One evening many lifetimes ago when I was studying translation in graduate school at the University of Paris while working part-time as a bilingual secretary at a law firm, I got invited to a dinner party. The woman sitting next to me happened to be an English-to-French literary translator. A former neighbor of hers, who was a doctor, was trying to place an article in a prestigious American medical journal and had begged her to translate the abstract of his paper into English. "Aren't you studying translation?" she asked me, anxious to pass this assignment on to someone else. "Maybe you can help him."
It was that serendipitous conversation with a friend of a friend that got me my first paid translation, launching my career. I met with the doctor and spent hours working on his one-paragraph summary of a neonatology study. The doctor and I actually made a very good team: I was a student but a native English speaker; he knew all the medical terminology but couldn't have written a grammatically correct sentence in English if his life depended on it.
Once the translation was finished to our mutual satisfaction, I got up all my nerve and asked him if he knew anyone else who might be in need of such services. "I do," he replied, and referred me to a medical library, where I introduced myself to the librarian. "Oh, lots of people ask me for English translators," she said, and offered to give me free access to the library, which was normally reserved for doctors only. Now this was in the Early Paleolithic before PCs and the Internet, which meant you had to actually physically move yourself to the place where reference material was located, if you can imagine such a thing.
The moral of the story is network, network, network. This approach also eventually helped land me the job I've had for close to 20 years now. I was temping as a secretary in a consulting firm and befriended one of the junior professionals there, a doctoral candidate in sociology. She herself was applying to the Inter-American Development Bank and because she knew I knew languages she got information for me on the translation section. "Here's the name of the section chief," she told me, "you should call him."
I did, and as luck would have it they were hiring. The actual hiring process took several months, but my point is if I had never talked to Françoise or Trina about languages and translation, even when I was a just a student or a secretary, I would not have ended up where I am today. Of course, you want to make sure you always come across as a professional rather than a pest, so make your best pitch and then step back and let the person respond... or not.
And networking should extend beyond your friends, neighbors and coworkers: perhaps most importantly, you need to network with your fellow linguists. The ATA is an invaluable resource for building connections with other translators. Such contacts can help you find potential clients. In addition, you never know when you might need to share an urgent assignment, refer a client looking for another language combination, ask a question or find a reviser or editor.
When looking to establish yourself as a translator, just always remind yourself that you have a valuable skill to offer, one that is in demand.
by Alexandra Russell-Bitting