Translating in one direction or both – your choice to make

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Today’s post is an English translation with slight adaptations from an article I first published on my German blog. When reviewing the site stats for Translator Mentoring Blog earlier this week, I found that the most popular post by far continues to be Should I only translate into my native language? which suggests that this topic is one which translators, especially those just starting out, struggle to get their heads around. This is hardly surprising with so much conflicting information out there, apparent rules, requests which seem to run counter to these “rules”, and strong opinions. So I thought that my readers might be interested in this article which is a brief summary of the main points I discussed at a workshop last year. A longer article is soon to be published. Please feel free to e-mail me if you would like a copy.

The future of the translation industry – what will translator training look like in the future?

In September 2015 an interesting invitation landed in my inbox. I was being invited to speak at a workshop entitled “Foreign Language for Future Language Professionals: Reassessing Market Needs and Training Programmes” in Trieste, Italy. The seminar was being organised by the University of Trieste and the European Union and would address, among other things, the topics of translator training and translation competence into the non-native language and the extent to which this is necessary given the native speaker principle which appears to dominate the industry.

As a representative of the translation industry, in my presentation I wanted to set the advantages of the native speaker principle against my experience of the requirements and needs of corporate clients and to explain why translators must be extremely competent in their foreign language(s), irrespective of whether they translate into their non-native language or not.

The native speaker principle

Personally I am and will remain a proponent of the native speaker principle, but purely because this happens to fit my own personal circumstances. The main argument in favour of the native speaker principle is that it ensures that the translation is linguistically and grammatically flawless. In many cases, this is, of course, of utmost importance. However, being a native speaker of the target language alone is in no way sufficient to ensure that the translation also properly accurately conveys the source text message – and this must surely always be at the very top of the list of objectives.

The native language of the translator therefore is only one factor which must be considered when commissioning a translation. Equally important is whether the translator understands the source text, i.e. the level of his/her foreign language competence and specialist technical language of the subject-field concerned. Only if the translator has a very good command of the foreign language and the specialist technical language, can he/she produce an accurate translation into his/her mother tongue.

Unfortunately, this second point is often ignored when applying the native speaker principle.

From ideals to reality

What is more, academic rules and ideals (“only translate into your native language”) are often not in line with the requirements of the industry and the needs of clients. It is increasingly the case that companies and clients are looking for their internal translators to meet all of their translation needs. Perhaps a company has a regular translation requirement and therefore wants to employ an internal translator, but doesn’t have enough translation work for it to make economic sense to employ one translator per language pair, let alone one translator per language direction. In such cases, it clearly makes business sense to employ one translator who can offer all of the language pairs required in both directions. But even companies which work with external translators are increasingly looking for a one-stop shop – often due to time constraints and concerns relating to confidentiality.

Translator training

Whether future translation graduates translate only into their own mother tongue or in both directions is, in my view, a question which each new translator must decide for him/herself. There will always be a market for translators who only offer the highest quality translations into their own mother tongue, providing that they also have extensive specialist knowledge in their field. However, there will also always be a market for translators wanting to translate in both directions.

Whatever the decision these translators make, it is, however, extremely important that they are given the opportunity during their training to increase their foreign language competence to the highest possible level and to polish their writing skills in the foreign language because, irrespective of whether they later decide to translate into the foreign language or not, one thing is for sure: in order to be successful in today’s translation industry, more than average foreign language competence is absolutely essential, not least for marketing purposes and communicating effectively with clients.

Your choice

So ultimately there is no “right” or”wrong”. Whether you decide to translate in one direction or both is simply a choice that you, as a businessman or businesswoman, are free to make on the basis of your skillset, your strengths and weaknesses and your vision. Know that whatever choice you make, there are clients out there for you – it is your job to find the ones which are the right fit for you.


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Marketing to translation agencies

Defining targets differently

Defining Targets Differently © Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Working with translation agencies

Readers of this blog will know that my focus is on working with direct clients. However, I do recognize that translation agencies have their place. Many translators start out working with translation agencies and some translators choose to continue working primarily with translation agencies throughout their careers. Aspiring specialist translators without any industry experience will likely benefit greatly from working with good agencies that provide constructive feedback, particularly in the early days when they themselves recognize that they still have a lot to learn and are motivated to do so.

Marketing to translation agencies

Marketing to translation agencies is a different kettle of fish to marketing to direct clients but it is marketing nonetheless. I, as a freelance practitioner who does not outsource work, receive many badly written applications from freelance translators every week – I wrote a blog post about this last year which you can find here – so large translation agencies must receive a large number of such applications every day.

Finding agencies suited to your skillset

As a translator my advice would be to refrain from sending out mass applications to large numbers of agencies but to drill down and find those agencies specializing in the fields and languages you yourself specialize in or want to focus on. These will often be smaller boutique agencies and translation companies which have the added advantage of being small enough to be in a position to treat their translators as individuals rather than simply as names in a database.

How to make contact, information to provide

Some agencies have forms on their websites which prospective translators need to fill in. Others ask for applications by email. When emailing translation agencies it is important to specify your language pair(s) and direction(s), your specialist areas and, very importantly, your rates. You are the service provider: translation agencies don’t have to agree to work with you on the basis of the rates you suggest, they may propose or require a rate adjustment as a condition for including you on their list of translators, but you should not let them dictate rates to you either. Be aware of how low you are prepared to go and stick to your guns. You are not destined to work with every potential agency.

Advice from the agency’s perspective

I recently came across this useful Translator’s Guide to Contacting Translation Agencies by Email which Affinity Translation has written about best practices, things to avoid and advanced techniques for contacting translation agencies. The Guide includes advice on what to put in the body of the email, why it is important to differentiate yourself from other translators and why it is essential that your follow up. Perhaps readers of this blog will find it useful.

Tess Whitty’s most recent podcast interview on Marketing Tips for Translators Episode 045: Marketing your translation services to translation companies/agencies, which I listened to this morning, also provides some good advice from a translation company’s perspective. Be sure to check that out too.





Regarding disclosure, I have no commercial relationship with the company Affinity Translation of any kind, and provide the above information purely for information purposes.


The Business Guide for Translators by Marta Stelmaszak

The Business Guide for Translators

Today I would like to recommend to you all a new book on marketing for freelance translators by Marta Stelmaszak entitled “The Business Guide for Translators”. Here’s my review:

Marta Stelmaszak’s “The Business Guide for Translators“ is a wealth of information for both aspiring and experienced freelance translators. The book begins with clear and concise presentation of business economics which is, in my view, absolutely essential and rarely covered in books aimed at freelance translators. The carefully chosen dictionary-style structure of topic following by a relevant link to the translation industry helps to bring concepts, which will be “foreign” to many translators without a background in business, to life. At the same time the scientific approach helps to take the emotionality, which I know many freelance translators struggle with, out of business decisions.

With the theory in place the section on strategies sets out many different ways in which freelance translators can devise strategies for their businesses. There seems to be a general tendency among freelance translators to think that freelance translation is not comparable with other businesses. This, of course, is not true. Freelance translation is a business like any other. Marta’s comparisons with other industries with which we are all familiar makes the information about strategies easier to digest. Lots of different strategies are presented here – I’m sure that every reader serious about enhancing his/her business will find at least one method which will appeal to him/her.

Part 3 covers all of the important topics relevant to running a business from market research, through strategy and  goals to customer service. This section will appeal to both beginner translators as well as to translators like myself who have built up their businesses step by step with no formal framework who are looking to tighten up their businesses and to take them to another level. Taking advantage of many of the modern means of communication I was surprised but pleased to see that the eBook version contains links to articles and blog posts on the internet as well as to YouTube videos urging the reader to find out more and pointing the reader in the direction of other useful information. Intended as and indeed entitled “The Business Guide for Translators” this book will be one to which many freelance translators will refer at regular intervals during their freelance careers whether they need guidance with setting up their businesses, are looking to grow them in a particular way or are looking for a framework within which to take them to the next level.

An excellent book which I certainly wish had been available when I was starting out and which will, I am sure, go some way towards ensuring that future freelance translators are better prepared for freelancing, have a clearer understanding of their freelance translation businesses and will ultimately lead to an industry of more business-savvy professional freelance translators.

A few of my favourite quotes from Marta Stelmaszak’s “The Business Guide for Translators”:

“The law of supply and demand makes it clear that we need to deliver translations in the areas where the demand is high.”

“We should also try to build up barriers to entry, limit access to information or introduce heterogeneous products.”

“Freelancers need to have a direction and know their scope, advantage, resources, environment and stakeholders to make sure that their businesses grow.”

“It is important to differentiate from other suppliers by providing unique Services.”

“…if you only work with a small number of customers, you are giving them a lot of power over your business.”

“It is important to strive for continual innovation rather than instant perfection.”

Further information and how to order

For further information and to order the book, visit Marta’s site here.

Specialisation series: How I got where I am today: Fay Abernethy

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

Technische Übersetzungen
Deutsch > Englisch

Zeitblomstr. 33
D-89073 Ulm

Tel: +49 (0)731 420 9005

Specialisation series: How I got where I am today: Regina Seelos

Today I’d like to welcome Regina Seelos, an experienced English<->German translator, who has kindly agreed to write a short post about specialising in the translation industry. Here’s what she has to say:

“Speaking with newbies in the translation industry, I’ve often had the impression that they are rather discouraged and don’t know where to start. This is why I think that Karen’s blog here is a great idea and opportunity to show that often all it takes is some courage to be successful: You have the expertise after going through training and examinations – all you lack is experience and specialisation which comes along by working.

How do you find your specialist areas?

Feedback from customers is a great way of finding your specialisation. In my case it was often lawyers who really liked my contracts. So I figured: Well, I seem to be good at it so I will specialise in this field. If you get brilliant feedback for jobs you’ve done you should consider making the field your specialist area. (And yes, there will of course be negative feedback too – nobody’s perfect – but you can learn from it.) It also helps if you have plenty of experience in a field – from former jobs, hobbies, or the like. For example, I completed a 3-year training in business administration at a car manufacturer before I became a translator. The more you know about a field the better your translations. You can achieve good results with excellent research skills too but this is time-consuming and will only pay off after a while. An option is to consider this time as an investment in building specialist areas. In my opinion, this time factor is one of the strongest arguments in favour of specialisation – except for quality. After all, we all work to make a living and it will help if you can reduce the time needed for research after a while.”

Regina Seelos * Translator specialising in the legal, marketing and technical field *

Please feel free to leave any comments for Regina or for myself below.

Specialisation series: Hard work, not magic – How I got where I am today

This post is the first in a new series of posts about specialisation. I’ve posted tips on specialising and why it is a good idea to specialise (here) and how to go about it before (here) but what has become clear to me recently is that many freelance translators who are just starting out look at translators with many years of experience, a broad customer base and expertise in one or more than one specialist field and feel both overwhelmed and, although they know that that’s where want to get to, have no idea how, when or even whether they will get there. From my perspective they seem to be focusing on the end product without realising that these experienced translators have taken many many tiny little steps over many years and that it is the culmination of these steps and a lot of hard work which has got them where they are today.

To take a more practical approach to this issue and to give you all a break from my advice for a change, I’ve asked some experienced translators to share their stories and their career paths. I will be posting the first two posts in this series by two Germany-based translators Regina Seelos and Fay Abernethy over the course of this week and plan to post more at a later date. I look forward to reading your comments.

Why it is important to choose your specialisation

Many beginning translators are just happy to get work, any work, and while this is understandable, not making a decision in favour of a particular area or particular areas of specialisation early in one’s freelance career can lead to a whole series of negative consequences. This article will discuss a few of these.

Why specialisation is essential

Specialisation is absolutely essential for a successful freelance translation business. Although it is most probably true that a good linguist using the right research techniques is in a position to tackle many different types of texts, specialising in a particular area or in a few particular areas will reduce the amount of research you have to do for each translation thus making you more efficient and more productive.

Won’t specialising reduce the amount of work I am offered?

Specialising will reduce the types of work you are offered or choose to accept but not necessarily the amount. Even if you are starting out working for agencies, agencies will keep a list of specialist areas against your name. If you don’t approach them with a list of specialisations, thinking that you just want to take on as much work as possible regardless of the type, you will most likely find that the agency will start to regularly send you texts belonging to a particular specialisation of their own choosing because even agencies know that translators are more efficient and more productive when they deal with similar types of texts. Letting an agency essentially choose your specialisation for you or leaving your specialisation to chance is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons for dissatisfaction among freelance translators.


If you start out as a non-specialist, don’t take a decision early on to specialise in a particular area and then wake up one day to find that, as a result of all of the research you have carried out in the course of your translations in a particular subject-field, you have become a specialist for an area you find mind-numbingly boring, you have done yourself a disservice. You have also wasted a lot of time and energy becoming a specialist in an area you never wanted to specialise in in the first place.

Take responsibility

Even when you are starting out and feel like you have no experience or specialist skills, you need to sit down and seriously consider what skills you really have and could build on and what areas you are really interested in. In my opinion streamlining your business is absolutely essential for success. It will help you to determine your target customers which will, in turn, allow you to focus your marketing activities, help you to get projects which you find interesting, allow you to spend time researching and taking courses in subjects which really fascinate you and ultimately make you a much more confident, efficient and – perhaps most importantly – happy translator.

Why you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and how asking questions actually adds to your credibility

Last week I was contacted by one of my mentees who had landed herself a proofreading job to ask what proofreading actually entails. She specifically wanted to know whether she should just read the text through and correct grammatical and stylistic mistakes or whether she should go through the text phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence checking the translation against the source text document. More specifically she wanted to know what I would do. Here is an edited version of my response:

Every customer, project manager and translator instructing someone to “proof read” a text will naturally mean something different depending on the circumstances, how they work and the purpose of the final product. We’re all familiar with the phrase “the customer is always right” and here too it is actually completely irrelevant what I would understand by the instruction “proof read this text” because the only way you will be able to satisfy your customer is by finding out what it is your customer actually wants and expects you to do.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Many beginning translators are very wary about asking their customers questions – they don’t want to let on that they aren’t 100% sure about what they are doing and are scared that by asking questions they are shouting their lack of experience from the rooftops. However, in my experience asking (the right) questions actually adds to your credibility. By asking questions you are demonstrating to your customer that his/her needs are important to you, that you are a conscientious professional and that you want to find out as much information as you can to ensure that you can provide your customer with the best possible final product.

Your customer’s perspective

Now some may argue that your customer should provide all of the relevant information from the outset but that is idealistic. Translation and proofreading issues are omnipresent for us as translators but they are not so for people from other industries – even if they do have regular contact with translators and commission a lot of translations. As translators it is our job to consider each assignment from the customer’s perspective and to ask the right questions so that the customer feels confident that his/her text is in good hands.

What if the customer is a translation agency?

Many beginning translators start off working for translation agencies. Indeed some freelance translators continue to work (exclusively) for agencies throughout their freelance careers. I too have past experience working for agencies. Now it would be unfair to say that all agencies are the same but many of the large agencies (or LSPs as they like to call themselves these days) employ inexperienced project managers who are the point of contact for the freelance translator. In many cases these project managers will not have asked the right questions of the customer in the first place or will not think to pass on any information they have received. This leaves you, the translator, in a difficult position. You should definitely send any questions you have to the project manager but it is unlikely that you will always get the helpful answers and additional Information you need. This is an extremely frustrating situation for conscientious translators because, while trying to provide a good service, at the back of your mind you are never really sure that what you are doing is what the customer really wants you to do. Personally I do not cope well with these kinds of situations and find working for direct clients and smaller translation agencies, which are usually run by one or two other translators who really know what they are doing, much more rewarding.

Questions to ask

Whether you have been contacted about a proofreading or a translation assignment, here are some suggested questions which you could and perhaps should ask your customer to obtain the information which will help you produce the best possible final product for your customer:

1. Which language variety would you like me to use?
(Don’t assume that your customer wants one language variety over another, ask!)
2. What is the purpose of the translation/final text?
(If the translation is needed for an important publication, the customer is not going to thank you for whizzing through the text only correcting the worst mistakes and leaving what seem to you to be minor stylistic errors. On the other hand, if the text is required as a draft version of a document to be used as the basis for important negotiations to take place in two hours’ time, your customer is not going to be very happy if you are doing such a thorough job of proofreading, that you are still only on the first page of a five page document when the negotiations are due to commence)
3. Who is the target reader and what background knowledge does he/she have?
(This will help you to decide how much additional information it is necessary to provide)
4 Would you like me to only correct actual grammatical and lexical errors or would you like me to improve the document stylistically?
5. Would you like me to use track changes?
6. Do you have any past translations or reference materials?
7. Could you please clarify this ambiguity?/This sentence doesn’t seem to make sense. Is there something missing?
(Nobody reads a text as closely as a good translator. In my experience customers are always very pleased to receive feedback on the original text. I translate a lot of documents to be filed with German courts. My translations are for information purposes – for the information of the client who doesn’t speak German – so it is the original version which is actually going to be filed with the court. It is not unusual for the author of the original text to have accidentally inverted the parties (claimant and defendant). Pointing out mistakes and typos in the original text, particularly when you know that the original text is going to be used in its own right (rather than simply as the basis for a translation), also demonstrates to your customer that you actually understand what you are translating and this definitely adds to your credibility.

Don’t be scared to ask questions. Asking questions adds to your credibility. Guessing is a very risky business.

Freelance Translator Development and Mentoring Programmes – A Short Survey

I have compiled a very short survey (ten questions) about freelance translator development and mentoring programmes. If you are a relatively new freelance translator, I would be very grateful if you would take the time to complete the survey. I intend to use the results to tailor the content of this blog to the issues and topics which new freelance translators really want and need to know about. Once 100 people have participated in the survey, I will post an analysis of the results.

Which topics are missing in translator training? Do you have all of the skills you feel you need to run a successful freelance translation business? What would you like to be able to ask more experienced freelancers? Have your say here.