So, you want to become a translator?

A few days ago I received the following comment in response to one of my previous posts, Becoming a real translator:

you have piqued my curiosity. I have had ideas in my head for translation that I want to do once I retire to Spain. how interesting that you’ve done this and that you can work from home doing it!! did you do some course of study prior to becoming a translator? I’d love to hear details-if you can email me, that would be great. thanks!

It’s not the first time people have asked me this sort of thing when they hear I’m a translator, so rather than emailing a few lines, I thought I’d write a post about it.

Some people I meet seem to have a rather quaint notion of what being a freelance translator entails. They vaguely think it sounds like a cushy number because you get to work in your pyjamas (true), you can do it when you’ve got an odd moment or two (no, sorry, it doesn’t work like that) and people (unspecified) send you interesting things to translate (well, sometimes) that you effortlessly (no!) turn into Spanish, and get paid handsomely for (you must be joking).

Have I made myself clear? Sorry, I’m not trying to put you off!

To work as a translator in Spain you don’t have to have an official qualification, but it helps. Having a degree in translation and interpreting from a Spanish university, or a similar qualification from your home country, would probably be a good idea. The alternative is to sit the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs exam to become a registered “Traductor-Interprete Jurado”. But to get that particular qualification you need to be an EU citizen and have to hold a university degree.

However, unless you want to translate official documents there’s nothing to stop you working as a translator if you can find clients who will pay you. I hadn’t done any courses on translation when I started out, although I did do some studying along the way. Despite being told “you’ll never get any work in Madrid unless you know someone with contacts” – enchufe – I got my first serious work by answering a newspaper ad for translators. The agency gave me a test, I passed it and they gave me some work. It took me hours, because I wanted it to be perfect. They were paying 1.8 pesetas a word (this was 1983, but not exactly profitable even so).

When Dave heard what I’d be paid and saw how much it came out to per hour, he said “I don’t know why you’re bothering – I can get 10 times that doing private classes – tell them to get stuffed!”

When I took my translation in to the agency, I told them that in future I wanted 3 pesetas a word, because it wasn’t worth my while working for less. I didn’t think they’d send me anything else, but they did. For a few years they sent me a fair amount of work, and then it came to an abrupt stop. Presumably they found someone cheaper. But by that time I’d found other clients anyway.

Most of the work that came my way was standard commercial stuff: contracts, insurance claims, annual accounts. I also did some revision and typing for another translator: she’d been living in Spain so long that sometimes Spanglish would creep in when she wasn’t looking. It was through her I got my first archaeology paper to translate, which was a pleasant change from company by-laws.

I’d studied history at university, so the ‘style’ of language was similar. The archaeologist in question was pleased with my translation, so she recommended me to colleagues. So it went on, and over the years I’ve translated a fair number of conference papers and articles for academic journals. I like to think of archaeology as my ‘niche’, but to be honest the work’s not sufficiently regular to be a reliable source of income on its own. So I still do commercial translations as well.

Then there’s the question of how much you charge. That’s up to you. You can ask what you like, but whether you get it or not is another matter. You have to work out whether what you can get reflects the work you put in – is it worth it, or would you actually be better off cleaning floors?

For example, a few months ago an archaeologist I work with wanted me to translate a book he’d had accepted by a British publisher, and the firm asked me to quote. I sent them my quote, with what I considered a reasonable discount in view of the length of the job. It wasn’t low enough – the boss had found another translator whose quote was less than a third of mine. The commissioning editor then asked if I “could somehow manage to dramatically close the gap between the two quotes”. Doing that would have meant earning about 600 euros a month after paying Social Security. Can you live on 600 euros a month? Didn’t think so. So I turned it down. Sometimes ‘No’ is the only reasonable answer.

As a rider to that little story, I got an email back that said, “Thanks for your reply which, regrettably, is exactly as I expected. I completely understand your position. The other translator lives in Argentina – perhaps the money goes further there.” There you have it – the global economy in action.

The actual process of translating is the good bit: that’s why you wanted to become a translator in the first place, after all. It’s not just a question of having a good knowledge of Spanish, you need to be able to write good English too. You have to constantly prove you can turn in good quality work and meet deadlines. People will only give you more work if you solve their problems, not create more.

And I suspect that translators need to have a particular kind of mentality. We tend to be a bit obsessive, especially about grammar, spelling and punctuation. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person on the planet who revises and spell-checks their emails and text messages. I can’t help it.

You also need to be fairly organised because there’s all the other stuff that goes with the job, like keeping accounts and making sure your clients don’t ‘forget’ to pay you. As well as translating, you have to issue invoices, pay tax, collect VAT for the government and cough up 254.04 euros every month for Social Security.

Still want to be a translator?

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