Translation as a Profession: My Presentation at Montgomery College
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Last month, I had the great pleasure of joining my colleagues Farah and Jennifer as a panelist for the "Translation as a Profession" discussion at Montgomery College. Reflecting on my journey since 2015, I highlighted the qualities and practices I believe are essential to being a good translator and running a freelance translation business.
Below is the transcript of my presentation.
Thank you, everyone, for being here and being interested in the translation and interpretation profession. Since I’m the first speaker, I thought I’d start us off by sharing what qualities I think are essential to being a good translator and running a freelance business.
First of all, most linguists working in this industry are freelancers, including myself. So the first thing I want to drive home today is that if you do decide to become a freelance translator, you need to think about the language/translation side and the business/marketing side. Think of it this way: translation service is your product, but it’s not going to sell itself. And on the other hand, you can be the best marketer in the world, but you can’t sell a bad product twice. So you really need both of these to go well, and I’ll expand on these two elements in my presentation.
Language and translation skills
So first, your language and translation skills. I think a common misconception about this industry is that people think bilingualism or multilingualism automatically translates (no pun intended) into translation or interpretation skills, but this is actually more like the foundation or prerequisite.
And by the way, by bilingualism and multilingualism, I’m not just talking about the language, but also the broader cultural and social contexts surrounding it. You can literally say the same thing word for word in another language, and it can come across very differently. So you’re also playing the role of a cultural consultant, making sure the message lands in the target language and with the target audience.
Also, the terms “translator” and “interpreter” are not interchangeable. Translators work with written texts, and interpreters deliver their rendition verbally. Farah, for example, does interpretation. And on the basis of knowing your languages, you also need people skills, public speaking skills, quickness on your feet, et cetera. I’m sure Farah can talk more in depth about that.
And to excel as a translator, you need to be an excellent writer who can go up and down the register and be a chameleon in terms of writing styles. For example, in my professional practice, I work on polished, sophisticated research reports as well as casual, slangy dramas. Moreover, you need to be a meticulous proofreader who can deliver error-free documents. So if you’re the fussy, neurotic type who even drafts and edits your emails, you're my friend and you’ll do great as a translator.
And in interpretation, which is transient and in-the-moment, there’s a level of tolerance for imperfection as long as you get the meaning across and keep the conversation going. But there’s no circumvention in translation; we have the luxury of time, so every tricky little thing needs a solution. You need to be a resourceful researcher and a creative problem solver as well.
And your language skills not only need to be great to start with, they also need constant maintenance and improvement. I make it a habit to expose myself to my working languages in various media and registers--you want to read academic journals or long-form articles for the higher register, and you also want to keep up with social media or TV shows to keep abreast of the latest slang terms. I keep notes of new words and write them down daily to aid my memorization and make sure I always have fresh vocabulary coming in. Quality input, quality output.
Running a freelance business
So that’s the language side. On the business side, I always say that being a solopreneur is the most extensive self-development program there is. It’s such a cliche, but we really do wear many hats in the business. We’re the CEO, CFO, the employee, the social media manager, and the customer service representative all in one.
Putting yourself out there is so important. And I really want to commend Jennifer for all the outreach she’s done. I wish I had put myself out there more when I first started out. It took me a long time before I felt comfortable, and I only really came out of my shell last year when I realized I would never feel ready and comfortable. I just have to do it, and learn from it, and get more comfortable in the process.
So it’s useful to take stock of your skillset, and think about your strengths and weaknesses. How’s your communication skill? How’s your interpersonal skill? Are you reliable and conscientious? Are you on top of things?
Ultimately, I think the key concept I want to convey to you is to know yourself. The beauty of a freelance business is that it’s your business. You get to structure it and design it. You can set your own price based on your personal financial situation and goals. You can set your own boundary, deciding when you want to work, and whether you want to work over the weekend or not.
But at the same time, you also need to be honest with yourself and fight your own inner demons. For example, I’m very self-conscious, and I tend to be a little more anxious about things than an average person, and I overthink a lot. So my perfectionism, which serves me well in my work, can hold me back in my business because I’m scared to make a fool of myself and fail in public. So it was easier for me to hide in my little cocoon, and I had to be honest with myself and confront this fear of mine, and push myself out of my comfort zone. So this journey is full of ups and downs because you will be forced to grow as a person to grow your business.
But you’ll not be alone. The translation and interpretation community is beyond kind and supportive. Make sure you build a support network around you, and as long as you’re disciplined, tenacious, and resourceful, you will go far, in whatever path you choose, really.
And with that, I’ll conclude my presentation and pass the baton to my colleagues, and look forward to talking to you more in the Q and A session.
Sijin Xian is an ATA-certified English-Chinese translator and subtitler. With a background in international affairs, she specializes in translating China-related research reports for NGOs. She found a new professional obsession when she branched out into audiovisual translation, working with a vendor that supplies talent for a major streaming platform. Sijin also serves businesses and individuals, translating creative ad campaigns and official documents. Sijin is the owner of Translaxian LLC and lives in Maryland.