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Strategies to advance our profession

As recently as ten years ago, budding freelance translators suffered from a lack of information on the profession and how to go about setting up a translation practice. Today, there is certainly no shortage of information for new entrants to the translation profession. New colleagues face information overload and are pulled in dozens of different directions. This is perhaps not surprising as there is no one right way. Ask ten experienced colleagues and you will hear about ten different paths to a successful freelance career.

What is essential is that we all pull together if we want to advance our profession. It’s not enough to sit back and let professional associations or a handful of dedicated colleagues do all the work. We all need to find some common ground and deploy a few strategies in order to boost the image of professional translators and ultimately make the profession stronger.

Sharing knowledge

Experienced colleagues have naturally accumulated a wealth of knowledge over the years. It is essential that we pass on this knowledge to new colleagues entering the profession, whether by mentoring or coaching individuals, or by freely sharing tips on social media and at networking events. Rather than telling new colleagues what to think or do, we need to give them the tools and point out the resources available to help them find their own way. There is no place in our industry for one-upmanship. Sitting back and watching newbies make mistakes that could have been avoided will get us nowhere. Sharing experiences and information will benefit the profession in the long term.

Demystifying diversification

The term ‘diversification’ is much abused these days. Many define it as diversifying out of the translation industry because their translation business is not going well. This is precisely what had spurred me on to create Diversification in the Language Industry, a snapshot of how experienced, renowned translators run their businesses and how they have expanded their portfolio of services beyond translation proper.

Back in 2012 I heard more and more colleagues complain that they could no longer make a living from translation alone and would therefore leave the industry altogether. As this was so far removed from my own experience, I felt it was important to highlight that it is not necessary to diversify instead of developing your translation business or because business is not going well. Translation is a very viable business model, and translators should only diversify, that is add to their service portfolio, once they have established a successful translation practice. Most experienced long-term translators have done precisely this by, for example, specialising in a niche field, offering coaching or training services to colleagues, presenting at conferences or leveraging their blog. Don't diversify instead of building a strong translation business; treat it as the icing on the cake!

Fostering a positive outlook

There is little to be said for complaining on public forums. Some colleagues may have had more than their fair share of bad experiences, but this is not indicative of the profession as a whole. Negativity and public rants achieve nothing, but make translators as a group look unprofessional. This is not desirable. The same goes for senseless infighting and attacks on peers who may pursue a different business model to ours. Naturally, it is important to warn one another, and especially new entrants to the profession, of known non-payers or the latest scams, but that is what dedicated mailing lists and databases such as Payment Practices are for. We all know there are lowball file pushers and fly-by-night outfits, and they are unlikely to go away any time soon, so there is little to be gained from bemoaning their existence every day.

Clients also have access to these public forums and will think twice about hiring a freelance translator if they are worried that they will be portrayed as the enemy rather than as an equal business partner. Most freelance translators are perfectly happy with their clients, their income and their working conditions and cannot identify with these rants about low rates or bad clients. Let's quash the negativity and focus on presenting ourselves professionally online and in any interaction with third parties.

Educating the public

The general public knows all about lawyers and accountants, but disappointingly little about translators. It is therefore not surprising that many members of the public cannot comprehend why translation services are expensive, or that translators are skilled practitioners who have undergone extensive training and professional development. Some simple strategies to counter this lack of awareness include:

  • getting direct clients to list your name as the translator in publications where practical to boost the visibility of translators;
  • getting involved in school outreach programmes to educate future generations about our profession (Sarah Appleby’s Pillar Box post has more on this);
  • continually telling acquaintances and friends about our profession; they may not become clients, but this will foster an awareness of what we do and of the importance of translation as a whole;
  • presenting at local business events to make translation visible and comprehensible to other business owners.


Regulating the profession

Although easier said than done, I believe that having the translation profession regulated would be highly desirable. In most countries today, the activity of translators does not qualify as a regulated profession (with some exceptions for certified and/or sworn translators), and the title of ‘translator’ is not protected, meaning anyone can call themselves a translator and set up shop. A higher barrier to entry to the profession would, among other benefits, ensure greater visibility and boost the reputation of the translation profession in the eyes of the public. Our Australian colleague Louis Vorstermans, for example, is currently working on developing a system for setting, auditing and enforcing professional standards to stop those from entering the profession who do not have the necessary skills or qualifications and personal, ethical standards required to provide a reliable, confidential and professional service – a system I fully support.

Who hasn’t heard statements such as ‘Oh, my bilingual secretary will translate this for free,’ most likely because the client is not aware of what a professional translation entails and of the potential repercussions of using a layperson. If the profession was regulated, serious clients would naturally choose accredited, registered professional practitioners rather than unqualified self-proclaimed translators. What’s more, clients would find it easier to understand that translators charge professional fees – as do lawyers and accountants – and thus have no qualms about paying them. Having the translation profession regulated would provide standards for entry and increase client awareness of the importance of appropriately qualified translation practitioners.

Let’s not sit back and merely react to market developments and third-party behaviour – instead, let’s take a proactive, positive approach and advance our profession together.

About the author

Nicole Y. Adams is a certified and publicly appointed German/English marketing, corporate communications and public relations translator with over 11 years of experience in translating, editing, and project and quality management. She holds a Masters in Contemporary English Language and Linguistics from the University of Reading, UK, and is the author of Diversification in the Language Industry and The A to Z of Freelance Translation online course. Nicole is an AUSIT Senior Practitioner and a member of ATA, BDÜ, CIOL and DVÜD. She lives with her family in sunny Brisbane, Australia. Website:

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#1 Oliver Lawrence 2014-10-01 13:05
The way to convince the market of the value of professional translation, it seems to me, is to appeal to self-interest. Awareness seems appallingly low of the damage that poor translations can do and the missed opportunities and harm to the bottom line that can result from translating on the cheap.

I think the professional associations can take a strong lead here by commissioning studies that demonstrate our value (e.g. "company X enjoyed a 17% rise in sales from having its website retranslated", "company Y saved £15,000 on support-call costs with a proper xl8n of its manuals). The plain-language industry has a whole host of studies like this that go back decades. We in translation are half a century behind.

I'm not convinced that preventing amateur operators from entering the market is going to work, nor that trying to trumpet ourselves and demand respect will get us where we want. We need to speak to business using the language it understands.

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