Interview with a translator

December 16, 2011 by 8 Comments

Interview with a translatorIn the three years since I first made an appearance on YouTube with my video in 16 languages, I have received many comments and messages, asking a wide range of things.  I have always tried to answer the questions I get to the best of my ability.

One type question that has been asked several times relates to how to work in languages.  Part of my work with my languages is consulting on multilingual projects and doing quality assurance on them.  This is extremely rewarding as it covers a great number of languages that I have studied and it keeps my brain well-oiled! 😉

There are of course other careers you may wish to do using your languages.  Of course, you can combine pretty much any language with any career as you can always move to a new country.  However, there are some jobs that rely on a knowledge of foreign languages in any country.  There are positions in government and international organisations that require one or more languages to do the work.  The language in these types of jobs is usually a tool to get the work done, rather than the end result.  For example, when I worked on international projects for the UK government I would carry out a function, using my languages for the communication of what was happening or what needed to be done.  The languages in this case are a means to an end.

The other two main jobs we think about, after teaching, which use languages as their end result are interpreting and translation.  These two roles are often confused by lay people.  Of course anyone without a clear grasp of the differences can certainly be forgiven.  I had to be told the difference too.

David and Claude from The Polyglot Project podcast talked to Robert Bigler  (a truly lovely person with a great talent for languages – check out his channel on YouTube too!) about his work as an interpreter.  I highly recommend you take he time to listen to that interview with him, if you haven’t done so already.

Whilst Robert does also work as a translator too, I felt it would be useful to talk to someone who works solely in translation to give and insight into that work for anyone interested in starting a career in translation.  I hope you therefore enjoy the following interview with my good friend, John.


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  • Robert says:

    Thanks for this excellent interview. I just wish it had been a bit longer 😉 John has raised some really important points and I also found your questions very interesting. Having an excellent command of your mother tongue is indeed a prerequisite for any kind of translation or interpreting work and according to my experience quite a lot of people wanting to become a translator and/or interpreter seem to overlook that fact. I remember that back at university most students failed when they had to translate or interpret into their mother tongue. I constantly try to make sure I maintain a high level of proficiency and linguistic accuracy in German. Even though it is my mother tongue proper usage, especially when you have to work in fields that you are not really familiar with, is not always a given. And there will never come a time when you can just sit back and say: That’s it, now I’m finally done with it.
    You will always have to learn new things and make sure you don’t forget the old ones. But as long as you love what you do, you will be fine. I must say that I find life-long learning not to be a burden but rather a challenge and a great way to keep my brain working 😉
    So, thanks again for this interview. It would be great if you could do some sort of a follow-up video. Of course, I don’t know how much information John is willing or able to give as to the way he works or the working conditions of a translator in the UK. Generally speaking, I just know that their way of calculating prices is different from ours (they mostly seem to charge per word, while in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein we tend to charge per so-called standard line). It would be nice to learn more about these differences. I’d also like to know if he uses TM (Translation Memory) tools and what he thinks about them or whether he fears that translators will sooner or later be made obsolete by some software. These are just a few ideas for another video.
    I’d also like to thank you for your kind words regarding my youtube channel and the polyglot podcast project. Hope to talk to you soon again.

  • Fasulye says:

    This is a very interesting video talk about the work of a translator, Richard and John!
    I do have some experience with translating, but no experience with interpreting.

    In the 1990s I was a subscriber of the Dutch translation magazine “De Talen” and I sent in translation exercises regularly to this magazine to be corrected. Just as an exercise I translated texts in both directions FR – NL, NL – FR, GER – NL, NL – GER, ENG – NL, NL – ENG and SPA – NL, NL – SPA. I could do this because I have the according bilingual Dutch dictionaries.

    With this background experience I sent some applications to translation offices in 1994 offering legal translations Dutch – German as a student’s job, but I was not hired. (I had 6 years of German law study as a background with some knowledge of Dutch law)

    Later in my professional life I had to do legal translations from Dutch into German additionally in an office job for three years, but I found translating too monotonous and I had head-aches regularly on the days on which I had to translate for 6 hours a day. Therefore it appeared obvious that becoming a translator wouldn’t be a suitable carreer for me.

    After this professional experience I lost all interest in translation matters. It’s clear to me that if I want to use my foreign languages professionally, translating is not possible for me and I have to find other areas of work.


  • José Miguel says:

    Merhaba, Richard!
    I always find your posts very rewarding, as you’re always looking for relevant stuff to share. Thank you, Richard.
    I’ve worked both as a translator and interpreter here in my country, where there’s far less competition as in Europe and they don’t ask for certificates so often, which has been a great blessing to me ’cause I’m a self-taught guy. I must confess I’m better in more languages at translating as oposed to interpreting, ’cause you know, speed plays a crucial role, especially when translating simultaneously, and even if you know a language, even at an advanced level, but don’t actually speak it in a regular basis, it tends to be hard to interpret it fluently, at least much more so into it than from it. I often translate form and to English, German, Portuguese, and Spanish and less frequently French, but in the rest of my languages it’s about translating (and teaching of course) for the most part.
    Anyway, the cognate language theory is undeniable, because you can not only learn but also translate and interpret closely related languages far faster and far more easily. I’ve noticed, at least in my very personal case, that syntax plays a crucial role here…I’ll give you an example, “I saw you yesterday in the street with your mother” means in Basque “atzo kalean zure amarekin ikusi zintudan” which would literally be rendered as “Yesterday street-the-in your mother-with see you-did-I”. Here you have to think inversely in order to translate correctly into a given Indo-European language like English (of course languages like German and Latin have a lot of inversions, too), and I’ve noticed that this is particularly challenging to interpreters who have to do it in real time.
    Translators, on the other hand, work mostly at home or in an office, and with a lot of translating tools at their finger tips, which iterpreters may also have, but can’t use most of the times. Now if you translate the previous sentence from Basque into Turkish, the exercise would be much quicker as the syntax is almost equal: “Dün sokakta annenle seni gördüm” (other orders are possible as you know, but this is the neutral one), meaning word for word “Yesterday street-in mother-your-with you saw-I”.
    I’ve also noticed that the immense majority of poliyglots learn far more languages from their own family (Indo-European mostly) than from other language families.By the way, Richard, apart from Turkish, which other non-Indo-European languages have you learnt (or are learning)?

  • Hi, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, fantastic blog!

  • mlhpolling says:

    Occasionally I think about of becoming a translator or an interpreter but I’m not sure whether it interests me a lot or not because if I’m not really interested in it, I will be fed up with it someday. What should I do to become a translator or an interpreter? I think becoming only a language teacher or a linguist is also good enough for me.

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