When In Rome.

Speak My Language

The most successful translators didn't just study the language in a classroom--they were immersed in another culture for an extended period of time. Stevens learned French from her Belgian nanny when she was a child; later, she spent three years studying social sciences at the Sorbonne in France. Anderson travelled and studied in France, Spain and China for one semester each, while Burney, who is 30 and lives in Urbana, Illinois, grew up in Japan, where her parents worked as missionaries until she was 18.

Successful translators also tend to specialize. The ATA reports that the most common areas of specialization are business, law, industry and technology, arts and humanities, medicine, and computers. Translating mechanical patents and lawsuit evidence seemed like a natural specialty for Burney, who previously worked as a translator for Mitsubishi. With her background in the arts, Stevens has carved out her specialty of translating materials for museums, publishing companies, and advertising and public relations agencies. "It requires a lot of adaptations of concepts; it can never be a literal translation," she explains. "It's a lot like creative writing."

Translators who want to thrive in the industry also need to learn basic business skills or delegate certain tasks to professionals. Burney admits she's "horrible" at marketing and managing her $45,000 annual income, so she relies on assistants in those areas.

The profession may seem glamorous, but there's a roll-up-your-sleeves, nitty-gritty aspect that few see. Translators often work in isolation. They're under pressure to produce high-quality work, often on tight deadlines. "It can be exhausting, especially when you have to work on weekends and holidays so your clients can have their documents ready for them when they come in on Monday morning," says Andrea Bindereif, a 36-year-old German native living in El Cerrito, California, who specializes in translating computer-related and medical materials.

Foreign Tongues

The amount of translation work available in a particular language is often driven by the economy. Translators face a sudden loss of work and a plummeting income if their language suddenly is no longer in demand. Turkish and Russian translators are struggling, for instance, because of the economies in those countries. The greatest demand, according to Gleason, is for Spanish translation of legal documents; translators of all European languages are needed on the East Coast.

Increasingly, American translators are facing competition from translators around the world, since the internet doesn't require the translator and the client to be located in the same town or even the same country. "Some translators are affected by that," notes Anderson, who translates legal documents and corporate materials. "That happens when you reach the higher-end price range. But there's so much work out there that, for most of us, there's plenty to go around."

The translation boom also has caused many unqualified people to enter the market, charge very low rates and, at least temporarily, take away business from more established professionals, industry insiders say. "I've had some clients who sent their work abroad to be translated into English because the work is done more cheaply, but the quality has been so poor that they've come back to me," Anderson says. "In translation, the old adage holds: You get what you pay for."

Despite the challenges, translators have never had so many opportunities, and industry experts believe the best is yet to come. "It's a big world," says Shawe. "Get out there and translate."


Pamela Rohland, a freelance writer in Bernville, Pennsylvania, believes that love--and money--are the universal languages.

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This article was originally published in the June 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: When In Rome..

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