FAQ #5: How Did You Get Your First Translation Job?

A lot of aspiring translators email me and ask me, “How did you get your start in translation?” or “How did you get your first translation job?”

It’s a smart question to ask. I’m sure they’re hoping the answer will give them a hint for getting their own start as translators, and with someone else, that might be true. But I’m afraid that my answer is just about the least useful one you’ll ever hear!

Nonetheless, to satisfy this curiosity if nothing else, I give you…

The Tale of the Accidental Translator

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FAQ #4: What Should I Major In?

“What should I major in?”

This is definitely the #1 most frequent question I get asked by young aspiring translators, so the only reason it wasn’t #1 in my FAQ series is that I’ve always resisted answering it. Why have I resisted answering it? The short answer is that I have no answer–I don’t know what you should major in!

The long answer is that there are all kinds of pros & cons to different majors, and lots of different ways of looking at this decision. After another recent flood of emails about it, I think it’s finally time for me to attempt the long answer. Aspiring translators, I hope this helps. Existing translators, please feel free to add your own thoughts (or refute mine)!

Here we go…

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FAQ #3 Followup–Another Perspective on Translator Education

In my previous post, FAQ #3: Did Your Bryn Mawr Education Prepare You For Your Career?, I discussed how a liberal arts education prepared me for a career as a translator.

My colleague Frode Aleksandersen, an English/Danish/Swedish/Japanese to Norwegian translator who specializes in technical translation, checked in with me afterwards to offer a contrasting perspective. Since my FAQ series is intended to answer questions that aspiring translators ask me, I feel it’s helpful to present multiple sides to these issues. Happily, Frode’s given me his permission to share his thoughts with everyone.

Here’s what he has to say:

“How much [a liberal arts education] helps depends on what kind of translation you’re going to be doing I think – I do mostly technical translations, and having an IT background has been invaluable for getting into that fast, whereas the subjects I took at the university in Oslo [have had] zero impact on it. Being an expert in the fields you’re going to be translating is what really matters. I think the only thing that had an influence is that I audited (didn’t have time to do the homework or take the exam) a class in translation theory, while already working as a professional translator. It got me thinking a bit more about things such as “who is the customer”, and also being able to explain different types of translation to other people, even though I don’t actually do those kinds of translations.

For translation of popular media such as books, manga and TV I completely agree that you need a very solid background in both the culture and history you’re translating from and to. Knowing a little about a lot of things also helps, but you do get a part of that simply from working on translations and researching different things as a result. Most important is knowing how and where to look.”

My take on this? Like Frode says, subject expertise really matters. And having research skills–“knowing how and where to look”–is certainly the most important thing. It’ll make or break you, both in translation and in life. But you’re not born knowing how to research; it’s a skill that most of us need to specifically learn (see “Research, research, research” on the So, You Want To Be A Translator? page).  I’ve argued that you can acquire it very well through a liberal arts education, but the route you acquire it through is not what’s most important. What’s most important is that you acquire it.

FAQ #3: Did Your Bryn Mawr Education Prepare You For Your Career?

Another FAQ!

Much as I love my alma mater, the question “Did your Bryn Mawr education prepare you for your career?” is, I think, actually a bigger one: “Did your liberal arts education prepare you for your career?” Because Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts school, and I think the practical usefulness of the liberal arts is what people are really getting at here.

The short answer: yep, it did.

The long answer: Here’s what a liberal arts education is, and why it’s useful to a translator’s career even though it’s by definition not career-specific.

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FAQ #2: What About Scripts?

Time for a couple more frequently asked questions! Two that I get often are about scripts for the anime shows/films that I translate.

When you do an anime do they send you a script or do they send you the episode?

The short answer to this one is “yes.” Or rather, yes, the licensor sends the video (hopefully final!), and if it’s available, they will send the script. However, scripts are not always available, so I have certainly translated episodes without scripts before.

I have heard of script-only translations, but I’ve never been asked to do one and I don’t believe in them.

Do you translate from the script or from the video?

Best practice is to translate from the video, using the script for reference. Wondering why? If you’ve ever read a screenplay for your favorite movie, you may have noticed that it didn’t quite match the movie you saw. What the audience sees is the final movie, and your job is to convey the final movie to the audience, not to convey a script that may or may not match.

Hope that makes sense!

FAQ #1: How Many Languages Should I Study?

Here’s a truth of my life: I get a lot, lot, lot of emails from aspiring translators with questions.

That’s cool, in that aspiring translators should ask questions! That’s a lot of why I wrote So You Wanna Be a Translator etc., which many read before asking. But the thing is, I just can’t personally answer all of them in a timely manner. I can at least answer some of the frequently asked questions here on the blog, so I’ll start doing that instead.

So, here goes ultra-popular question to email me #1…

“Do you only have to stick to one language, or is it okay if I learn several at once? Will that be too much?”

I’m sorry to say that the short answer is, I don’t know. Even if I read all the research in the world about multi-language acquisition, I probably still wouldn’t know your answer. It’s true that some people successfully speak a half-dozen languages. Conversely, some people study a half-dozen languages and come away speaking none of them. I honestly can’t tell you what will happen to you.

Here’s what happened to me: I found it easy to study multiple languages in the same family (French & Spanish), and had no interference. On the other hand, I felt I had to choose between Japanese and the Romance languages. I chose Japanese.

Did I really have to choose? Heck, I was a teenager; who knows whether I understood any of my decisions. Maybe I was exactly right, and maybe I could have gone on in both and become equally fluent. I don’t think so, but I don’t have a time machine.

Again, some people work that way and some don’t. I imagine the easiest way to find out if you’re cut out for multilingual study is to go for it and see what happens. Take two different foreign language classes for a semester. Do you feel like you’re rocking both? If not, you can drop one.

My instinct is that choosing languages in the same family will help immensely if you really want to go the many languages route, but maybe your brain works in completely the opposite way from mine. I can certainly say, though, that when I’ve met professional-grade translators who work in three or more languages, they’ve never been three completely unrelated ones.

I’m sure that’s not satisfying since it’s not a “yes” or “no,” but I hope it helps a little!