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January 6, 2009 3:53 PM   Subscribe

Should I be a french translator/interpeter and how?

Should I/could I become a freelance translator/interpreter with the skills I have? Should I get specialized training/certification?

Background: I am fluent in English (mother tongue) and French. French skills in order of strength include speaking, listening, reading and writing. I studied French in formal classes for about 4 years (in high school and college) but have been speaking/reading/writing for 25 years, always progressing. I have lived and worked and studied in France and Morocco (for a total of 2 years), was married to a native french speaker for 13 years and I worked at the United Nations for 7 years as a bilingual secretary and later research assistant (performing 60-70% of my duties in French). My strengths are speaking, fluidity of speech, fearlessness, near-native accent and wide vocabulary in a variety of fields. My weaknesses are idioms and formal writing. I have lived all over the world so I have a lot of coping and social skills for dealing with different cultures and situations.

I would like to use my French skills on a freelance basis to supplement my income and to use a language that I love. I am looking for something part-time, maybe 10 hours a week (at least when starting out). My questions for the hive mind are as follows:

1. Should I be focusing on translation or interpretation, or both, given my skills which are more skewed toward speech?

2. Must I have certification? If so, what kind? How is NYU's program?

3. If I don't need certification are there some skills or techniques that I should get a handle on to do my work better? Do I have the necessary skills already?

4. What do you recommend as a good path to getting gigs? Volunteering? Getting cast-off gigs from others in the field? Where to look?

5. Are there other ways that I could use my language skills on a freelance/part-time basis?

I'm in New York City so anything specific to NYC would be a great help.
posted by kenzi23 to Work & Money (6 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I know hardly any foreign language, but as to #5, my idea is that since you're in Brooklyn you could sell memberships to a French club where you have once- or twice-weekly (or up to 10hrs) meetups for French speakers. I'm always seeing signs for and hearing about both people who just want to have a place to speak a foreign language, both for novices and ex-pat native speakers. You takes their money on a membership basis (maybe with a drop-in rate like yoga studios) and serve some coffee and cookies.
posted by rhizome at 4:07 PM on January 6, 2009

definitely sounds like you should focus on interpreting, personality-wise. Am fairly sure that interpreters are fewer on the ground, and I think pay can be better - especially if you can leverage a UN gig. To get the good jobs, am sure that some sort of Diploma in Interpreting would be necessary, dunno about US qualifications though. Maybe look at the UN and EU translation directorates to see what qualifications they require? The online starting point for jobs has to be (can be a time sink if you get into the "community" there) where you can browse and bid for translation and interpreting jobs, and post a profile for people to find you. They also have extensive forums covering most aspects of your question, come to think of it.
posted by runincircles at 4:42 PM on January 6, 2009

I worked as a project manager (then account manager, then production manager) for 4 years at a translation agency in New York. First, your questions:

1. Putting aside the question of qualification for the moment, it depends on the lifestyle you wish to have. Do you want to travel, or stay at home? Are you a good shmoozer/entertainer, or a lone wolf? Do you think quickly on your feet, or are you more analytical? For all these questions, the former means you're more suited for interpretation whereas the latter means translation.

2. No. While ATA offers some sort of certification, and there are scads of degrees you can earn in translating/interpreting, at the end of the day project managers of agencies don't give a hoot. What they care about it your professionalism, experience and fee, in that order.

3. Yes. Bone up on your PC skills. Knowing advanced features of MS Word is just the start. Look into computer-aided translation tools like Trados and Systran. Learn some HTML, or at least DreamWeaver.

4. Visit an agency. There are at least half a dozen in New York. Bring a big basket of fruits/chocolate/candy. Introduce yourself to PMs (NOT Account Executives) and offer to do your first translation for free. Leave quickly.

5. If you have a good voice and can act, you can get into voiceover work.

Now, the reality. If you are not prepared to make translating your career and full time job, don't even think about it. In fact, I'm not sure you're qualified at all to do this work--there are professionals in the field who've spent a lifetime perfecting their craft, and I don't necessarily mean they're "qualified" in any official way.

Translating is hard work, and you have to have a knack for it. In other words, leave aside any romantic notions you may have about working with this "language that you love." The bulk of your work (as a translator) will be translating year-end financial statements and legal contracts. That's your bread and butter. Not very romantic. Every now and then you'll get an advertising campaign, but that will pay minimum.

For interpreting, you really have to spend a LOT of time--I mean years and years--developing your network. It *does* pay well, and can get cushy at times, but that's years and years down the line. And, as mentioned earlier, you really have to enjoy traveling, sleeping in mostly crappy hotels, kissing up to your clients, and generally being someone's close assistant, whether you like them or not.

In general, the hardest thing for a translator starting out is developing a network. Word of mouth and consistency of delivery is the ticket to getting more work, and that takes time. Once you're in, though, you'll never be in want of work...

MeMail for any other, more specific questions.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 5:03 PM on January 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

I can't tell you how many interpreters / translators I know who are absolutely fluent in four languages (English and French are usually a given; two of the following usually round out the set: German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian or a Scandinavian language.)

How do I know these folks? Usually I meet them in summer programs, where they are attempting to learn Polish or Romanian or Hungarian or Estonian or Lithuanian or some other language, so they have a fifth (and often sixth) tongue to give them an "edge" - and by virtue of the same reasoning, this language has to be slightly less "international" in use.

I'm a language nut, and can by okay in close to a dozen. I spend hours and hours improving my English, Romanian, Hungarian, German (etc.) This includes at least two months of intensive immersion and study in a country where one or more of those languages are spoken. Despite all of that, my efforts are nothing compared to many of the professionals I know. Most of them are kind and sweet - but don't have a life. It's study study study. All the time. And most of them have a couple of dozen of certificates and special training credits.

Not to dissuade you; perhaps it's possible to get some extra money this way, but the French / English pairing is probably the most common of the high-demand languages, and you're in New York, where this skill is probably oversupplied compared to the rest of the country. (I must know two dozen people fluent in beautiful French and English in NYC who are from Africa alone!) Your professional experience is a big plus, and many people want full-time, dependable work. My suggestion would be to promote your interest in ONLY part-time work as part of your thing . . . you won't leave for a full-time gig, in other words (this is a problem for a lot of employers.)
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:30 PM on January 6, 2009

Just to counter the idea that you have to know many languages - I work as a translator exclusively from French into English (and just translating, not interpreting) and do pretty well. It's my full-time occupation, though, and I have worked hard at gaining a postgraduate diploma, being active in professional bodies and getting myself 'out there'. Interpreting (which sounds better for your personality) relies still more heavily on networking if you're to build a good client base; I'd say that it would be hard to start out as a part-timer, but not necessarily impossible.

I'd say definitely pursue certification. Even if you know two languages extremely well, that's no guarantee you'd actually be good at interpreting. Try translation if you're sure that working on your own is OK for you :)

I think your UN experience will be invaluable - make the most of it.
posted by altolinguistic at 3:24 AM on January 7, 2009

I'm a professional Japanese to English translator. Been doing it for about 10 years now, and this is the slowest I have ever seen the translation business. People are cutting costs all over the place, and one of the easiest ways to do so is eliminating or reducing outsourced translation. I think it's a great career overall, but this is definitely a bad time to get into it.

Just so you know.
posted by zachawry at 3:50 AM on January 7, 2009

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