Improving as a Translator

Almost two months ago, we asked you what you would like researchers in Translation and Interpreting Studies to discover. As you will find out here, two of the top three answers were about getting better. 5 of you wanted researchers to help you find ways to keep improving your skills. Another 5 of you wanted us to discover Better or More Appropriate Training.

To be fair, academics have been trying to provide better training for years. We have also started to realise that becoming a great translator (we will get onto interpreting next week) is not something that ends with a degree. Actually, the best translators never stop getting better.

It’s also very strange that many talented and successful translators have never set foot in a classroom. Universities can provide all the training they want but some people will always come into translation via an alternative route. For such people, getting better might be more about going to tradeshows than listening to talks; it might involve more hands on work than book work.

So how about you? How do you keep getting better? Rather than provide a list of ways that we think translators should keep improving, we would like you to post your own tips below.

In the comments below, we would like you to write how you keep on getting better. Do you read technical journals? Do you keep up with Translation Studies research? Do you invest in new dictionaries? What websites do you subscribe to? What classes do you take?

Let’s make this the world’s biggest source of tips for translators. Over to you!

From Gown to Booth part III

From gown to booth: working for an international institution

The Holy Grail: working for the EU or the UN

For many budding interpreters, working for an international institution is the ultimate dream, the Holy Grail of the profession. But to turn this dream into a career, it’s worth being prepared. The tips that follow are based on advice provided by EU and UN interpreters at various conferences I attended, and at career events organised at Heriot-Watt University, where we regularly welcome back our alumni who now work for the institutions.

  1. Learn your trade properly – get a relevant university qualification

To become an EU or a UN conference interpreter, you need to be properly trained for consecutive and simultaneous in realistic conditions. So look for a university equipped with proper booths and up-to-date equipment, where you’ll be working on realistic conference materials under the tutelage of experienced academics and professional interpreters (often one and the same).

  1. Know your employer and more than just the languages you offer

To work for EU or the UN, you need to know the organisations well, and you must become familiar with the terminology in use. How to do that? Well, your training should help: a good course will provide classes on international organisations, maybe even economics or law.

Also use the official web-sites of the EU and UN regularly, and follow the press in all your languages, so as to be aware of the latest issues on each country’s agenda. You’ll need more than just a good knowledge of your languages, you’ll need a working knowledge of them, fit for current affairs.

Finally, consider internships: a “stage” with any EU agency will give a good understanding of the system and will make you familiar with euro-jargon.

  1. Learn about the recruitment and plan ahead

Find out about the application process, the different entry levels, the format of the assessment and the time-scale you’ll be considering (up to a year). And think a constructive way to continue your training throughout the process.

Make sure that your CV is up-to-date and that it is formulated properly (avoid claiming you’re “bilingual”- speak in “language A, B or C” terms instead).

UN competitions are advertised online, and the tests entail several speeches of different levels, in simultaneous mode. The UN Language Outreach website has links to useful resources to prepare.

For the EU “concours”, you will need to create an EPSO profile; that’s also where competitions are announced. Once your application has been accepted, expect several selection stages, starting with psychometric tests (your Career Services should be able to help with that).

It is also possible to take the EU accreditation tests, to work as a freelancer. No psychometric test involved, but consecutive and simultaneous tests on your various language combinations. View the Testing Times clips for an idea of the level.

  1. When should you apply?

Opinions differ here – some will tell you that it worth applying straight after completing your degree, while you are still fully training mode. It can be a good strategy for the UN exams, especially for the UN languages which are highly in demand (Russian and Arabic), providing your technique and language skills are impeccable.

But more often than not, successful applicants are interpreters who have acquired experience on the professional market (keep precise records of your work, it can be taken into consideration) and who have spent time living and working abroad, consolidating their languages or adding C languages to their combinations (very useful for the EU).

One thing is certain: to succeed, you will need to develop excellent interpreting skills, almost to the point at which it becomes a second nature, and you will need to take an interest in everything and anything. And even still, many interpreters didn’t succeed the first time around – it takes time, but perseverance and hard work pay!

Author: Fanny Chouc

Freelance interpreter and French Teaching Fellow at Heriot-Watt University

From gown to booth: turning your degree into a job pt.2

Hurdle n°2: becoming a paid interpreter

You have secured your degree in conference interpreting, you know what a professional booth look like and you can work an interpreting console. Now, understandably, you would quite like to start getting paid for your conference interpreting skills.
But if having a suitable qualification is key, it won’t necessarily be enough to get you into a booth.
You’re going to need an opportunity – but how can you convince agencies to give a “rookie” a chance?
Well, I don’t have a fail-proof solution, but I do have a little acronym for you (you can’t work as an interpreter and in academia without learning to love acronyms): SNAP.

1.    You’ll have to be Strategic. In what way ? Well, first of all, geographically. Be where your skills will be needed the most. For instance, there hardly ever is an English booth in the UK on the private market; most conferences are held in English and clients aren’t prepared to pay for an English booth (interpreting into English is done as a retour). So the UK is great for someone with English as a B language (or with English A and a strong B language) – and similarly, English native speakers could be more sought after outwith the UK.

2.    Do some Networking. Join a professional body, like ITI or the IoL. Even better: join as a student, there are special memberships for trainee translators and interpreters. They hold events, at which you can meet more experienced professionals and potential employers. Make a good impression, let your experience be known (even if it is unpaid work) and they may remember you when the need arises. Be active on professional networks like Linkedin or ProZ. Stay in touch with your fellow students, and stay in touch with lecturers– all these people can help you understand the industry better, and can recommend you. And agencies will want good recommendations before that take a gamble on a newbie.

3.    Be Available. There are quite a few professional interpreters out there already, and agencies tend to be often call the same interpreters, for a number of understandable reasons. However, sometimes, several conferences are happening at the same time and suddenly, many interpreters are needed at the same time – this is when you may get a chance to have your break. But you have to be contactable, reactive and available (think “smart-phone”). Do a decent job, and the agency will remember that you were answered their call quickly and made arrangements to be available, even at short notice.

4.    Be Professional. Now that may seem like stating the obvious, but it’s crucial. You’re going to have to be convincing to make people forget that you are a “rookie”. So dress the part, be punctual, prepare like you’ve never prepared before (yes, more than for your exams), and act the part. You’re likely to be paired up with a more experienced colleague – be friendly and ask them how they like to share the work. Observe them at work, and learn from them. Make sure you do a good job, keep your nerves and focus – if you prove to be competent, they may say a word in your favour to the agency, or may even pass your details on for future jobs.

And once you have become the experienced interpreter in the booth, don’t forget how tough it can be at the start, and be mindful of the little newbies !

Fanny Chouc

From gown to booth: turning your degree into a job pt 1

Hurdle n°1: “experience required”

You have passed all your exams, you have donned the gown and hood of your university, you have received your degree and you are now officially qualified to work as an interpreter. But how to make the transition from qualified interpreter to working interpreter?

Well, here are a few thoughts drawn for personal experience, as a lecturer and as a freelance interpreter.

First hard fact to get to grips with: in this highly competitive, niche market, a proper qualification is indispensable, but it won’t necessarily be enough to open the doors of professional booths for you. Why ? Because however hard you have worked at your degree, what your potential employer/client will see, first and foremost, is your lack of experience. It is risky to place an inexperienced professional in a position of responsibility – and when you are in a booth, once the microphone is on, what you say is what goes, accurate or not. It takes a lot of skills and experience to be able to repair seamlessly something incorrect when you’re interpreting simultaneously. This brings us back to the first hurdle: experience, or lack thereof.

Now how can you overcome this catch-twenty-two situation?

There is a solution: volunteering. But – and this “but” needs to come in right away – let’s be clear on the meaning of volunteering: you should never, ever accept to do a job for free when it could and should be paid. In other words, you should only volunteer your professional services as an interpreter within a certain framework: for instance, with reputable charities who don’t have the funds to pay for interpreting for all their meetings (which means that if you do a good job, when they have a session for which funds are available for interpreting, they’re likely to call you). So think Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontière, or organisations like ICV Volunteers. It’s also worth looking into events like the Caux Conferences, the European Social Forum or think-tanks with a social focus and an international dimension. These organisations need interpreters, but don’t have a big enough budget – so they will often provide you with accommodation, and maybe pay for your transport. But they will only take on serious applicants !
So be honest and humble, and adopt a professional attitude. Just because it’s unpaid work for a charity doesn’t mean that you should take it lightly. So don’t lie on your skills, or on your qualifications – if you’ve never sat in a booth, you shouldn’t claim you can do sim. And if you trained and still struggled through exams, you should probably be spending more time practicing before you claim to be able to volunteer for conference interpreting. It’s in your interest too:  volunteering your services and not delivering will reflect badly on your professional ethos and you won’t get called back of offered any paid job. Small market, small world – you have to be reliable and competent from day 1.

Fanny Chouc
Freelance interpreter and French Teaching Fellow at Heriot-Watt University

Lessons from America

In this guest post, LINCS graduate Claire Grant talks about her experiences after she won the Fiona Watson Memorial award, which pays for a student to work as an intern for the UN or a similar international organisation.

From an early age I was interested in the work of the United Nations and aspired to work for them one day as an interpreter. My undergraduate degree in Interpreting and Translating at Heriot-Watt University, which I completed in June 2011, was my first step towards the future realisation of this dream. Thanks to Heriot-Watt and the Fiona Watson Memorial Award which I was presented with upon graduating, I have since been able to take a step closer by completing an internship at the UN Headquarters in New York City from September to December 2011.

During my internship with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), I was introduced to a wide variety of work. I conducted research and analysis of reports relating to UN Peacekeeping Missions; attended high-level conferences, such as the General Assembly and Security Council and produced reports on Member States’ reactions to policy developments. Putting the skills acquired from my degree to good use, I also translated and proofread various policy documents. Undoubtedly, these tasks provided me with a great, first-hand insight into the work of the UN. However, the most valuable lessons I learned during my internship were from the people I met.

My DPKO colleagues were keen to share their experiences of working for the UN, both in the field and at HQ. I was particularly fascinated by one colleague’s experiences of working with field interpreters while on mission in South Sudan. As an intern, I joined a group of over 200 young professionals from across the globe, from different cultural backgrounds and from various prestigious educational establishments with qualifications in subjects ranging from international relations to sustainable development. I believe this will prove to be a very useful network for the future.

I was lucky enough to live with a UN interpreter while in New York, who introduced me to her colleagues, invited me into a live booth with her on several occasions, and provided me with frank, valuable advice for pursuing a career in interpreting. I also met with the Head of the English booth and sat a mock UN interpreter’s test which allowed me to realise what my next steps should be and which skills I need to work on. Thanks to all of the advice I was given in New York, I now have a clearer understanding of the profession, the dedication it requires, and, most importantly, the life experience required in order to be a good interpreter, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be back in the UN English booth someday.”

Claire works as a freelance interpreter and translator. For more information about the Fiona Watson Memorial Award and to read Claire’s internship report and New York blog please visit: