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Common pitfalls for first-time translators

Few careers are as diverse as translating and, as such, it attracts individuals from all walks of life. Whether a person wants to translate marketing copy for a small travel company, work on complex legal documents for a law firm or produce technical manuals for the aerospace sector, the jobs are there to be taken.

Demand is such, in fact, that the discipline’s barrier to entry is low – almost anyone can set up an account on a website like ProZ and start calling themselves a professional translator. It goes without saying that this won’t always end well, but nonetheless it’s possible to find successful translators with wildly different qualifications, backgrounds and passions – something we discussed at length last month in Becoming a translator: What you need to know.

What we didn’t talk about, however, were the potential pitfalls a person can encounter as they set about a career in translating. Even with top-flight language skills and the best intentions in the world, first-time translators often make mistakes that are rather embarrassing in hindsight. When a novice accepts a job, whether big or small, there are countless things that might go wrong – things that an expert translator would have recognised at once, but which fail to register on the less-experienced individual’s radar.

In this guide, we’ll be exploring a few of these common pitfalls, as well as discussing how disaster can be averted with effective pre-planning and fast responses.

Pitfall 1: You overestimate your own abilities

It should go without saying, but many first-time translators still overlook the fact that before they can translate a document, they need to be able to make sense of its contents. It’s not uncommon for novices to accept contracts pertaining to industries of which they have no prior knowledge, which for obvious reasons is a recipe for disaster.

Let’s say a newcomer to the discipline is tasked with translating medical documents, for example. Do they know the necessary scientific terms in both the original and target languages? Can they identify instances where drugs are sold under different trade names in different countries, or diseases are known by different names? If not, they have two options: either do an unprofitable amount of research, or deliver a substandard translation!

Pitfall 2: You fail to manage your time effectively

For many individuals, one of the main attractions of setting up shop as a freelance translator – or, indeed, as a freelancer in any discipline – is the ability to work flexible hours. What some need reminding of, however, is that taking an extended vacation is only really possible if, at the other end of the spectrum, they’re willing to work long days in order get projects done on time. Translating is a demanding career and if an individual can’t guarantee that they’re able to dedicate ample time to uninterrupted work, they’re not likely to make much progress.

Even in cases where translators attempt to manage their time to the tiniest detail, a lack of experience can still make for serious mistakes. What if something goes wrong, for example? Have they left enough free time to handle problems that arise midway through the process, or will they risk missing the client’s deadline?

Pitfall 3: You aren’t prepared for technical difficulties

Following on from the above point, there are lots of things that can go wrong in the middle of a big translation. Like most modern professionals, translators are reliant on technology – whether in the form of a dedicated software suite like Trados, a basic word processor or the various reference guides available on the web – and can, therefore, end up in something of a quandary if technical difficulties arise.

Beatriz Candil Garcia, a translator for London Translations who works with texts in English, Spanish, Italian and French, is particularly keen on nipping this problem in the bud. “I have three computers – if one crashes, I can continue working,” she says. “Nobody told me to do this, but I learned from experience. I remember one time, six or seven years ago, I had a very large assignment to turn in that I’d been working on for two weeks non-stop. I lost all my files and had to rewrite the whole thing in two days. That taught me never again to rely on a machine!”

Pitfall 4: You don’t know when to admit defeat

Finally, a fourth common pitfall encountered by first-time translators is that they don’t know when to admit that an assignment is beyond the scope of their abilities. This could be an issue of technical complexity, though it could also be something subtler – they might have agreed an unrealistic time frame for the job, for example, or failed to account for a client’s demands with regards to amendments and rewrites.

In almost any case, it’s better in the long-run for the translator to admit defeat than to turn in substandard work. This is a matter of humility, not just self-appraisal – if a translator needs more time, it’s far better that they ask for it than attempt to complete the assignment regardless. The next time around, they’ll have a clearer idea of what they can and can’t realistically achieve.

“Sometimes I have to reject work because I have limits. I’m not a nuclear engineer,” says Beatriz – herself a capable translator of legal and other highly technical documents. “I never accept a job that I cannot meet with regards to deadlines, quality or content.”

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