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Paths to Professional Translation: Interview with Amanda Williams

Our translation department and our language blog, Beyond Words, often receive questions from students and individuals interested in becoming professional translators. In the past, we’ve written articles and gathered resources about existing translation programs, scholarships, and general advice for prospective translators. We wanted to revisit the subject, so we asked Amanda Williams, a seasoned and accomplished translator, to sit down with us for a quick chat. Below, you’ll find an illuminating Q&A with Amanda about the many paths to becoming a professional translator.

Interview with Amanda Williams

ALTA: Have you/did you take any specific courses to prepare for being a professional translator? Students are often interested in hearing from the graduates of translation programs about their personal success and their perceived value of the courses they took. If you or someone else you know took a course or two, was it worth it?

Amanda Williams (AW): Yes, I am a graduate of Georgia State University’s post-graduate translation program. It was a two-and-a-half year program with one course per semester. One thing I particularly liked about it was that the classes were in the evening, so I was still able to work full-time while being a student in this program.

I personally found the program invaluable. Believe it or not, being bilingual does not necessarily mean that you will be a good translator (although it undeniably helps). Translation is a skill that you must hone, and enrolling in a translation program will help you sharpen those skills, and in some cases, it could help you determine if you even like translation in general or not. You may not even realize that you wouldn’t enjoy it until you start learning how to do it. Most importantly, in a translation or interpretation program, you get to practice translating a very wide variety of texts and receive constructive feedback on how to improve your skills without the devastating impact of delivering a poor quality translation to a customer and more-than-likely ruining a business relationship.

One other huge advantage to completing a T&I program is that it’s fairly common for customers (both translation companies and direct customers alike) to specifically ask you if you have a relevant degree or certification in translation or interpreting before they will even add you to their vendor database, much less use your services. This is especially true if you want to price your translation services in the premium market. Having a relevant T&I degree or certification will help jump start your translation business.

ALTA: If you could redo anything from your education in your path to becoming a translator, what would it be?

AW: You know, I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and I have to say, I am extremely happy with the path I took to becoming a translator. It was not a straightforward path, but I am tremendously grateful that it wasn’t, because having a specialization from working in a separate field has given me innumerable advantages as a freelance translator. I graduated from college with a bachelor’s in French and a minor in Spanish. Two months after I graduated, I was recruited to work for a Chilean wood products manufacturer and importer. I spent six years there working in sales, operations, and was lastly Trade Compliance Manager. There’s no way I would be able to outline all of the reasons why working for that company helped me to become a successful freelance translator – I don’t want to keep you up reading this blog post all night long – but the most important lessons I learned from working in international trade prior to starting my own freelance career were:

  • I am not just a linguist – I am a business professional who also happens to be a linguist.
  • Sense of urgency – if a customer has a request, I answer it immediately. Also, project deadlines are not a friendly suggestion, and there are very few reasons why you should ever miss one.
  • Understanding supplier agreements – I know when to request amendments to the vendor agreements that translation companies want me to sign, and I create and send my own terms of service to ensure that I am properly protected in every business transaction that I undertake (helpful hint: every translation project you do is a business transaction).
  • Properly valuing my services – once I calculate my break-even rate, come up with my average translation speed and determine my per-word rate based on those calculations, I stick to it and I have no qualms with explaining the value of my services to customers.

If I had to pick something to redo though, I guess it would be not giving up on learning Japanese. I took three semesters of Japanese in college. I really enjoyed it at first, but it became more and more difficult. I gave up because I wasn’t as disciplined at 19 as I am now. If I had only known how much more Japanese translators make per word, maybe I would have been a little more determined rather than falling back on the more comfortable romance languages. C’est la vie.

ALTA: Should students pursue a degree/certification in a language, or specialize in a field itself?
[Example: Kent State University in Ohio only offers a B.S. in Translation for French, Russian, German, or Spanish. New York University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have Certificates of Translation available. In terms of specializing in a field, what if you’re interested in anything ranging from alternative energy, bio-engineering, life sciences, or project management?]

AW: You may not like this answer, but I think both are equally important. Professional training is vital for helping you become a proficient translator, and having a specialization in a certain field helps you gain access to the premium translation market. You can still eventually gain a specialization after starting a career in translation simply from receiving a lot of projects in a certain domain, but it’s certainly easier to win high-paying projects/contracts if you already have a specialization from a degree in accounting, from having worked in a hospital or law firm, from working for an importer, etc. That kind of experience is highly prized among Direct clients, Language Service Providers and Project Managers.

You don’t necessarily need to rush into a career in translation. This industry isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Get a job with a renewable energy or bio tech company first, learn a lot about that field, go to school on the side and slowly build your translation company in the meantime. It generally takes a few years to start getting regular translation work anyway, so having a full-time job during at least some of the painful startup period will help financially cushion your transition.

ALTA: What if students are interested in multiple languages? How did you narrow down choosing a language?

AW: I grew up in a rural area of Georgia and my high school only offered Spanish and French. I chose French because that was the more exotic of the two languages (even though it wasn’t that exotic). Once I started taking French, I realized that I had an aptitude for foreign languages. Then I participated in a short exchange program that my high school organized with a French sister school. I fell head over heels in love with France from the moment I took my first step into Charles de Gaulle airport (and the moment I took my first bite of a pain au chocolat too, if I’m being real with myself). After that first trip, I went back a couple years later to that very high school as an English teaching assistant and spent over half a year there.

So, to answer your question – try them out! Find a local organization that offers classes in those languages and see how well you pick them up. Go with whichever one excites you the most or pick the language with which you have the best aptitude. Go visit a country that speaks the language once you have learned the building blocks, and if at all possible, stay there for an extended period of time (at least 6+ months). In my experience, the only way to truly gain proficiency in a foreign language is to immerse yourself in the country and culture.

ALTA: How long did it take you to start receiving regular work as a translator?

AW: Fair warning – Starting out as a freelance translator is not easy. It can sometimes take years to start getting full-time translation work. I have seen countless novice translators become really dejected when the work doesn’t start flooding in the second they obtain their T&I degree. Unfortunately, you just have to have patience and persistence.

Some things you can do to help speed along the process are:

  • Join a local association of translators and interpreters.
  • VOLUNTEER in said local association (you get noticed a lot faster this way).
  • Join the ATA and make sure that your directory listing is public and appealing to those who hire translators/interpreters.
  • Go to T&I networking events, conferences, seminars, workshops, etc. Meet fellow translators and interpreters, because they could one day refer customers to you if they’re too busy to take on a project.
  • Sign up to volunteer for Kiva or Translators Without Borders and earn some good karma points while you’re waiting on your business to blossom.

The point is, you have to put in the work if you want to see the payoff.

ALTA: How did you find your first customers?

AW: I joined the Atlanta Chapter of the ATA (AAIT) during my last semester in Georgia State’s translation program. They noticed my enthusiasm right away and asked if I would be willing to volunteer. Within months, I was elected a Director of the Association, where I met quite a few of the translation companies in the Atlanta area. My first projects came from them and from individuals who found my website online. My largest customer found my profile on the ATA’s directory.

Moreover, once you start to gain customers, the quality of your work and your work ethic will help fuel your future business. Over time, Project Managers will leave a company you work with and then they will reach out to you when they start working for another translation company, if they liked working with you before (see above comments regarding deadlines, sense of urgency, etc.)

ALTA: What are some advantages and disadvantages of being a freelance translator?

Pros: I absolutely love working from home. I also love being my own boss. As a highly autonomous and self-motivated individual, most managers hindered my productivity rather than helped it when I worked in corporate America. Also, as someone who is not ashamed to call herself a nerd, I also love having the opportunity to learn new things every day. I never get bored as a translator.

Cons: Since all customers have different payment terms that vary anywhere from net 14 to 90 days after your invoice is submitted, it takes extraordinary money-management skills to be a full-time freelance translator. It is very important to make sure that you have a large amount of savings so you can weather periods when you’re waiting on invoices to be paid. Also, most project deadlines are pretty tight, so translation can sometimes be a stressful profession, and there’s no such thing as a sick day, unless you are lucky enough to get sick before you start a project rather than in the middle of a project. It’s a very common perception to believe that being a freelancer (of any type) is very flexible, but truth be told, it’s not really all that flexible at times.

Helpful Resources

Amanda shared links to some extremely useful websites and books regarding starting your own translation business. (She also says, “All of the authors who wrote the below books are very nice and fabulous people too, so that’s an added bonus.”)

We hope you enjoyed this Q&A! Please spend some time perusing these helpful resources:

Amanda Williams’ Biography

Amanda N. Williams is a French to English translator, specializing in international business translation with a focus on the field of international trade, import/export compliance, accounting/finance, corporate communications, inventory management and maritime transportation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French language and literature from the University of West Georgia with a minor in Spanish. She is also a graduate of Georgia State University’s post-graduate professional certificate program in translation. After graduating from GSU in 2009, Amanda launched her own translation company, Mirror Image Translations, LLC, which offers French to English translation services.

Prior to becoming a freelance translator, Amanda spent six years working for one of the top 100 largest ocean importers into the United States, first in sales, then managing inventory in the operations department, and lastly as Trade Compliance Manager, where she was responsible for creating, implementing and maintaining the company’s import compliance program. She holds an import/export compliance management certification from the Professional Association of Import/Export Compliance Managers. Amanda is a member and director of the AAIT, as well as a Voting member of the ATA.

Amanda lives in Marietta, Georgia with her husband, toddler and two cats. She spends her spare time reading and dragging her family all over the French-speaking world for vacation.

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