It was a pleasant surprise being asked to contribute to the Norway in Translation blog and write about my experiences as a career translator – something I’ve not really had the chance to do before, given the enigmatic nature of the industry and the often hidden role of the translator. Writing about my pathway into this line of work has actually been a welcome opportunity to reflect on the last five years of my life.
In short, I am a full-time freelance literary and commercial translator and editor, working from Norwegian and Danish into English. I first gained interest in translation in the second year of my undergraduate degree in Scandinavian Studies and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, when I discovered that it was the ideal mix for me of being creative and technical, like solving a puzzle or cracking a code – repetitive and mechanical in terms of the skills used and the overall process, yet interesting and diverse in the subject matter and the way you get to play with words and meaning. From there, I spent some time outside of academia, working part-time in several jobs while trying to find a way into the translation industry. I then went on to participate in the National Centre for Writing’s Emerging Translator Mentorship, and to study a master’s degree in Translation and Interpreting Studies at the University of Manchester.
All in all, then, my path into career translation was fairly conventional – studying followed by more studying followed by slowly building up my portfolio doing ad hoc projects, and being lucky enough to meet the right people at the right time. Five years on from when I first started freelancing, I now have a few book translations under my belt and a steady stream of literary and commercial work, so I spend my working life translating and editing day-in, day-out. For a bit more clarity of the actual logistics of the job, the way that I work is essentially split equally between literary and commercial projects – I typically receive a long-term book translation to work on over a set number of months, while continuing to work on a steady flow of commercial texts through a translation agency, and on samples for literary agencies in Norway. I’ll receive emails or submission forms through my website about potential future projects, or have work sent my way by an LSP or a fellow translator who can’t fit the project into their own schedule, so I really never know what might come my way from one week to the next – something that can be concerning if, for example, or I don’t have a larger project going on in the background.
So, while I am fortunate to get to work in a field that I find fascinating and I enjoy, it is still a difficult industry, and there seem to be about 101 different ways to become a professional translator. For that reason, it’s always hard to recommend ways to get into the field. The hard truth of the profession is that unless you work in-house as an employee for an agency, you aren’t always guaranteed work – an issue even more prevalent in literary translation. Given the current economic crisis, I’ll admit that it is a nerve-wracking time to be a freelancer. On top of this, despite the freedom and flexibility of being a business of one, that also means the onus is on you to: ensure you put money aside to pay your taxes, to be responsible for your tax return, to pay for and provide your own work set up, figure out your pension, negotiate contracts and set your rates, ensure you maintain a healthy work-life balance, and sometimes in having to make sure you have work at all.
But every job has its pitfalls, and despite my dire warnings above, I am still here, pursuing career translation, so there are plenty of reasons to get into the profession. For anyone interested in getting into this line of work, the positives of this job, as I see it, are: the flexibility, the freedom to move about and work remotely; getting to work with languages and creative writing every day, the research and learning I get to do when working on a new genre or a text from an industry I’ve not worked in before, and getting to build relationships with people who share your interests and passion for language. Particularly in translating from Norwegian and the other Scandinavian languages, the translation community is so interconnected and, in comparison to other languages, fairly small, so there is definitely a level of camaraderie within and across the Scandinavian language pairs – something I see as a huge positive.
So, despite still being in the early stages of my career, I have a few words of advice for anyone particularly keen to venture into this (at times tricky but also rewarding) industry:
- Proficiency: The most important aspect to have in place before pursuing work, in my opinion, is the language proficiency. Admittedly, I do learn so much about both my source and target languages in this job, so I’m not suggesting that emerging translators need to know every single thing about the language pair, or every word there possibly is to know – an impossible task. This also seems so obvious, but when it comes to providing a quality translation, it is vital that the translator is proficient in their language pair. After all, the purpose of our job is to transfer as much of the meaning, tone and information of the source into the target – something that can only really be done with an in-depth understanding of both languages.
- Exposure: I also recommend continuing to immerse yourself in your language pair, whether that be through reading, listening to or watching content – languages are fluid and by continuing to engage in different forms of media (as you would when learning a language) you can stay up to date on how the language is used; track words that go in and out of style; and learn new slang and so on. In fact, it is just as useful in your target language – for example, as I’ve found with my native language of English, there have been countless times I’ve ended up staring at my computer screen trying to think of the perfect word, only to hear someone say it a week later or read it somewhere after already submitting the text. So the more exposure to both languages in general, the more varied and extensive your vocabulary becomes.
- Practice: I know there are barely enough hours in the day for the day-job and everything else, but when it is difficult to secure those first professional translation jobs, I do recommend practicing when you can. This way you can retain your hard-earned skills, while also building up a small portfolio of example translations to show potential clients or employers. Even just a passion project is a great start – a novel or children’s book or non-fiction text or anything else you’ve been wanting to work on professionally. This then becomes an excellent sales point if you happen to meet someone you can pitch it to, or as an example of the quality of your work and your commitment. Practice can also come in the form of applying for translation programmes, such as the National Centre for Writing’s Emerging Translator Mentorship, and the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School. These are just two that I have participated in the past, but both are international and certainly not the only organisations offering training outside of academia.
- Networking: knowing other translators and professionals in the industry has been so incredibly useful. It can be quite an isolating job when you work from home, so having friends and colleagues you can ask for advice or discuss new leads or potential job-openings is an excellent way to stay involved and up-to-date in what is quite a fragmented industry. A good way of doing this is through the programmes mentioned above, or by joining specific societies and online groups dedicated to translation and your language pair(s).
- Work experience: I found that through working in other sectors prior to embarking on a career in translation, I gained knowledge of certain industries and picked up a fair amount of skills that have both proved very useful when it comes to working freelance. And this was something recommended to me early on as well – if choosing to go down the freelance route as opposed to an in-house position, working in another sector or another job within the wider language industry can be hugely beneficial, not just with paying the bills, but in giving you valuable tools to perhaps even specialise in a certain type of translation later on in your career.
To sum up, every job has its ups and downs, and translation is no exception. It is an intimidating and seemingly impenetrable industry from the outside, but for anyone as keen as I was to make a career out of the craft, it can be a thoroughly rewarding profession and, for me, worth the graft of the first few years.
* Having spent the last decade moving back and forth between the West Midlands, Edinburgh and Western Norway, Megan is now based in Staffordshire, where she works as a literary and commercial translator and editor.