Today’s post on specialisation takes the form of an interview with Fay Abernethy, a German to English technical translator based in Germany:
What are your specialist areas?
My specialist areas are mechanical engineering in general, automotive, machine building, manufacturing engineering and fluid dynamics. I’ll take on pretty much any technical text, as long as it doesn’t involve civil engineering, IT or too much electronics/electrical engineering.
How did you choose your specialist areas?
I studied mechanical engineering at University, and worked in the automotive industry as an engineer for many years.
What is your experience in these areas? Are there sufficient customers? Do you have sufficient work?
I am drowning in work! My language pair is German to English and I am a native speaker of English. As Germany exports so many technical products which need a lot of documentation, the translation market potential is huge, particularly into English. My customers are mostly direct customers – small to medium-size enterprises are the best customers, rather than global conglomerates – who usually come to me via my industry contacts or referrals from other customers. It gets difficult when I go on holiday, because there are very few into “mother tongue English” technical translators with sufficient technical knowledge to support my customers. There was a wave of British engineers who came to Germany in the 1970s, many of whom are now working as translators. But these guys are mostly heading towards retirement now, and will leave a big gap in the market when they go.
In your opinion, what are the advantages of specialising? How has it helped you? How has it helped your business?
When I first started out, I did a lot of work for agencies – basically anything that came in. Although I always had my specialism in mind, and technical translations were the ones I felt most comfortable doing, I wasn’t in a position to be picky. But as time went on and more work started coming in, I was able to be a bit more selective. This has a cumulative effect. If you only work on translations of one or a few types, you get much faster at them, which pushes up your hourly rate and generally makes the work more pleasant. A subject which you find interesting is also important. One of the things I love about my job, which is an improvement on being the automotive design engineer I was, is that I learn about the latest developments in very different branches of industry – before anyone else – and I’m not just always working on one single product. There’s some cool stuff out there!
Just the very act of specialising in a few types of translations will focus your skills and you will gather expertise that way too. Yes, you might have to look up every other word to start with, but the next time you won’t have to look up quite as many!
After a while, you start to build your reputation, and that’s when the referrals from your existing customers start to trickle in. A good balance is about 50% agency work and 50% direct customers. This gives you the flexibility to turn down the agencies without feeling you’re letting anyone down, and help out your direct customers. Direct customers require a lot more support from your side, but it is much more lucrative and, to a certain extent, less stressful to work for them, since you have an ongoing relationship. But if you don’t want to lose them, you have to be there for them when they need you. You can build up a nice big translation memory of work you have done for a particular customer, which will save you a lot of time and effort.
I appreciate that most translators start out directly after having studied translating and do not have a particular specialism they can draw on straightaway. I can only suggest further education in your chosen specialism – if you can get an extra qualification in your specialism, this will give you credibility with your target customers. Read industry journals, go to industry events and talk to the people working in the field you want to specialise in. Even do a work placement. You could join a temping agency and e.g. work on a production line for a few weeks in the summer, or as office admin. The point is to somehow get some experience of the industry you are targeting.
If you are thinking of taking up a career in translating but haven’t started yet, I would encourage you to get some work experience in some other kind of industry first for a couple of years. Just working for a company will help you better understand how your customers think and the pressures they are under. This will give you a big advantage over other new translators who only have experience of academia.
Do you have any other tips/advice/anecdotes for beginner translators?
We are in a service industry. When you are dealing with customers, you must put yourself in their position – always. They want you to solve their problem/take work off their hands with the minimum of fuss and the optimum result. You must not cause them extra work, rather the opposite. They have to be able to trust absolutely that you are going to do a good job and deliver on time, or preferably early. Never deliver a translation late, even if it means you have to work through the night three nights in a row! Always build some buffer into your quote, so you are still able to meet the deadline even if something unexpected happens.
The customer is usually not able to evaluate your product, so when they give you a job they are effectively buying you, or their perception of you. So you need to come across as absolutely professional at all times. Even when the phone rings early in the morning and you are still in your pyjamas. Answer any customer query quickly and accurately.
When it comes to agency work, I have found that if you respond within the hour to any job enquiries, they will quite often come to you first next time – before working their way down their list of translators – because they know you can give a yes or no answer very quickly.
Don’t send out late payment notices unless you absolutely have to. I messed up one of my first ever jobs for direct customer because I was too impatient (and admittedly broke and waiting for the money!) I have a “pay within 30 days” term on my invoices, and I sent them a late payment notice about a week after the 30 days had expired. Needless to say, I lost the customer permanently.
If someone doesn’t pay up on time, normally a polite e-mail saying something like “I’ve just been doing my accounts, and I noticed that the invoice xxxxx I sent you on xxxx has not yet been paid. Could you please have a look and see if it hasn’t been accidentally overlooked?” Normally, they have just forgotten with no malice intended and will transfer the money speedily.
The other big tip I have for anyone who will listen (however long they’ve been working as a translator) is to use voice recognition software. I particularly recommend Dragon NaturallySpeaking with a USB headset microphone.
This will increase your productivity by at least 10 to 15%. It is also much more comfortable to dictate your text rather than type it. You will find you don’t get so tired and can work for longer. It’s the one piece of software I couldn’t live without.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me using the details below.
Fay Abernethy MEngL CEng MIMechE
Deutsch > Englisch
Tel: +49 (0)731 420 9005