My name is Katarzyna E Slobodzian-Taylor and I’m a Polish medical and pharmaceutical translator and the owner of Mastermind Translations Ltd, a specialist Polish translation provider for the life science industries. The worlds of medical and pharmaceutical translation are very exclusive and to become part of these inner circles, you need to be prepared to invest a substantial amount of time and effort. This relates to both acquiring the right set of skills (subject knowledge and translation competence) and finding the right clients who will appreciate it. 

Medical translation piqued my interest at the early stage of my professional career in 2006 when I was flooded with patient information publications for the newly arrived Polish migrants. With no scientific background, I started my specialisation journey by joining the ITI Medical and Pharmaceutical Network which gave me an invaluable insight into how medical and pharmaceutical translators work. Each year, the Network organises two translation workshops on a chosen medical topic, during which participants have the opportunity to listen to two live lectures delivered by a medical expert and then together translate an article into their respective languages.

I’ve taken part in every workshop since 2012 and benefited enormously from every single one. It’s worth noting that start-up translators can take advantage of the Network’s Bursary Scheme which can provide financial assistance towards the costs associated with attending the workshops (some of them take place overseas, e.g. in Germany, Italy, Sweden). The Network also runs a Mentoring Scheme for translators who would like more structured support in their chosen area of specialisation. The membership also offers other benefits, such as assistance with terminology and business-related queries on two lively e-groups. I’d also whole-heartedly recommend drug discovery courses run by Dr Ed Zanders of PharmaGuide in Cambridge. They are a must for any linguist wishing to delve into pharmaceutical texts, but who lacks the necessary scientific knowledge.

In addition I regularly attend MOOCs which are available free of charge and can easily fit into a busy work schedule. I especially like high-quality courses offered by non-profit providers FutureLearn and EdX. It’s also worth checking if there are any free or paid courses available in languages other than English, for example I’ve recently discovered that The Medical University of Łódź now offers free online medical courses in Polish. For those interested in specific aspects of medical and pharmaceutical translation, a commercial provider eCPD offers short webinars and courses which are designed specifically for language professionals.

To enhance my translation competence, I also like to read medical journals in Polish, especially in my specialist (and favourite) fields of oncology and urology. This is a perfect way of keeping up with the latest developments, which are often referred to in clinical trial documents. Oncology is also the topic I tackled during my MITI exam which I successfully passed two years ago. To complement my core skills, last year I participated in the government’s Growth Vouchers programme and benefited from strategic advice from an accredited business mentor who helped me attract more profitable clients and grow my translation business further. His expert assistance has resulted in over a 30% increase in my annual income.

I was brought up with languages having an Italian mother and an English father. I attended both an Italian school, Il Liceo Linguistico, right up to the Maturità Linguistica ('A' level equivalent) at the Sacred Heart College, Trinità dei Monti, Rome, which at the time followed both the Italian and French systems, and St George’ s School for the English system as an external student taking ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. I then read Modern Languages and Literature (French Major) at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” (a four year course) and graduated with a first class honours MA degree (marks 110 out of 110). I then enrolled for a second degree, this time in Law, at the University of London, which I did for a year.

In the meantime an interesting opportunity arose to return to Rome and work as an in-house translator and interpreter for the ENI Group, an Italian multinational oil and gas company. The organization offered in-house training to become familiar with their terminology. The job entailed translating technical and legal documents in a number of areas: contracting, petroleum, energy, environmental issues, chemicals, plastics, training personnel, legal and related areas, as well as interpreting at business meetings. I did this for about 6 years to gain experience. With a good terminology background and the right expertise, I decided it was time to go freelance.

Once on the open market, I was able to broaden my horizons further and work both as a translator and interpreter (consecutive and simultaneous interpreting), in particular in my specialist areas and in interdisciplinary areas.

New opportunities arose working as a replacement translator and newsreader for night shifts (from 8 pm to midnight or from midnight until 6 am) with RAI radio. This experience helped me in later years to deal with interpreting live for TV.

I have always found translating very useful in so much that it makes one more aware of the role and function of words, and their impact on a sentence. It also makes one far more careful about one's choice and structure when interpreting. Conversely, interpreting helps to speed up translation and make you more aware of time management.

I keep up to date with current affairs, new expressions and terminology, and the evolution of language through the following:

  • - involvement in the academic world as a University Visiting Lecturer (on site and distance learning) teaching translation and interpreting (consecutive and simultaneous). This forces me to keep up to date as an ongoing learning experience;
  • - spending periods of time during the year in the countries of my language combinations both for work and pleasure;
  • - reading newspapers and watching TV programmes in my different language combinations (English, French, Italian and Spanish) during the week;
  • - belonging to the ITI Italian e-Network which is proactive in involving members to exchange thoughts and ideas, as well as take part in theme groups;
  • - attending various CPD seminars: ITI, CIUTI, the Language Show at Olympia Exhibition Centre, University seminars (City University, London Metropolitan University and Leeds University), webinar telephone interpreting seminars as a telephone interpreter.

The above areas have enriched my professional background allowing me to have a 360 degree view of the use of language as a communication tool and on-going CPD. Translating and interpreting is a profession where “Gli esami non finiscono mai”, using the words of Eduardo De Filippo, the Italian playwright.

My career as an interpreter started early in life: like many others, often disparagingly described as ‘barefoot interpreters’, family life provided this opportunity. Growing up in Paris, in a very multicultural milieu, my home languages of French and English were joined by other tongues: elderly émigré ladies, including a scattering of alleged princesses, would drop by knowing that proper tea (black, with lemon) was available. At school, Jesús and Mohammed, came from Spanish and Arabic-speaking families, respectively. Until about 1961, when they were seen off their French airbases, many US personnel were callers, and had me – the little wonder-child – interpret. Capitalising on this experience with a degree in Modern Languages, followed in time by a masters and doctorate, I was privileged to be welcomed as a vacation-worker, then as a trainee, by an agency in leafy Sussex, often straddled between an incoming and an outgoing Telex machine, occasionally semi-strangled by ticker-tape. Occasional industrial visits, business meetings and trades-union work slowly evolved into charitable then paid booth work – AIDS conferences, Climate-Change Forums, high-tech NATO meetings – and even as the ITI sacrificial offering to a FIT conference, which is about as scary as it gets for an interpreter: performing for one’s peers. I was later able to work for Freud’s International Psychoanalytical Association, and develop a specialism in this field.

Making yourself into a ‘go-to’ specialist, whether as translator or interpreter, is an important recommendation. Useful learning mechanisms? Paramount were generous and more experienced colleagues. Increasingly, ITI and its sister organisations provide excellent (free!) online training materials, as well as paying webinars, workshops and publications. Much time and resource are needed to keep up with IT skills and more recent developments in interpreting – remote, ‘simultaneous-consecutive’, rehearse-record dubbing, (and some competence in trying to sort out dodgy Wi-Fi in no less dodgy hotels, far away from home). Nowadays I have ‘turned gamekeeper’ too, teaching translation and interpreting to UK university students – which is both giving and receiving CPD, and I’ve been able to work within ITI in helping to bring together criteria for Interpreter Assessment from numerous world-wide sources – EU, AIIC, ILR, and many others.

Sources I found extremely useful were the classic Nolan, J. 2005 Interpretation Techniques and Exercises, 2005, Multilingual Matters, Clevedon, after which you are ready for Rozan, J-F, 1973 – (3rd edition) La prise de notes en interprétation consécutive, Geneva: Georg, and can work out this little French proverb*:

A very strong recommendation for all interpreters and not simply CI (Conference Interpreters) colleagues is to reflect on the ILR Skill Level Descriptions for Interpretation Performance on to judge where you are now and where you want to go, especially in major world agencies such as UN, EU and similar, some of which organise concours: these descriptors will suggest your next CPD. Perhaps most useful is this EU site - - click on Marking Criteria, in-text near the end, to download a .PDF. Don’t despair at these. The key to success? To borrow a phrase from a well-known sportswear manufacturer, just do it.

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