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Thursday, March 14, 2013

An unknown species: the translator

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Following my post on how to pick a career, I thought I'd make one on the specific one I've chosen. Or, to be more exact, on the one that chose me.

To paraphrase Lennon, translation came to me while I was busy making other plans. It seems like I'm not the only freelance translator in this situation. The ones I collaborate or hang out with were trained as family doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers. They didn't really like their job. And so they became a translator (specializing in medicine, law, business, technical).

For me it crept in gradually. That gave me time to get used to the idea. Acquaintances asked me to translate something short for them. I thought "hey, this is a cool way to make money!"

I also thought "hey, this is much harder than it looks!" But I kept at it. Word of mouth helping, I gained more and more clients. Slowly but surely, the home based business grew. I loved the flexibility it offered since I had young children and wanted to spend most of my time with them. When they entered school, I decided to make this my full time occupation.

What I love about translation

I spend my days reading, writing, correcting other people's mistakes (we usually work in teams of two, the translator and the reviewer/copy editor - I assume both roles alternately).

I learn about all kinds of fascinating subjects (see below for a list of topics I have worked on recently).

The business grows on its own as you're busy making money (just make sure you deliver good quality, and soon enough clients will start telling each other about you). Even better, the business grows as you're busy having fun. I met many a client while chatting at a wine and cheese, absentmindedly mentioning I was translator and copy editor.

The deadlines are short (ah! the world of publishing!), forcing the procrastinator in me to "just do it", as the popular sport apparel company would say. I work well under pressure (some would say procrastinators can only work under pressure, but that's another discussion entirely).

What I love about freelance

It's contained in the title: as a freelance translator I am free! (Not my work, of course, but my schedule!) From one contract offer to the other I can decide if I accept or decline. While gaining expertise in the field I have become picky; I will only work on projects that offer a good retribution in relation to the amount of effort I have to put in.

As a freelance worker you can work as little or as much as you do; you can thus make as little or as much as you want. I know of translators who do it as a sideline to another part-time job. I know full-time, experienced translators who make six digits. Once you've been in the field for a little while, it's really up to you. The sky's the limit!

Your schedule is flexible as long as you respect the deadlines. You can say goodbye to commuting. The only real downside is you have to be very organized and self-disciplined. Family life and various chores have their way of interfering with work, and vice versa... all the more so when you work from home! It's a fine balance. As tempting as it can be, you can't become a slacker. Your enterprise would not last long. In all my years as a translator I think I've only worked in my jammies once.

What I love about medical

I think it was clear in my previous post: I've always been fascinated by anything that revolves around health and wellness, both physical and psychological. I get to read about that every day. Sometimes it's a little depressing (e.g. questionnaire about suicidal thoughts in teenagers), sometimes it's plain disgusting (e.g. description of gastrointestinal microorganisms and their effects), but most of the time it's rather interesting.

The (fun) challenges of my job

It happens time and again: an acquaintance will announce that if they wanted to, they could just be a translator. Tomorrow morning. I usually say nothing. But I think it all the same: translation is not what it seems!

Translation is not for the faint of heart. Being fluent in two languages doesn't suffice. You have to be very fluent in the source language (the one you translate from - English in my case). You have to be absolutely flawless in the target language (the one you translate to - French in my case); subtleties of the target language (and god knows French is full of them) should have no secrets for you. Many serious clients specifically require that the translator be a native speaker in the target language. As much as I can say I am fully bilingual, I don't translate towards English. There's proficiency... but then there's that extra level of mastery I only have in my first language.

Some translation can be easy. I've been paid big bucks to translate the days of the week and the months of the year. But most of the time, translation gets pretty technical. You better know your field and have the right tools for terminology - dictionaries and glossaries galore... in paper and online versions.


That being said, the most challenging assignments I've had were not technical. Marketing documents and advertising copies are the worst. I've had to translate perfume and cosmetic descriptions filled with metaphors. Did you know that lipstick coming out of the tube is a blooming flower? Did you know that perfumes have a personality of their own? Not to mention that idiomatic expressions are completely different from one language to the other. I've scratched my head quite a lot!

At the end of the day, a serious translator cannot afford to make mistakes. Whether you translate user manuals for heavy machinery or medical procedure documents (I've done both), the consequences would be disastrous! Another good example: standardized tests. Reliability and validity of the test have to be maintained throughout the translation process! In all cases, a bad translation just gives the client a bad image. Most of them will avoid that at all costs.

(Some of them don't seem to mind though.)

For some appalling examples of what happens when you let a machine or someone who's not a native speaker do your translation, look here (mostly French). (And my reaction, initially posted on Facebook):

J'adore les pois de poussin! Si délicieux! 
Et que dire de jouir sur les rochers! Mais jamais sans mon oreiller de voyage pour fourrer!
Les parents de petits allergiques seront heureux d'apprendre qu'on vend maintenant des aliments
 sans écrous.
J'ignorais aussi qu'il fallait se brosser les mamelons... quant au
« kit de manucure », il est destiné aux bourreaux, non?
Finalement, « ne pas analer », ça veut dire qu'il ne faut pas se les mettre dans le c**... c'est bien ça?

Some of my clients have recourse to additional processes to ensure quality:

1) Adaptation: adapting French for a specific public; a text that was written for France will be rewritten for Quebec, and vice versa.

2) Reconciliation: assigning the same translation to two different translators, then having a third translator compare the two resulting documents and produce a final document, justifying each and every choice along the way (sometimes this is done in collaboration with the first two translators).

3) Back translation: after the text has been translated from English to French (for example), have another translator (who hasn't seen the original document) translate the French back to English. Then have the first translator compare the original English text and the English back translation, and justify (and adjust, if necessary) any discrepancy.

4) Validation by a field expert: once the translation and editing are done, a field expert will review the text in search of nonsensical passages. This is of paramount importance in highly specialized subjects that even a senior translator cannot be expected to master.

What I don't like so much about my job

Translating, especially from home, is a solitary endeavor. My only work interactions with other human beings are done through email, sometimes on the phone. There are no chatty coffee breaks. You have to find out other ways to nurture your social life. A colleague and I have begun exchanging long, personal emails on a weekly basis or so. We call those our "virtual coffee breaks".

As important as it is to match your job to your interests, you cannot expect it to fulfill all your needs; hence the necessity for activities and pastimes that will serve that purpose. For my social and teaching needs I have been a Girl Guide leader for a few years now.

My home office is also the place where the kids store anything and everything they don't know what to do with.

Like any other freelance job, this one has no benefits. No paid vacation, no sick days, no pension plan. When you just get started, the revenues are variable at best (it gets better with time, obviously). It requires thoughtful financial planning and a hefty dose of personal discipline.

Sometimes the source document is a mess. How do you deliver a well-written translation that still meets the requirement of remaining close to the original?

Once in a while you'll have to review that translator who thinks Google Translate is a reliable work tool. Once in a while you'll be approached by a client who thinks minimum wage is acceptable for professional translation services. Once in a while a client just won't pay (this has not happened to me yet). My only advice: do your homework. Research the client. How serious are they? Other translators (professional associations and online networks are great for that) might be able to give you some insight.

What I've been working on lately

Just for fun, I did a quick inventory of the assignments I got in the past year or so.

A- In my main field (medical, health, wellness, fitness, nutrition and everything in between)

1) Research protocols and questionnaires about:

  • Hypercholesterolemia
  • Endometriosis
  • Stem cells
  • Acute urticaria
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus
  • Cirrhosis
  • Gaucher's disease
  • Type C Niemann-Pick disease
  • Prostate cancer
  • Gout
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • Chromosomal anomaly detection
  • Sexuality satisfaction
  • Sleep apnea
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Neuroleptic treatment
  • Suicide
  • Cellulite
  • Medical ventilation
  • Breast cancer
  • Asthma
  • Chemotherapy/radiotherapy
  • Dermatology
  • Pain medication use
  • Hyperactive bladder
  • Macular degeneration
  • Alzheimer
  • Infectious diseases
  • Podiatry

2) Articles on:

  • CPR and first aid procedures
  • Lifesaving/lifeguarding techniques
  • Defibrillation
  • Exposure to trichloramine
  • Drug shortages

3) Other documents:

  • First aid manuals
  • Practice standards
  • Pharmaceutical product labels
  • Dental implants/restauration procedures
  • Scanner (scintigraphy) user manuals
  • Fitness and nutrition websites
  • Smoking cessation websites
  • Weight loss and fitness program advertising
  • Health and safety guidelines
  • Cosmetic surgery satisfaction questionnaires
  • Food supplements advertising
  • M.A. thesis in clinical psychology
  • PhD thesis in neuropsychology

B- Other fields (projects with some beloved clients are always welcome even if not quite in my field)

1) Some examples:

  • Travel agency website
  • Language fluency questionnaire
  • HR letters and memorandums
  • Pension plan description
  • Union constitution
  • Theatre play description
  • Pedagogical tools (on environmental awareness)
  • Online tutorials
  • PhD thesis in Chinese philosophy
  • Boating safety manual
  • Restaurant equipment catalogue
  • Well drilling company brochure

2) Think big names:

  • Sport apparel
  • Food products
  • Perfumes and cosmetics
  • Smart phones
  • Courier services
  • Cleaning products
  • Music
  • Recipes
  • Credit cards
  • Software
  • Beer


  1. What a wonderful presentation and professional choice, Julie!

    They should give you an honorary M.D. at the least!

    Just some random thoughts:

    I considered being a medical illustrator at one point.

    I studied Cranio-facial surgery in Nancy, France! While there I presented a case of mine from the states. There was a man who translated my talk into French. After a long complicated explanation by me on one image, he just said two words. Later I found out they were, "Next slide." lol Where were you when I needed you :-)

    I medical school I learned that one Cat Scan is worth a thousand neurologists!

    "The House of God," is a great satirical book about medicine. One important thing I took from it that I have applied to my career is, "The best practice of medicine is to do as much nothing as possible!"

  2. I'll take the honorary M.D., thank you! I promise I won't touch the patients! ;-)
    The anecdote from Nancy is hilarious. Any other good memories of France?
    From The House of God, I love those ones:
    I would love to see some of your work (artistic).