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Pretending (abduction)

Pretending to be a translator

What is a translator? Who is a translator? Many of us who have been calling ourselves

translators for years originally had no plans to enter that particular profession, and

may even have done numerous translations for pay before beginning to describe

ourselves as translators. Is there a significant difference between "translating" and

"being a translator"? How does one become a translator?

This is a question often asked in on-line translator discussion groups such as

Lantra-L and FLEFO: how do I become a translator? Usually the asker possesses

significant foreign-language skills, has lived (or is living) abroad, and has heard that

translating might be a potential job opportunity. Sometimes the asker has even done

Hi t h e r e !!

My name is Volker, I am 30 years old, German, living in

the Netherlands and a starting free-lance translator.

As I have never worked as free-lance-translator before,

I have some questions about this way of working. Do you

know any organization in the Netherlands or in Germany,

which I could turn to?

Amongst other questions, I have no idea, how a freelance-

translator calculates the tariffs/fees/payments.

Are there any rules or standards?

Can you help me?

Thanks anyway for your timei!


a translation or two, enjoyed the work, and is now thinking that s/he might like to

make a living doing it. But it is amply clear both to the asker and to the other listserve

subscribers that this person is not yet a translator. What is the difference?

The easiest answer is: experience. A translator has professional experience;

a novice doesn't. As a result, a translator talks like a translator; a novice doesn't.

A translator has certain professional assumptions about how the work is done that

infuse everything s/he says; because a novice doesn't yet have those assumptions,

s/he often says things that sound silly to translators, like "I can't afford to buy

my own computer, but I have a friend who'll let me work on hers any time I

want." (In the middle of the night? When she's throwing a party? Does she have

a recent version of major word-processing software, a late-model fax/modem, and

an e-mail account?)

And this answer would be almost entirely true. Translators sound like translators

because they have experience in the job. The problem with the answer is that it

doesn't allow for the novice-to-translator transition: to get translation experience,

you have to sound credible enough (professional enough) on the phone for an agency

or client to entrust a job to you. How do you do that without translation experience?

One solution: enter a translator training program. One of the greatest offerings

that such programs provide students is a sense of what it means to be a professional.

Unfortunately, this is not always taught in class, and has to be picked up by osmosis

— by paying attention to how the teachers talk about the profession, how they present

themselves as professionals. Some programs offer internships that smooth the

transition into the profession.

Even then, however, the individual translator-novice has to make the transition

in his or her own head, own speech, own life. Even with guidance from teachers

and/or working professionals in the field, at some point the student/intern must

begin to present himself or herself as a professional - and that always involves a

certain amount of pretense:

"Can you e-mail it to us as an .rtf attachment by Friday?"

"Yes, sure, no problem. Maybe even by Thursday."

You've never sent an attachment before, you don't know what .rtf stands for (rich

text format), but you've got until Friday to find out. Today, Tuesday, you don't say

"What's an attachment?" You promise to e-mail it to them as an .rtf attachment, and

immediately rush out to find someone to teach you how to do it.

"What's your rate?"

"It depends on the difficulty of the text. Could you fax it to me first, so I can

look it over? I'll call you right back."

It's your first real job and you suddenly realize you have no idea how much people

charge for this work. You've got a half hour or so before the agency or client begins

growing impatient, waiting for your phone call; you wait for the fax to arrive and

then get on the phone and call a translator you know to ask about rates. When you

call back, you sound professional.

Of course, this scenario requires that you know that it is standard practice to

fax source texts to translators, and for translators to have a chance to look them

over before agreeing to do the job. If you don't know that, you have no way of

stalling for time, and have to say, "Uh, well, I don't know. What do you usually pay?"

This isn't necessarily a disastrous thing to say; agencies depend on freelancers for

their livelihood, and part of that job involves helping new translators get started.

Especially if you can translate in a relatively exotic language combination in which

it is difficult to find topnotch professionals, the agency may be quite patient with

your inexperience. And most agencies — even direct clients — are ethical enough not

to quote you some absurdly low rate and thus take advantage of your ignorance.

But if your language combination is one of the most common, and they've only

called you because their six regular freelancers in that combination are all busy, this

is your chance to break in; and sounding like a rank beginner is not an effective way

to do that.

So you pretend to be an experienced translator. To put it somewhat simplistically,

you become a translator by pretending to be one already. As we saw Paul Kussmaul

(1995: 33) noting in Chapter 7, "Expert behaviour is acquired role playing." It should

be obvious that the more knowledge you have about how the profession works,

the easier it will be to pretend successfully; hence the importance of studying the

profession, researching it, whether in classrooms or by reading books and articles

Hallo, all Lantrans

I have just got my first

translator, and I would like to

people: how do you

client in a countrycontract

hear from

go about taxes when

different from your

as a freelance




taxes in the other country, in yours, or in


work for a

Do you pay


any different when you are working full-time with a

contract and do the translation work at

Thank you in advance for your

Ana Cuesta



Is it


or by asking working professionals what they do. And every time you pretend

successfully, that very success will give you increased knowledge that will make the

"pretense" or abductive leap easier the next time.

Note, however, that the need to "pretend" to be a translator in some sense never

really goes away. Even the most experienced translators frequently have to make

snap decisions based on inadequate knowledge; no one ever knows enough to act

with full professional competence in every situation.

The main difference between an experienced translator and a novice may

ultimately be, in fact, that the experienced translator has a better sense of when it

is all right to admit ignorance — when saying "1 don't know, let me check into that,"

or even "I don't know, what do you think?", is not only acceptable without loss of

face, but a sign of professionalism.