Work experience that will help your career in translation

Taking those first steps from finishing your degree to getting your first paid job can be daunting. In this guest post, professional freelance translator and Heriot-Watt graduate Paul Kearns gives us some useful tips on how to gain experience that will ease the transition.

I recently received an e-mail from a second year student that got me thinking about the importance of career planning for new translators. The enquiry was along the following lines:

I’m a second year student and hope to work in translation once I graduate. Do you have any advice on summer jobs or work placements that would help me to improve translation skills before I head off on my year abroad?

My advice was that he should spend the summer working in a non-translation environment and that might sound strange but here’s why:

During their year abroad students develop their language skills more than they can ever imagine possible, so over the summer it’s enough to maintain their existing skills by reading, watching and listening to stuff in their foreign languages – and by the end of second year they should be doing that anyway! (To work professionally it’s not enough to scrape by as a linguist, you need to excel as one.)

Neither do they need to worry too much about their translation skills. During their 3rd and 4th years their translation technique will get better anyway, helped along by peers and tutors – and if they do translation classes at university during their year abroad, they’ll learn about different translation styles, CAT tools, linguistics and so on.

However, professional translators get work because they are also subject specialists – they are technical translators or legal translators or specialise in marketing or biotechnology etc. The biggest challenge after leaving university is that students might be language specialists but they’re not necessarily subject specialists, and that’s what makes the transition from student to professional difficult. That doesn’t mean they need to be a technician or a lawyer but it does mean they need to know about their chosen speciality – and that’s where the summer job helps.

Students should start to think about the type of translation that might interest them professionally (their specialist subject) and try and get a summer job in that area so that they can start to build up their specialist knowledge. So for example, if you want to get into technical translation, a summer job working in an engineering firm’s office would be a bonus. It might not have the same allure as teaching kids at summer camp in the south of France. While it might seem that you’re wasting the summer making tea and photocopying, you are actually learning industry-related terminology, finding out how the industry works, who your clients might be, what sort of documents they might need to translate, you’re learning about document types, genres and linguistic style, you’re creating networking opportunities – exactly the things you’ll need when working professionally.

For students in today’s economic climate career planning has to start early, and being a passionate linguist is only half the battle. You need to take practical steps that will make you stand out from the crowd. Developing a translation specialism is a step in the right direction and getting the right summer job is a good way to achieve this.

Author: Paul Kearns