How Not to Become a Translator

Since I am completely swamped with work, I thought I’d share Per N. Dohler’s very interesting translator profile from the Translation Journal (Volume 7, No. 1, January 2003).
Have fun reading!

How Not to Become a Translator

by Per N. Dohler


hen Gabe asked me to “be” the Translator Profile for this issue of his wonderful Translation Journal,
I felt opportunity knocking. A typical freelance translator, spending
most of his or her time alone in a room (well, alone with the world
since the advent of the Internet, but still), will readily discourse at
length on just about anything, given a fraction of a chance. My wife
Thea, who has had ample occasion to study the social behavior of
translators, calls this “translators’ logorrhea” and considers it a
professional disease.
Anyway, here it goes.

It’s easy to waste an
immense amount of time
repeating everybody
else’s mistakes.

Uh, well—what
can I say. (Ahem, a lot, obviously.) I am a freelance translator (I like
to say “independent translator”). My native language is German. My
extraction is German, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish-Jewish, and other
things I will never know about. My country is Germany, but if I hadn’t
adopted the U.S. and Sweden on the side I could never stand being here. I
translate from English and the Scandinavian languages into German. My
fields are dental, medical, financial, marketing, PR, IT, localization. I
live and work in Barendorf, a small community in the center of Northern
Germany, together with said Thea, who is an independent consultant, my
best editor, and a lot of other things that don’t belong here. And in
case I have forgotten something, you can always look it up at
Unfortunately, on top of all that, I am also probably one of the world’s most eminent experts on how not to become a translator.

I know what I am talking about. In my first years as a translator I
did almost everything wrong, and I certainly made plenty of the most
elementary mistakes.

I’d say I wasn’t even a translator initially; I was just posing as
one. True, I had an academic background in U.S. literature and English
linguistics, painfully acquired after meandering through the academic
system for too many years (easy enough to do at those unstructured
German universities). And, having spent a couple of years in California,
I felt that my English was adequate and that I knew a little about the
U.S. But that, of course, is nowhere near good enough to hang out one’s
shingle as a translator.

My first paid translations were done, somewhat accidentally, in 1982,
for a professor of history. I had to translate source documents from
U.S. history into German for inclusion in an annotated textbook. The
volume in question did eventually appear; my contribution was hardly
recognizable. But no one told me what I had done wrong, or how.

The next step in that dubious career of mine came over a year later,
when my father—a dentist and director of the state dental
association—referred Germany’s largest dental publisher to me (just like
that, he had no idea whether I would perform OK or not). So I started
doing dental translations, all of which were edited by my father. (“That
may sound good, Per, but it’s not what a dentist would ever say!”) (HINDSIGHT:
What I gained from this cooperation over the next few years was the
best practical education in the field I could have had, short of
actually becoming a dentist myself.)
But from a business angle, the
whole setup was a disaster because I simply swallowed what I was fed. I
would receive two or three dental articles a month to translate from
English into German. I was getting paid by the printed page, a few
months after the article appeared in print (if it appeared), at a rate
set by the publisher. It was not until over a year later that a new
editorial coordinator took pity on me and suggested that I submit an
invoice for what I had not heretofore thought of as accounts receivable.

Meanwhile, my M.A. thesis was finally completed, even well
received—but there were no jobs for linguists. I’d had an invitation to
work toward a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, but the
family finances did not stretch that far. To turn a dead end into
something useful, I started out to get a second degree, this time in
computer science (there were, and still are, no tuition charges at
German universities, so that was no problem). Something with language
and computers—that could be hot, or so we thought, even though it was
not quite clear how. (HINDSIGHT: This was going to give me an enormous advantage in the 1990s, when localization became a big hit.)
To put bread on the table, I continued working for my dental publisher,
even acquired a second one and a pharmaceutical company somehow (word
of mouth, probably), and audited assorted university-level classes in
medicine and dentistry. I managed to muddle through in this manner for
some time more.

Finally, one morning in 1988—six years after my first translation!—I
looked at myself in the mirror and said, almost a bit surprised, “You,
Per, are actually a translator.” (HINDSIGHT: I was not, yet.) I
dropped out of school, bought a new computer and more dictionaries, sent
out some makeshift mailings—I didn’t know anything about marketing
either—and actually landed one or two new clients.

Everything I ever learned
I learned from someone else.

But I still hadn’t ever spoken to
a “real” translator, had never had a translation of mine critiqued, had
been denied membership by the regional translators’ association, had
never participated in any kind of professional exchange, had never even
read a book on the art or the craft of translation—nothing. Despite all
that, I was doing relatively well financially, and I even became
accredited by the Chamber of Commerce in my home state. I was
translating more and more, but I still wasn’t a translator. Not until
1991—nine years after my first translation. (HINDSIGHT: Most of the
little odds and ends picked up along the way will ultimately come in
handy in some translation. There may be no more “renaissance men” in
this world, but a broad range of interests does not hurt.)
So what happened in 1991? CompuServe, the U.S.-based online
service, started doing serious business in Germany. I signed up and soon
found the legendary FLEFO community of translators—then just about the
only such online community, with the possible exceptions of sci.lang.translation on Usenet and LANTRA-L
, if I remember correctly. A new world opened up for me—the world of
actual translation. And actual translators. (And virtual translation.
And virtual translators.)

Translators must be one of the most interesting breeds of people.
Many are probably a little weird, myself quite possibly not excluded;
but most of those I met in the ensuing years—and I met plenty of
colleagues at home and abroad over the years, enjoyed their company,
enjoyed their hospitality, tried to lure them to Barendorf (“Hotbed of
North German Translation”), almost as if to make up for lost time—are
really interesting people with strong opinions, which they are eager to
try on others. We come from an incredible wealth of backgrounds and
bring this diversity to the incredible wealth of worlds that we
translate from and into.

I don’t know who said it, I may even have made this up myself:
“Everything I ever learned I learned from someone else.” In my case,
when it comes to the art, the craft, and the business of translation,
the “someone else” would usually have been someone I originally met on
FLEFO, and the time would have been the early 1990s.

So in this manner, I became a translator after all. Things have been largely uphill ever since.

Appendix 1: How To Be a Translator

I am afraid more people than care to admit it have taken an
equally long time and equally circuitous routes in becoming translators.
If you are just starting out, save yourself some valuable time. Do not
emulate our haphazard paths. Instead, proceed as follows:

  • Take a sober inventory of what you bring to the job. All of us—all
    of us!—have learned interesting things in our lives, which might be
    useful in one way or another when translating in various fields. But if
    you lack certain essentials—for example, if you are not a good writer in
    your native language—then do consider pursuing a different path.
  • Take a sober inventory of what you still need to acquire. Then
    acquire it. Spend some time on training first—it need not be in
    translation as such—specialty fields are just as important for many.
    Allow yourself some time abroad; read, read, read; and listen, listen,
    listen. Even if you think you already have a solid foundation and you
    have work, set aside enough time so that you can still do all of the
    above on the side.
  • Seek out colleagues wherever you can. Good places to look are
    Internet “hangouts” for translators and (yes) translators’ associations.
    Collaborate whenever you have a chance. Edit and be edited, even if you
    hate editing. Above all, keep your mind open. What we learn today isn’t
    going to last us a lifetime!
  • Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you are some kind of an artist
    enjoying artists’ (and fools’) privileges—99% of the time you are not.
  • Think of yourself as a businessperson first and foremost. Be
    dependable. Be available. Be visible. Be serious. Market yourself. Stick
    to deadlines religiously. Don’t guess what your customer needs—if you
    aren’t 100% sure, ask. If you don’t like what you hear, say no. If you
    are called upon to do something you cannot do, say no. But if you do
    engage in a contract, abide by its terms. Sound trivial? You’d be
    surprised how many translators fail in precisely these trivial things.
    The most rigorous translation is worthless if it arrives after that atomic power plant blows up.
  • Develop a set of negative criteria for those projects you don’t want to do. Then don’t do them.
  • Develop an O.K. set of positive criteria for those projects you
    really do want to do. Then pursue them whenever you have a minute to
  • Determine where you want to go. Ask yourself: What would I like my
    professional life to be, say, ten years from now? From time to time,
    calibrate the things you do on a daily basis against that overall goal.


Appendix 2: Truisms … or Controversial Food for Thought


  • It has been predicted that translators would be obsolete “in ten
    years” for about fifty years now. These predictions will probably
    continue to be issued regularly for the next fifty years.
  • There are translators who claim they never allow a less-than-perfect translation to leave their desk. They are lying.


  • Translation is not a commodity. (Translators are usually not freely interchangeable.)
  • Translation is a potentially scarce item. (Neither the number of its producers nor their output can be increased at will.)
  • Translation is not scalable. (Volume discounts in translation don’t make sense.)
  • Terminology is to translation what trees are to the forest. But you often don’t see the latter for the former.
  • There is no such thing as a perfect translation. There isn’t even
    such a thing as a translation most people would consider pretty good.
  • “Quality” in the sense used in ISO 900x has nothing, absolutely
    nothing to do with “good” or “bad.” ISO 900x is not applicable to mental
    activities such as translation.


  • All marketing methods (such as a website) work best as part of
    an overall marketing concept. Such a concept need not be aggressive. But
    why not try “quietly pervasive”?
  • There are clients with low-quality needs, clients with top-quality
    needs, and the gamut in between. There are translators to accommodate
    all those markets. Over time, the choice is ours.
  • A company that is a delinquent payer will probably stay a delinquent payer. Caveat vendor.


  • Like all other human activities, translation is subject to the
    law of diminishing returns. Happy translators know when to stop worrying
    about the remaining details.
  • There are more translators earning decent money than the general chorus of complaining suggests.
  • Saying no to unreasonable demands may do nothing for your checking
    account in the short run, but it will work wonders for your self-esteem
    in the long run.
  • The Internet revolution is actually over. The CAT revolution is
    actually over. The next revolution has not yet surfaced. Those who catch
    it early will be ahead of the game. But don’t expect anyone to tip you
    off—you have to look around for yourself.


  • Our most precious tool, beyond our brains, is our own data on
    our own computers. Dictionaries, programs, CD-ROMs can usually be
    replaced if lost. Our own original data can’t be.
  • CAT tools make translation faster. They can make translation more
    consistent. But CAT has pitfalls, such as disparate translation
    memories, which probably lie at the bottom of a lot of incoherent
    translations—mumbo-jumbo like nothing anyone would have ever come up
    with before CAT.


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