nice to hear if anyone else experienced a similar issue when starting out and questioned their skills. Similarly, where to go from here...

Thanks,
Donna


You cannot and shouldn't specialise in something you do not like and have had no exposure to.

When I was doing my MA in translation, we were given a short (about 300 words) text to translate from English into Spanish. I recall I spent more than a day to arrive to a decent translation. The text contained three completely new terms per paragraph that did not exist in the Spanish "reality", apart from other pitfalls and complications. Of course, this was not a genuine text. Rather, it was meant to slow you down and make you investigate every single term and sentence structure (part of training).

Now, if you give me a legal text (statutes, agreements, judgements, etc.), it will not slow me down to that degree, no matter how you complicate it. This is because I studied law for many years both in Spain and in England, apart from years of experience translating legal texts day in day out.

My advice would be this; ask yourself:

1. Which field you enjoy the most
2. To which field you have been exposed (studies, work, hobby, etc.)

Build your profile around that field. Communicate to your prospective customers that you specialise in that field. Concentrate your work in that field.

Just remember, nobody expects you to translate everything and do it well. Everybody expects you to translate in your field of expertise and do it well.

Specialise, specialise and specialise. Believe me, it leads to more, and better paid, work. Accepting texts outside your field of expertise is the opportunity cost you are assuming and the chance you are missing to become a better subject matter expert, and hence better translator (you've got the linguistic part already covered, I presume).


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Dareth Pray  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:02
Member (2011)
French to English
+ ...
Don't give up! May 21, 2016

Hi Donna,

First of all, I think it's great that you are reaching out for support and sharing your experience. You are not alone. It can be very intimidating to start out as a freelancer because suddenly you are seeing what "real-world" documents look like for the first time, which don't really resemble translation assignments, do they?

You have to remember that most documents are written for experts in the field, unless you're talking about marketing texts or something like that. This is particularly difficult when the document is an internal document. If you think of any internal document that you have ever seen in any establishment that you have personally worked in or studied in, it probably refers to many terms, concepts, corporate/academic cultural ideas, and abbreviations that would not mean much or even anything to the next person, even a person who works in that same field and is fluent in that language. For example, if you were to show your university transcripts to a relative, would she understand what all the abbreviations and codes mean? No, she would not.

Yes, it's a challenge, and sometimes it's nearly impossible even for a very experienced translator. But don't panic! The key is research, research, research. Google is your best friend. Think of it as a puzzle or a treasure hunt and just keep working at it.

If I were you, I would try to identify a few areas that you think you may want to work in, whether that is finance, legal, medical, etc. Then take on some small translation jobs in those areas and research research research. Give yourself plenty of time. You will have to actually teach yourself the subject matter in detail as well as the nuances of the entity you are translating for. If it would make you feel more comfortable, try to find a mentor who can help you along and check your work.

Here's a story that my fellow translators will find controversial, I am sure. I currently specialize in legal translation. Years ago, a project manager begged me to translate a contract. I said, "I don't think so...I have no experience in this whatsoever." Quite irresponsibly, the project manager, who I am guessing was in a tight spot, insisted and said "oh don't worry I have faith in you." And you know what, I researched every legal concept in that entire contract in both English and French. It took me forever, I learned a lot, and the client was happy. I am now a very successful legal translator earning a good living and making straight A's in law school.

A lot of people put too much pressure on new translators and are quite discouraging, unfortunately. The fact is that everyone starts somewhere. Everyone makes mistakes. People would like to act like you shouldn't touch a text unless you are an expert. Let's be honest, there are so few true experts in the world, regardless of the field. Let's not kid ourselves! Just look at all of the mistakes you see in source texts, which are written by professionals who have waaaaaaaaaay more time to draft that document than the translator has to translate it. You should see the terrible work that professional lawyers submit to the courts on a regular basis!

A few years ago at an American Translators Association conference, one of the speakers (don't remember his name) put forward the theory that "a translation only needs to be as good as it needs to be." Meaning, what is the document and what is it used for? Is it Shakespeare or a memo for internal use? Is it market research responses or poetry?

The fact of the matter is, translation is not a life or death matter. I used to translate for the military, and I assure you, on occasion, my work literally determined who lived and who died. After that, for heaven's sake, it's just a financial report. With the exception of a couple of areas (by all means avoid those at this stage in your career!), no one is going to die if you mistranslate a word.

My advice to you is: don't give up. Stay cautious, that's good. Start small. Research and learn all you can. And find a mentor.

If your language pairs involve French, Italian, or Arabic, send me an e-mail and we can talk about what assistance I may be able to provide.


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Natalia Postrigan  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:02
Member (2016)
English to Russian
+ ...
Don't judge from the first experience May 21, 2016

Donna, don't make conclusions from the first try. Give it another try, and another, and more
Really, there's nothing negative to draw from the experience you describe. It's no wonder clients here on ProZ specify the area when they request translations. In many cases, you gotta be familiar with the subject, at the very least, in one of the languages in a pair. Financial terminology is not an exception.
You did the right thing when you returned the job. It's much better to show your integrity and make sure you don't return substandard quality.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 22:02
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
You are clearly conscientious May 21, 2016

Team that with a lack of experience and you're bound to feel a loss of confidence. I well remember the difficulty in pressing that "send" button. There always seemed to be something to recheck.

Mentoring would be good and can be arranged through the site. It might also be wise to look for a salaried job using your languages as a start. That would build a specialisation and allow you to get to grips with the working world. Setting yourself up as a boss (your own) before having any experience of business is certainly possible but not at all easy. You need to develop a certain level of self-confidence and maturity to stand your ground in negotiations and payment problems.


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 23:02
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
No excuses, please! May 21, 2016

I don't mean to be rude, but with piles and piles of information out there at your fingertips (corpora, bilingual corpora websites, parallel texts, equivalent texts, glossaries...), which of course you have to evaluate for reliability and always take with a pinch of salt, and with the many good paper dictionaries out there, there is really no excuse to at least try to do the translation. You report that you are qualified to start in this profession, so simply go ahead, put your research skills in practice, and make your way through the translation.

Of course you are a rookie. We all have been! You cannot gain experience in something unless you actually begin practicing it. Your first translations (the first years) you will be slow and clumsy, but it will get better. It has happened to us all.

No excuses! Get on with it NOW!

(PS. Mistakes happen, and they really help us improve in our early years. Just try hard and triple check everything with good sources so that they are small mistakes.)


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Daria Hussels  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:02
English to German
Degree of Specialisation May 22, 2016

Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:

I don't mean to be rude, but with piles and piles of information out there at your fingertips (corpora, bilingual corpora websites, parallel texts, equivalent texts, glossaries...), which of course you have to evaluate for reliability and always take with a pinch of salt, and with the many good paper dictionaries out there, there is really no excuse to at least try to do the translation. You report that you are qualified to start in this profession, so simply go ahead, put your research skills in practice, and make your way through the translation.


I have to disagree.

I started out with that kind of mindset (not too long ago...). Oh Boy, was I wrong! Sometimes texts are just too specialized to handle them with the help of the aforementioned resources only if you don't actually know much about the subject matter. To a certain degree it's doable, but you can get to the point where it isn't. I know practice makes perfect, but there are also deadlines to be met, and if it takes you, let's say, a day to translate 300 words because of all the background reading you have to do, you are not likely to meet them.

I think it takes some experience to decide whether you can or can't take on a job based on what resources are available to you if you are not familiar with the subject, and it is always wiser to step back and decline an assignment. I once made the mistake to over-estimate my own abilities and when I admitted that I could not get the job done, I had to provide a substitute at my own expense (and made a bit of a loss in the process).

A lot of people have already said this, but it's always best to be prepared. So, delve into a subject that you like and in which you see some potential for business (through evening classes, online courses, books, magazines...) and then start taking jobs in that field. Nobody can translate everything. In that sense: Cobbler, stick to your last

So, you are not alone, and things will get better!

UPDATE: I just had to think of this again, and some people suggested that you might not be able to make a living for the first few years. My own experience is that I had to work in hospitality every weekend for my first two years. Maybe you could do something similar? Also, maybe private language tuturing could be an option to help you out, especially for schoolchildren and students? Or does the government of your country possibly have a scheme to support the newly self employed or those on a low income?

[Edited at 2016-05-22 19:09 GMT]


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 23:02
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Yes, but cautious and all, we have to begin as translators May 22, 2016

Daria Hussels wrote:
Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:
I don't mean to be rude, but with piles and piles of information out there at your fingertips (corpora, bilingual corpora websites, parallel texts, equivalent texts, glossaries...), which of course you have to evaluate for reliability and always take with a pinch of salt, and with the many good paper dictionaries out there, there is really no excuse to at least try to do the translation. You report that you are qualified to start in this profession, so simply go ahead, put your research skills in practice, and make your way through the translation.

I think it takes some experience to decide whether you can or can't take on a job based on what resources are available to you if you are not familiar with the subject, and it is always wiser to step back and decline an assignment.

Of couse we should not bite more than we can chew, but on the other hand, we have to begin translating somehow, and that means that sometimes we need to stretch a bit, take our time, research a lot, and learn a lot about the matter at hand.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:02
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Perhaps May 22, 2016

Ardonia wrote:

....constantly doubting my linguistic ability and double-checking every sentence I was translating, afraid of making the tiniest mistake.....I became increasingly overwhelmed by the technical terms, sentence structure and specific abbreviations/terminology...


Two possible explanations:

1. You are translating out of your mother tongue into a language that is not your mother tongue.

2. You are translating in a field in which you have insufficient or no expertise.

Either or both may apply.

[Edited at 2016-05-22 21:38 GMT]


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