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  • Writer's pictureEllen Worrell

Why am I a translator?

I am currently attending a series of 12 webinars called "The Holistic Translator" that are being led by Andrew Morris. The webinars are providing me with lots of food for thought, and I'm sure will be the source of several blog posts over the next few months, but Andrew has asked the participants to explain why they are translators. It has taken several weeks of pondering, but I think I've finally come up with an answer!

While I enjoyed the interpreting modules at Bath University, I quickly discovered that I am too much of a perfectionist to interpret. I get very frustrated with myself when I know there is an idiomatic phrase in English that is on the tip of my tongue, but that I just can't find quickly enough. For example, in German, you can say "Um die Ecke denken", which literally means "to think around the corner", but in English, we would say "to think outside the box". In a speech, if I were to say "Let us think around the corner for a moment", most listeners wouldn't understand what I was saying immediately, but if I were to say "Let us think outside the box for a moment", everyone who was listening to my English interpretation would understand. I also suffered from "interference" at times, where I heard the foreign language word and would create English words that I thought were right, but in fact were not. One example is "nombreux" in French, which I often rendered as "numberous", whereas I of course meant "numerous".

For a while, I thought I had wasted a year doing a Masters with such a strong interpreting focus, when I could have done a translation-only masters. However, doing a course where I struggled so much with the key skills was probably a good thing in the end. I was lucky that there were translation modules that formed part of my degree, and they taught me a valuable lesson between the different skills that are required for translating and interpreting.

When I realised that my skill set was more suited to translation than interpreting, I was worried about being a full-time translator because translators have a bit of a reputation of being reclusive and chained to their computers, whereas I am a definite people person. However, a friend at uni spotted a job advert for an in-house German to English translation job working for an agency, and they were particularly looking for experience in the field of automotive technology. The advert also asked for at least 2 years of professional experience as a translator, which I of course didn't have. I also didn't have experience of using the computer assisted translation (CAT) tools that are commonly used in the translation sector. However, I decided to seize the opportunity as you have to be in it to win it!

Miraculously, I was invited to come for an interview based purely on passing my test translation and my 6 months' experience working for Volkswagen in Pamplona as part of my year abroad. I went along not expecting to be offered the job, but still took it as a great learning opportunity and gave it my all. I thought my lack of experience and lack of CAT-tool knowledge would let me down, but the general manager and head of translation operations obviously saw something different, and offered me the job there and then. I'm sure you can all imagine, I was thrilled to be offered a job before I'd even finished my MA exams, and I jumped at the chance.

It was certainly a steep learning curve, as it was my first "proper" job in an office in the UK, and I had to learn the customs - for example, the newbie isn't necessarily responsible for making tea for the office, but if you are making, it's only polite to ask if anyone else wants a cup. I also had to learn how to use Transit - the agency's chosen CAT tool. I was completely overwhelmed to start with, and it took me ages to remember all the different keyboard shortcuts - I don't think I'd ever really used the CTRL or ALT keys before, but now I know all sorts of combinations. Not only for inserting translations or dictionary entries, but also for typing weird and wonderful letters with accents!

But once I had mastered the software, I flourished and was quickly given my own customers. It's certainly an honour to get some nice feedback from a customer, and have them ask for the same translator the next time they send a job. I became the main translator for a German shoe manufacturer who make these amazing and whacky slippers in crazy colours - I still want a pair! I was also the main translator for Volkswagen's in-car entertainment systems, so I was responsible for developing the various voice-activated commands, as well as developing the sat-nav instructions and warning messages. For example, if you buy a new Volkswagen, you will be able to use the voice-activated service to ask your car's sat-nav to guide you to the nearest pizza restaurant called Mama's Pizzeria, if that's what you wanted to do.

After working for the agency for two years, I decided I wanted to try and combine translation with my other passion - teaching. Obviously, as an in-house translator working full-time, there are only a limited number of hours in the day for teaching. I therefore took the scary decision to leave my stable job with a fixed income and set up as a freelance translator and combine teaching with it. I have been running my own company for a year now, and I'm pleased to say, that so far, it has been a success and I haven't had many quiet days. I work for several agencies, as well as a few direct clients. I translate a variety of documents, mainly from German, for a wide range of clients.

I am truly privileged to work in a sector that I love, combining my two passions in life, and I am able to pick and choose the texts that I work on. I would never in a million years agree to a legal document, because while I understand it in German, French or Spanish, I don't trust my knowledge of English legal terms to make the contract legally binding in English. I see translation as an art form that also has a service role.

I may have fallen into it to a certain extent, but now I understand it as a career where I can help others understand a text that was originally in a different language, but I can take my time to make sure it is idiomatically correct, as well as factually correct. I take great pleasure knowing that my work facilitates others so that they can do their job more easily. It is a great challenge at times, and some deadlines are ridiculously tight. I have lost count of the number of emails I have received on a Friday afternoon, asking me to translate 20,000 words by Monday morning - on a good day, I can translate 2,000 words, so 20,000 words in 2 days is impossible if you want a high-quality translation! But all in all, it is a fantastic career as it plays on all my strengths and I have only got this far by seizing every opportunity that has come my way.

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