When you decide to embark on a career in translation, one of your first road blocks is that every agency you get in touch with requires experience. Even when getting in touch with direct clients for the first time, you may feel that your CV is not yet something to be proud of and may feel discouraged and overwhelmed.
You are then faced with the dilemma, how will I get experience if I cannot get work? This frustrates many beginner translators, who may start wondering if they will ever get any decent work.
The reason why I am writing this post is because I have a different perspective on this, which took me some years to realize, and I think it may help you feel more motivated and ready for the challenge.
Unlike being a doctor, for which your training starts when you enter university, being a translator involves a lifetime of training. Acquiring language competence in two or more languages takes much longer than it does to train a doctor. So even if you never go to translation school, all your years of learning both your native(s) and foreign language(s) were preparing you to work as a translator. Thus, not for one second allow yourself to believe that you have not been preparing and, therefore, have no experience in translation.
When you read something in a foreign language about a topic of interest of yours and then relayed this information to a friend or relative, you were translating. When a song in your foreign language moved you and you shared it with someone for whom you had to explain it in a different language than it had originally been written, you were translating. Translating becomes such a natural part of our lives when we speak more than one language that we often forget how often we do it. This is something that is not readily obvious to someone who does not speak more than one language, but when you are competent in at least two languages, you have a lot of translation experience.
What you lack is formal training and experience on how to translate professionally, such as best practices, computer-assisted translation tools, memory and terminology management, etc. All of this can be learned, through formal training and/or experience, but it does not mean that you cannot start working now.
This may sound like I am undermining the role of an experienced professional translator, and that is not at all my intention. An experienced professional translator has the benefit of years of working with particular topics, has the advantage of in-depth knowledge of vocabulary in that translator’s particular specialist fields, in addition to being more knowledgeable about resources, tools and practices that can facilitate the translation process. Hence, from a client’s perspective, ideally you would want the best of both worlds, a professional translator who is highly knowledgeable about the topic of your translation. Nonetheless, my intention is to encourage and empower beginner translators to leverage their life experience, instead of being discourage by their current lack of specific professional translation experience.
In practice, what this means is that if you have an interest, a hobby even, or formal education in an area other than translation, and you have been using your language skills to further your knowledge of these topics, you have the leverage of being familiar with vocabulary and the style of communications used in that particular field. You may be a beginner translator, but you are not a beginner in that field and this can be used to leverage your CV when introducing yourself to agencies and direct clients.
Agencies may be more stringent in their criteria, but direct clients, once they see how knowledgeable you are about the topic of their translation, and how linguistically competent you are, they will be pleased to allow you to translate their materials.
Hence, I do advise you to follow the traditional route of studying, doing volunteer work, maybe creating some high visibility translations of topics of interest to you and promoting them online, etc., but also, make sure you do promote the knowledge that you have. Do not undersell yourself, just because you have not been a translator formally for x number of years.
In other words, follow the traditional route, but do not be discouraged in pursuing the direct clients and high-end agencies as well, because if you are linguistically competent in more than one language, you are no beginner!