Books and librarianship translation work
Thread poster: Christa Levy

Christa Levy  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:04
Member (2017)
Feb 13, 2017

Greetings. I'm a librarian in the early stages of preparing to transition to freelance translation. I'm trying to get a sense of what my options for specialization are.

I have an undergraduate degree in art history, and just completed a master's in library and information science. I've taken a lot of classes in the area of manuscript studies and rare books. Beyond that, I've worked for short periods in museums and museum libraries, and I've taken classes in preservation of books and paper materials.

My native language is English, and my source languages would be French and Spanish. I'm studying Japanese, but I'm very far from the level of proficiency needed to translate. I'm open to learning Italian or Portuguese. (In fact, I would absolutely love to, but for now I'm concentrating on really deepening my French proficiency, to be followed by advancing my Spanish.)

Is anyone aware of a market for translators with a specialization in the above fields, or should I be prepared to specialize in a different area? I'm also hoping to develop the knowledge and vocabulary to work with translating for the restaurant and tourism industries. Do any of you work with art conservation, museums, libraries, or rare book dealers? Perhaps there are some former librarians on this forum? I appreciate any and all advice.

(My husband is in the military, so we relocate about every three years. I want a career that isn't dependent on my location. However, it isn't a problem for me to travel or reside abroad without my husband to develop my skills. I have no illusions of what my income will be like as a freelance translator.)


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Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 17:04
German to English
Are Chris and Fredia still at Ricker? Feb 14, 2017

Although I just noticed you didn't get your art history degree at the U of I, so maybe those names don't mean anything to you.

There are certainly a lot of people who make their living by specializing in the field of art. There is a ton of demand for anyone who has convincing qualifications (to get their foot in the door) and is able to consistently provide good translations (to establish long-term relationships with clients and to generate word of mouth). I work extensively with museums and other institutions, galleries, auction houses, artists and scholars and haven't done anything else for years (with the exception of some historical texts or outsourcing some legal texts for existing clients). On this site and elsewhere you can find a lot of people doing the same.

Library science is an established field and I'm sure there is a lot of demand for translations related to old books (in commercial and scholarly/library contexts). So yes, it is absolutely a legitimate area of specialization. An MA will really set you apart and a BA in art history complements that very well.

The first question is whether you are ready to start translating now or if you still need to work on your translation skills and your French and your English for specific contexts (press releases, web texts, catalogue texts).


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Elizabeth Tamblin  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:04
Member (2012)
French to English
Hi Christa Feb 14, 2017

Welcome to the forum.

I used to be a librarian, many years ago, working first in a medical library and then in an art school library, but I've never translated anything related to that work, apart from a patent for a knee replacement!

When you start out as a freelance translator, I would say it's quite usual to work in a fairly random assortment of subject areas, depending on what is available at the time. That was certainly my experience. Sometimes you can develop a specialism in an area you had never thought of before.

I don't think you mentioned if you have any translation experience. My advice would be to get as much experience as possible of translating a variety of different text types, and don't worry too much about specialising at this stage.


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Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 17:04
German to English
choice is available Feb 14, 2017

As contradictory as Elizabeth's and my answers may seem to be, I think they're both valid.

Specializing in your chosen field requires you to actively and probably fairly tenaciously seek out clients and situations that are likely to provide you with work in your field of expertise. (I had things fairly easy, because my meager income during the first two years of my career was generously subsidized first by the German government and then by my wife. I also got my MA in my source-language country, which meant that I started out with a lot of relevant contacts and contacts of contacts. I also made some very good decisions early on and was very lucky.)

You can look at yourself as primarily an expert in translation or primarily an expert in library science and then you need to pursue your clients accordingly. But the first question is whether you have good reason to feel confident in the current quality of your work and your ability to rapidly and constantly improve once you get started.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 16:04
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Just a thought Feb 14, 2017

Christa Levy wrote:
I've taken a lot of classes in the area of manuscript studies and rare books. Beyond that, I've worked for short periods in museums and museum libraries, and I've taken classes in preservation of books and paper materials.

My native language is English, and my source languages would be French and Spanish.

I don't know if you've just been concerned with the preservation of the materials used, or in the words, i.e. have you studied/been using older versions of the English language? As a translator in this field of specialisation, I imagine that would be the type of text that would appeal, but then you'd need to be conversant with older versions of French and Spanish too. Not something you could pick up in a few quiet hours, I don't imagine, but worth a thought. I know there are a few people here who specialise in old English and French manuscript transcription and translation and I imagine it's a niche that pays very well.


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Christa Levy  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:04
Member (2017)
TOPIC STARTER
First of all, thank you Feb 14, 2017

I truly appreciate your replies. I learned the value of advice from professionals in the field while coming into my MLIS, and I'm grateful for the time you've taken out of your day to help a newcomer.

My French skills are not at the level required of a translator, and I don't intend to start until they are. I'm aggressively working to regain my fluency, and a nearby college offers courses in French on business writing and creative writing which I plan to take before travelling to France for immersion and, hopefully, to network with potential clients. Until then, I'm volunteering in capacities which allow me to use my French.

Sheila, I was indeed referring to preservation of books in the physical sense, but thank you for bringing up transcription. I've heard of volunteer transcription projects coordinated by institutions such as the Smithsonian, but I hadn't thought to see if they have materials in French which require transcription. I am not versed in Old or Middle French, but I know the volunteer transcription projects have plenty of modern materials.

Michael and Elizabeth, thank you both for sharing your experiences. You've given me a lot to consider, and I'm glad to have the information now, while I'm still preparing to make the plunge.

Michael, if you don't mind me asking, have you had success initiating contact with clients such as institutions and galleries, or did clients tend to seek you out based on your skills and reputation? I've done some research into networking as a translator at professional conferences, but I'd love to hear your perspective, of course keeping in mind that your experiences as a German to English translator will differ from mine.


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Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 17:04
German to English
I'm not a helpful example Feb 17, 2017

I started translating through a friend I met during my MA program here in Germany. She had started working for a press agency specialized in the field of art after she graduated. They needed something translated and she came to me as an American whom she knew personally and who had studied art history.

At some point I decided to quit teaching (I also have a BA in art education and have a teacher's certificate, although it expired ages ago) and to become a translator: I told everyone from my Kolloquium (= a permanent kind of study group centered around a professor); I wrote to a freelance translator specialized in art and culture, who translated from a variety of languages into German, but not in the other direction; I wrote to one museum that I had already worked with through the press agency; and I wrote to two small translation agencies partially specialized in the field of art. Through the freelancer, one of the agencies and friends and acquaintances from my MA program, I gradually built up enough momentum that word of mouth took over. My website also generates some business, but I don't know how much.

In short, I took a few important steps early on, but things largely took care of themselves (with the exception of working my ass off for anyone willing to pay the fees I was asking at a given time). I know I went to several galleries to unsuccessfully (and largely incompetently) try to drum up business. I also went to art fairs with great expectations, but could never get myself to actually go up to people and try to sell myself. I do think those things can really work and I think fairly standardized mailings to potential clients who really might be looking for someone just like you would bring in a significant amount of business, but I was just never forced to grow up, bite the bullet, and follow through on those things. The key is to carefully pick your potential clients according to your USP and to very succinctly convey that USP to them.

If you can convincingly speak and write French, no client will ever ask you about your training in languages or translation. Most direct clients seem primarily worried about your knowledge of the subject matter and of your source language.


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Christa Levy  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:04
Member (2017)
TOPIC STARTER
Some points to keep in mind Feb 21, 2017

Michael, thank you for replying anyway. Even if your experience doesn't relate directly to mine, your comments have reinforced my convictions about waiting to begin translating until my French skills (business writing in particular) are up to par. Many thanks!

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Jessie LN  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:04
Spanish to English
+ ...
LIS Feb 9

Hello! I know this thread is a year old now but I wanted to respond because I'm a librarian in my other life as well

I have yet to find a real in-road to translating texts related to library science (LIS journal publications might be a possibility...?), but it could be worth trying to highlight your ability to source and utilise high-quality information in your marketing efforts as a translator.

How are you doing now, a year later?


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Christa Levy  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:04
Member (2017)
TOPIC STARTER
Good to hear there are more of us out there Feb 16

Hello, Jessie! One year later, I've translated more in the area of art history than LIS. My only LIS-related translation has been as a volunteer, translating reviews for an annotated bibliography. Working with rare booksellers and/or collector seems to be a promising market -- a few on my rare books listserv send out catalogs in French and may find hiring a translator to be worthwhile, especially given the array of specialist vocabulary one finds in the catalogs. Because I'm still so new, I haven't approached any direct clients yet. But I will post on this thread when I do, on the chance that it helps somebody else in this specialization.

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