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Necessity of more than one source language in order to set up freelance business?
Thread poster: S_89

S_89
United Kingdom
Feb 6, 2017

Hello,

Obviously it's possible to work in-house translating from just one language if this is what a specific company requires, but in order to go freelance and be able to make a living at it, would you suggest having more than one source language?

I say this because I am to learn either one or two languages at university and my plan is to be a freelance translator afterwards.

Would it be better to concentrate on the one to excel in it, or have another one?

(If I choose the 2 option, I'll also have the option to partake in crash courses in Mandarin, hence effectively giving me a foundation in 3).

I'm a gifted linguist but not from a wealthy background, so I doubt I'll be able to fund a lot of time in another country on graduation.

However, the two language option will be effectively double the work-load and I am also having to work (18 hours a week) whilst at university, so I don't want to choose the two unless it is necessary for my future career.

Advice much appreciated!


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Rachel Waddington  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:06
Member (2014)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Some thoughts Feb 7, 2017

No, you don't need more than one language to be a freelance translator and it's better to excel in one language than to be merely OK in two or more. The more languages you have the thinner you will be spreading yourself when it comes to language-based CPD throughout your career.

However, some points in favour of learning more than one are:

* Many in-house positions require more than one language and you may want in-house experience before launching yourself as a freelance
* Studying a 'mainstream' and a more unusual language can open doors for you and get you on an agencies books (they might sign you up because they have no-one for the less common language)
* Having more than one language may protect you if there is a slump in the economy of one country
* Having more than one language may open up different specialisms to you - e.g. Germany is strong in renewable energies so there is a lot of DE-EN renewables work

I studied Dutch alongside German at university and it has worked out well for me. They are similar enough that it didn't seem like starting from scratch and Dutch has been a very valuable addition (DU-EN translators who are native speakers of English are much rarer than DE-EN translators). I do sometimes feel that it would be better to have only one source language, though, as a lot of work is required to keep the two languages up to the required level (time spent in source language country, etc.)


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EvaVer  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:06
Member (2012)
Czech to English
+ ...
Depends also on the language(s) Feb 7, 2017

The amount of work and competition vary between language pairs. It seems your mother tongue is English, that is a good start - if it were a language spoken by a few million people only, your situation would be worse. It is always safer to have at least two source languages, and if you are, as you say, a gifted linguist, learning two simultaneously should not be a problem. You can also learn more languages subsequently - I only started to learn English when I was about 30. One "big" language and one "small" language are generally a good combination - a lot of both work and competition in the former, and little work, but also little competition in the latter. Having a "special" language pair opens doors - agencies will contact you for your "small" language, and if you are good, they will then use you for the "big" one.

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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 23:06
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Don't spread your skills too thinly Feb 7, 2017

S_89 wrote:
in order to go freelance and be able to make a living at it, would you suggest having more than one source language?

Having two is great, but only if you've been studying and speaking both for several years and have top-level skills in both.

Would it be better to concentrate on the one to excel in it, or have another one?
(If I choose the 2 option, I'll also have the option to partake in crash courses in Mandarin, hence effectively giving me a foundation in 3).

I really don't think you'll have more than a taster in Mandarin - not really a foundation for anything professional.

What about the second language? You haven't shared anything about either, which makes it a little more difficult to.judge. I think we'd need to know more about your own background. If you have a very high level in your current foreign language, I.e. you grew up speaking it as a second language, then maybe you can devote most of your time to the new one. Although with an 18hpw job you're going to be pushed to do the minimum of study required to pass the course.

If you have simply studied a foreign language at school to A level, even if you got an A+ grade (or whatever is the top one nowadays), then I advise you to forget starting anything new as you will have a long way to go to perfect your knowledge of that one.

Remember that very little of our work - well, very little well-paid work - is of the "general" variety. You will need to have in-depth knowledge of particular subject areas, in both/all languages, in order to specialise. The more common the language pair, the greater the need to specialise. To a certain extent that can come later, but it should be borne in mind from the start.

To summarise, I don't think we have enough information to help you decide. But we all need to be able to offer our clients something exceptional. You need to be able to stand out from the crowd, and that isn't easy in pairs that include English. So the last thing you want is to be average at lots of things.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 00:06
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Go for one - and see where it takes you. Feb 7, 2017

I can warmly recommend going for one, and possibly widening the range of subject areas you work in.

You could choose a language which is related to others. Consider going beyond the FIGS constellation. I started with French and German, but have never worked with them... I ended up living in Denmark and specialise in Danish, and actually work in Norwegian and Swedish too. German was a great help in learning Danish - and conversely, once I was fluent in Danish, it was an even greater help in patching holes in my German, which I planned to work with, but never got that far.

Depending on which language you choose, it will not necessarily be expensive to live abroad. It may even be the opposite - your language could mean someone else pays you to go abroad, even if you are not extremely fluent before you set off. But until you reach that stage, you do need to spend at least some time immersed in the language, if you really want to use it at a professional level.

Even as a student, you may be able to get grants for living and studying where the language is spoken, or you can perhaps find jobs that are not strictly language related, but will bring you into contact with the language while paying the bills. Ideally, you should work in a field related to your specialist subject, but if the only chance available is at the level of cleaning in hotels and serving in bars, go for it anyway, and make good use of your spare time!

Apart from that, it is never too late to learn a new language, although it IS easier when you are young. I was in my late 20s when I started learning Danish, which I came to regard as a second native language. My husband and I are now learning Italian - both of us are past pension age. My school Latin, which I have kept alive in medical translation, plus my French and his Spanish are good to have in the background.

Your choice of specialist subject area is at least as important as your choice of language(s), but that is a whole new chapter.

Plans are useful, but don't close your eyes to other opportunities. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans" - and you have to play along with it!


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
Thoughts Feb 7, 2017

Sheila Wilson wrote:

If you have simply studied a foreign language at school to A level, even if you got an A+ grade (or whatever is the top one nowadays), then I advise you to forget starting anything new as you will have a long way to go to perfect your knowledge of that one.



Have to disagree with that. It's quite possible, and indeed quite normal, to start a second foreign language from scratch at university and graduate with a high level of fluency. Did it myself...

Not in Mandarin, admittedly.

OP, living abroad to improve your knowledge of a language is not just for the wealthy - you can fund it quite easily by getting a job! I got two languages to fluency working in hotels and hospitals.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 00:06
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Consider crash courses in Mandarin as fun, grab all you can! Feb 7, 2017

Many moons ago, when I learnt languages at school, they were a cultural thing. French might be useful for Finishing School in Switzerland, but it was not for the likes of me. The only practical use I could imagine was teaching it, a bit like Jane Eyre and others destined to be governesses...

We learnt languages for their own sakes, as others played musical instruments or sports, or studied Art, sketched and painted. I dabbled in art and calligraphy, but few had visions of using these skills professionally. On the other hand, I have had endless enjoyment over the years from reading French and German. I can pick up a newspaper or a novel, or these days watch French and German television, and although I do often need a dictionary or a crib, it opens windows on two of the world's great cultures and new perspectives on my own.

Mandarin will be like that at best, unless you really go for it full time. Do it anyway. A couple of the young people in my family have worked quite hard at Japanese, and kan recognise a few kanji, greet people and say 'thank you', but for serious purposes, the language is English. My son said his Japanese made a good impression at a conference in Tokyo, but it was not much use in practice!

Learning the basics of a language can bring you into contact with all sorts of people, and networking is the best way to find real, interesting work.

However, if you want to work in a language as a professional translator, and increasingly in these days of machine translation, you have to be in a league where the machines cannot compete, well over the routine level and polite conversation. A niche specialist area is getting more and more necessary. You don't have to make all the decisions at the beginning. Life never turns out as you expect... but reckon you need to be really, really familiar with the nooks and crannies of your source language.



[Edited at 2017-02-07 13:57 GMT]


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Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:06
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Do one thing well Feb 7, 2017

S_89 wrote:
Would it be better to concentrate on the one to excel in it, or have another one?

Mandarin seems to be a crowded space. Clients in that country don't seem to want to pay reasonable rates and there are many people who have lived for years in mainland China who will have a significant edge. Always consider the end market, at least if you want to make a living from your work.

My advice: stick to your "best" existing language to begin with. Do one thing well.

EDIT: may I suggest you avoid describing yourself as a "gifted linguist", as for many educated people (especially those more experienced than yourself) such statements will bring to mind, explicitly or implicitly, the Dunning-Kruger effect. Being gifted and being competent are very different things.

Dan

[Edited at 2017-02-07 13:15 GMT]


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Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:06
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
It can be done Feb 7, 2017

Chris S wrote:
Have to disagree with that. It's quite possible, and indeed quite normal, to start a second foreign language from scratch at university and graduate with a high level of fluency. Did it myself...
Not in Mandarin, admittedly.

I agree, it's doable. Mandarin is no exception; the SOAS undergraduates do it. I did it in Japanese, although that was after French and Welsh, so not my first foreign language. Three years of intensive study will get you to fluency. Not native speaker level, and probably inadequate for many specialized situations, but fluency nonetheless.

The real question is where you go from there...

Dan


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:06
Chinese to English
Mandarin Feb 7, 2017

I actually think the CN (Mandarin)>EN market (unlike the EN>CN) market is a pretty decent one to enter at the moment. Probably not the best language pair in terms of earning potential, but not the worst either--my feeling is that it's a bit better than average at present. As Dan mentioned, its biggest weakness is the lack of Chinese companies able to pay Western rates (a fact exacerbated by the recent USD exchange rate from 6:1 to 7:1), but there is a lot of back and forth communication and litigation that needs to be translated into English just because of the sheer number of foreign companies doing business in China. Plus, it probably has the biggest "jackpot" potential of any language pair; one can certainly imagine a scenario in which China becomes the world's economic leader in the next fifteen to twenty years, and if that happens (and Google Translate doesn't become self-aware), we could see a doubling or tripling of the CN>EN translation market's value. Put more simply, the CN>EN market probably becomes the best in the world if we ever get to a point where the majority of Chinese companies are able to afford Western translators. I also don't see much major risk in the CN>EN market. It's certainly possible that there will be an economic downturn, and it's even possible that China will stagnate for 20-30 years like Japan has, but even if that happens you're still left with a pretty darn big economy.

I wasn't quite as high on China before the US elections and recent administration, but I think America may really be in the process of giving away its role as global leader, and someone is going to fill that role.

I also wouldn't call CN>EN crowded at the moment (if you want crowded, look at EN>CN), though I think it's trending more in that direction, especially as the "Olympic baby" generation that became interested in China in the run-up to Beijing and was educated in China grows up and enters the workforce.

So I'm not saying that CN>EN is the best bet for a language pair (German in particular seems like a better bet to me), but I do think it's a viable choice.

However, this is all obviously a moot point unless the OP decides to devote him/herself to Mandarin

[Edited at 2017-02-07 22:48 GMT]


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S_89
United Kingdom
TOPIC STARTER
German and Italian Feb 8, 2017

Rachel Waddington wrote:

No, you don't need more than one language to be a freelance translator and it's better to excel in one language than to be merely OK in two or more. The more languages you have the thinner you will be spreading yourself when it comes to language-based CPD throughout your career.

However, some points in favour of learning more than one are:

* Many in-house positions require more than one language and you may want in-house experience before launching yourself as a freelance
* Studying a 'mainstream' and a more unusual language can open doors for you and get you on an agencies books (they might sign you up because they have no-one for the less common language)
* Having more than one language may protect you if there is a slump in the economy of one country
* Having more than one language may open up different specialisms to you - e.g. Germany is strong in renewable energies so there is a lot of DE-EN renewables work

I studied Dutch alongside German at university and it has worked out well for me. They are similar enough that it didn't seem like starting from scratch and Dutch has been a very valuable addition (DU-EN translators who are native speakers of English are much rarer than DE-EN translators). I do sometimes feel that it would be better to have only one source language, though, as a lot of work is required to keep the two languages up to the required level (time spent in source language country, etc.)


Hi Rachel,

Many thanks for your reply.

My predominant language for study is also German. I speak Dutch myself but don't have the option to study it at university so I couldn't get it up to the required level. The second language I have the option to study is Italian, but the Italian economy isn't doing great at the moment. My only worry is that I wouldn't have another opportunity to go and live in Italy for 6 months, hence why I'm leaning towards German and Italian instead of just studying German.

Any thoughts?


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S_89
United Kingdom
TOPIC STARTER
Best "small" language pairs Feb 8, 2017

EvaVer wrote:

The amount of work and competition vary between language pairs. It seems your mother tongue is English, that is a good start - if it were a language spoken by a few million people only, your situation would be worse. It is always safer to have at least two source languages, and if you are, as you say, a gifted linguist, learning two simultaneously should not be a problem. You can also learn more languages subsequently - I only started to learn English when I was about 30. One "big" language and one "small" language are generally a good combination - a lot of both work and competition in the former, and little work, but also little competition in the latter. Having a "special" language pair opens doors - agencies will contact you for your "small" language, and if you are good, they will then use you for the "big" one.



Thanks for the reply EvaVer.

Yes, I agree it's good to have English as your mother tongue.

Would you call Italian -> English a "small" language pair? Or would Dutch -> English better fill this category?

A lot of people seem to mention that Swedish -> English would make a good "small" language pair. Do you think Dutch or Italian could fulfil a similar role?


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S_89
United Kingdom
TOPIC STARTER
My language ability... Feb 8, 2017

Sheila Wilson wrote:

S_89 wrote:
in order to go freelance and be able to make a living at it, would you suggest having more than one source language?

Having two is great, but only if you've been studying and speaking both for several years and have top-level skills in both.

Would it be better to concentrate on the one to excel in it, or have another one?
(If I choose the 2 option, I'll also have the option to partake in crash courses in Mandarin, hence effectively giving me a foundation in 3).

I really don't think you'll have more than a taster in Mandarin - not really a foundation for anything professional.

What about the second language? You haven't shared anything about either, which makes it a little more difficult to.judge. I think we'd need to know more about your own background. If you have a very high level in your current foreign language, I.e. you grew up speaking it as a second language, then maybe you can devote most of your time to the new one. Although with an 18hpw job you're going to be pushed to do the minimum of study required to pass the course.

If you have simply studied a foreign language at school to A level, even if you got an A+ grade (or whatever is the top one nowadays), then I advise you to forget starting anything new as you will have a long way to go to perfect your knowledge of that one.

Remember that very little of our work - well, very little well-paid work - is of the "general" variety. You will need to have in-depth knowledge of particular subject areas, in both/all languages, in order to specialise. The more common the language pair, the greater the need to specialise. To a certain extent that can come later, but it should be borne in mind from the start.

To summarise, I don't think we have enough information to help you decide. But we all need to be able to offer our clients something exceptional. You need to be able to stand out from the crowd, and that isn't easy in pairs that include English. So the last thing you want is to be average at lots of things.



Thanks Sheila for the informative reply.

I'm a native English speaker but my extended family have lived in Germany for 40 years so I've always been exposed to German and started learning it properly when I was in primary school (I think I was 9) and have consistently maintained it.

I started learning Dutch when I was 14, had a Dutch boyfriend and spent 9 months living with him in the Netherlands and 1 year studying at a Dutch university (albeit I was studying in English).

I have used my German professionally as a customer service assistant for an international company for most of my 20s.

I started learning Italian when I was 20, and spent 6 months over there (also worked in a hotel using it); but have little formal background in it (GCSEs/Alevels etc) so this is probably my weakest language.

Now in my mid-20s, I want to actually do a languages degree (I didn't study for one over here) and then progress onto a Masters in translation.

I have the option to study either just German or German and Italian, so that's really what this post is concerning.

Any advice appreciated.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 23:06
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
So much easier to help, given that information Feb 9, 2017

S_89 wrote:
I'm a native English speaker but my extended family have lived in Germany for 40 years so I've always been exposed to German and started learning it properly when I was in primary school (I think I was 9) and have consistently maintained it.


I have used my German professionally as a customer service assistant for an international company for most of my 20s.

So, you clearly have the possibility of a great career in German to English translation, particularly as you're prepared to invest in the best possible training. Then you have your two "support" languages:

I started learning Dutch when I was 14, had a Dutch boyfriend and spent 9 months living with him in the Netherlands and 1 year studying at a Dutch university (albeit I was studying in English).


I started learning Italian when I was 20, and spent 6 months over there (also worked in a hotel using it); but have little formal background in it (GCSEs/Alevels etc) so this is probably my weakest language.

They both look as though they are possible candidates as a second source language. However, it does seem as though they'll need quite a bit of work to bring them up to standard, and you did say that you're going to be working part-time during your studies - which could seriously compromise your chances of a top grade if you try to do too much. IT> EN isn't a particularly sought-after language pair as there are very many English speakers with a high level of Italian, and the Italian economy is such that rates tend to be low low and payments hard to come by (e.g. waiting three months!). It seems risky for you to commit time to Italian at the moment when the ROI is so dubious.

There are far fewer English speakers who really excel in Dutch, for the reasons you and I have both found - it's actually easier to speak English over there as the Dutch prefer it that way. So a lot of the work is done by native Dutch speakers whose English is incredibly good, yet doesn't always read perfectly. There could certainly be a niche for you there if you can keep up your Dutch, but maybe it's a long-term goal for you. I wouldn't worry about not studying it at uni, particularly if you get the chance to live there again.

Maybe that will help you decide; maybe not.


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Two languages: from not worth it to unrealistic. Feb 9, 2017

S_89 wrote:

Hello,

Obviously it's possible to work in-house translating from just one language if this is what a specific company requires, but in order to go freelance and be able to make a living at it, would you suggest having more than one source language?

I say this because I am to learn either one or two languages at university and my plan is to be a freelance translator afterwards.

Would it be better to concentrate on the one to excel in it, or have another one?

(If I choose the 2 option, I'll also have the option to partake in crash courses in Mandarin, hence effectively giving me a foundation in 3).

I'm a gifted linguist but not from a wealthy background, so I doubt I'll be able to fund a lot of time in another country on graduation.

However, the two language option will be effectively double the work-load and I am also having to work (18 hours a week) whilst at university, so I don't want to choose the two unless it is necessary for my future career.

Advice much appreciated!


There are some agencies that demand explicitly that the linguist have one source language only.

I presume you are native English speaker. Say you are in your thirties. Imagine you already have German as your source language. If you try to learn, say, Spanish, just ask yourself the following questions: will you be able to work full time in your existing language pair and at the same time learn Spanish to the extent that you understand phrases like:

“Es que, tronco, para tirarme a la piscina necesito estar en el ajo. Si no, sería como tirar la casa por la ventana”.

I just made it up, but most dictionaries won’t help you here and you might completely miss the point, or need a lot of time to deal with just one phrase.

I once learnt that you can only read a finite number of books throughout your lifetime. Therefore, it makes little difference if your read 50 or 350 books a year. You won’t be able to read 1,000,000 books a year no matter how hard you try. What matters, though, is the quality of reading. 50 books read thoroughly will be much more useful than 350 books just glanced at.

Long story short; you are better off and more respected if you only work from one source language.

I work from two languages, but I picked up Russian and Spanish at the same time during my childhood. I did develop Spanish and English more than Russian (studies, geography, family, friends, etc.). Therefore, I have perfect understanding of the Russian language without having to study it at all (just reading and interaction with people). It came at no effort to me and at very early age. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to study it for the purpose of turning it into my source language.

Moreover, I would even advise you to stick to one source language and one or two fields of your expertise; something that you’ve had contact with throughout your studies or work.


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