The Translator and Interpreter Self-Help Industry

Written by Leonard Morin

Rational people, when deciding whether to become translators and/or interpreters, will assess their own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps they now live in a country where a language other than their native tongue is spoken, they have taken foreign language classes, or they grew up bilingual; and they have excelled in both languages. Whatever the case, succeeding as a freelance translator or interpreter is not something that even the most talented linguist can take for granted. Globalization and fragmentation of the industry and the worsening labor conditions in the overall economy play an important role, but starting a business is a risk in any economy.

Many capable translators and interpreters reach a point when they have doubts about their chosen career path and ask themselves about other ways to make money with their language skills. One such way is to found an agency, catering to direct clients and taking a cut of the earnings of other freelancers who work for you, becoming a bigger fish in the food chain. Yet even this route is not without problems since the downward pressure on rates is also felt by agencies, especially the smaller ones.

The demand for our services paradoxically continues to grow. This constellation of factors has fueled the growth of a translator and interpreter self-help industry at an even quicker pace than the industry it thrives off of. To a certain extent, of course, this side industry is useful and necessary. For example, the emergence of so many translator and interpreter training programs addresses a crying need for qualified professionals. Rigorous academic training for these careers is a prerequisite whose recognition has been a long time coming. And even the most seasoned and skilled professionals do not know everything; the requisite knowledge and skills for our professions are dauntingly extensive. Continuing education is indispensable. Yet what happens if your fancy degree or certificate does not translate into employment with commensurate remuneration?

Faced with inadequate return on your investment, you may now turn to the trade literature to devise tactics to boost your productivity or find high-paying direct clients. Once again, self-education is a necessary component of any successful career in this field. There is a lot to know about our jobs and about different approaches to achieving success. But the self-help industry has a pernicious side-effect: it tends to put all the blame on the individual translator or interpreter. Since the topic is taboo, we have barely scratched the surface of some of the structural issues that stand in the way of success in this industry beyond not being good at your profession. What happens when all this continuing education, strategizing, reference material, and translation technology exhaust your precious time and money?

Although this potentially lucrative side-industry is not the product of malicious intentions that feed off of our misfortune, I believe that sometimes we have to be able to see through the hype to make the most intelligent career decisions. While we’re at it, we can contemplate the future prospects of a side-industry that, in part, thrives off of luring people into exhausting their resources.

About the author: Leonard Morin is a staff Spanish interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He also translates chiefly legal documents and cartography articles from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He formerly served as president of the New York Circle of Translators.Leonard Morin