Speaking of Success: Jenn Mercer, Professional Translator

The field of translation is not one you read or hear about very often–or at least I don’t. It requires great communication skills in more than one language and can lead you down interesting life paths. So I was intrigued when I recently met fellow freelancer and professional French to English translator, Jenn Mercer.  Jenn happily agreed to be interviewed for Vox Laurus and shares her career experience below.

1. What prompted you to start working as a professional French-to-English translator? How did you know you were ready?

There were so many signs that translation would be a good career for me that I cannot believe it took me so long to realize. I enjoy writing in English – which is critical, and I love learning languages.  In addition, I need a job where I can control the time, place, and manner in which I work due to both practical and personality reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I work well with other people and have a broad tolerance for coworker eccentricities. By the same token, I have very little tolerance for arbitrary restrictions.

The immediate impetus was that I was no longer able to pursue my college degree(s) [while working] a full-time job. I tried, I really did, but due to a number of reasons the 24/7 call center I was working with developed a lack of flexibility. At the same time, I was hitting the courses I had put off because they were harder to schedule.  I had only a semester left at the time, so I started my freelance writing and translation career and have been working for myself ever since. While I do still enjoy pure writing (as opposed to the restricted form of writing I do as a translator), this is no longer a major component of my income.

As for how I knew I was ready… I just had to give it a shot. I had taken a translation course in college and then did an Independent Study in which I translated French poetry. My translation professor referred me to one of my first clients, which was a great vote of confidence. However, my real feeling of “readiness” did not come until I had completed a half-dozen projects, dealt with some midnight demons, met my deadlines, and received good feedback. I think you will never really know if you are ready to be a translator without actually doing the work. Taking French classes – and even living in France – do not give you the vocabulary you need to translate complex business documents.

2. What were the major challenges you faced when you first started translating?

I think my main challenge was the same one that most freelancers encounter – getting those first few clients. I was also surprised to learn how much IT work was involved. I have had to deal with corrupted files, backing out software upgrades, converting files, etc. It is much more stressful to deal with computer problems when you have a deadline than when you know you will go home at a certain hour regardless of whether the work is done.

3. Have technological advancements affected your work as a translator at all? If so, how?

Technology has had a strong influence on the entire field of translation. It offers competition in the form of globalization and machine translation, but also helps translators perform their jobs better. It has had a net positive effect. I can work anywhere in the world and I do not have to worry about manipulating and shipping physical documents. I can run errands and respond to client emails on my smartphone. CAT tools (Computer Aided Translation) ensure that I never have to translate the same sentence twice and relieve me of most of the formatting work. Note: CAT tools are not the same as MT (Machine Translation) in which the computer (tries) to translate for you. CAT tools are more of a memory aid than anything else.

I do not know where I would be without being able to research terminology on the Internet. I can verify usage, consult online dictionaries, ask colleagues for help, etc. I have a lovely collection of physical dictionaries, but it is impossible to have enough.

4. What kinds of material do you love translating? What do you dislike?

I enjoy translating documents that hit that sweet spot between being challenging enough to be interesting, but not so challenging that I have to research every word and cannot be sure that I have made the right word choices. I specialize in business, legal, and financial translations so many of the projects are in those fields. However, I am also a curious person with an eclectic range of interests (like many translators) and I love projects that let me learn something new or involve one of my many hobbies.

I also prefer projects which emphasize the translation portion of the work rather than formatting and administration. Sometimes the translation work itself is fairly simple, but the project is composed of dozens of tiny files and I spend more time renaming and saving into the correct folders than I do on the translation itself.  [Further to] the previous question about technology, I have purchased much of the software I use because it relieves me of parts of the work I do not like to do. In this way, I stay happy while meeting the needs of my clients.

5. You’re not just a translator, but also a writer. Have you found that being one has proven beneficial to you with the other? Have you done any creative writing in French?

While the ability to speak a foreign language, French in my case, is seen as the obvious prerequisite to becoming a translator, the ability to express yourself in your native language is much more important. A translated document should be the same as the original, except for the language. Although I do a lot of terminology research, much of the real brain sweat comes from trying to form and rearrange the best English sentences. This last twist is nearly indistinguishable from trying to express an idea in your head into words.

The only creative writing I did in French was in school. It was a helpful exercise to develop my French skills, but not one that is a real creative outlet for me. I may feel differently in another twenty years as the language seeps deeper into my bones.

6. What advice and educational preparation would you recommend for someone who wants to enter and then advance in the field?

Well, my translation professor advised me to learn “everything” and it is hard to argue with that advice. You need to have excellent writing skills in your native language, which will be your target language,  and excellent comprehension skills in your source language. It is useful to develop writing skills in your source language as well, both as a way to aid your language skills and to communicate with clients. However, in addition to all of these essential language skills, you also need to be familiar with the fields in which you translate.

The best preparation for a specialized translator is to actually work in an industry for a number of years and then switch over to translation. This is somewhat impractical, especially as many translators have advanced translation degrees as well. How do you plan for such a chaotic career path? Many translators don’t. Instead it is common to fall into translation midway through another career entirely. Like being a good writer, sometimes you need to live a bit before you can really be a good translator.

Oh, and don’t forget you also need to know enough accounting and marketing to run a business…

7. Does translation work typically involve any lifestyle changes, such as frequent travel?

Yes and no. I travel less on a daily basis since I work at home, but as a business owner I attend translation conferences and travel to French-speaking countries to keep up my skills. The main lifestyle change is that I get to work at home, which has been wonderful.

8. Do you think it’s necessary to be immersed in French culture to do the type of translation work you do?

Legal translation can be learned through research and education to a large extent; however every bit of immersion helps. For this reason, I went to Paris last summer to attend a conference located in the Palais de Justice:

Seriously, just look at this.
(Photo credit: Tristan Nitot, Wikimedia Commons)

The experience of sitting in a French courtroom for three days, listening to French legal experts, and talking with other translators and interpreters – for the most part in French, was invaluable. I returned home feeling more comfortable with legal French and more confident in my abilities.

9. How do you find new clients? Do you do a lot of one-term assignments?

I find new clients passively by maintaining a web presence on the ATA and CATI websites, translation portals such as ProZ, and my own website. I also market my services actively by sending out résumés and responding to job opportunities. In addition, I network with colleagues at translation conferences and online.

I strive to keep clients happy enough that assignments are not one-term, but this is often more a function of the type of client and the nature of the work than anything else. An individual who needs a birth certificate translated for immigration is unlikely to need future documents, while a translation agency specializing in legal documents will have a lot of work for me.

10.  What do you need to feel successful in your career? What would you still like to accomplish?

I have income goals, which I assess and update every year. Part of this goal is to make my work-flow more even.  As I gain experience and establish a good reputation, I have had more clients finding me rather than having to seek them out. This is preferable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this means I spend more time translating and less time prospecting.

In addition to my income goals, I would like to obtain ATA certification. This requires passing a rather difficult certification exam with an 80% failure rate. I have taken it once, and unfortunately I was one of the 80%. At this time, the exam is pen and paper with no online resources allowed. This adds to the difficulty and has no resemblance to how translators have been working for some time. A keyboarded exam is currently being tested and I plan to take this exam again once it is ready.

11. Is there anything else you would like to add or think that people should know about you or a career in translation?

The most important thing to understand about a career in translation is that it requires constant learning. If you get bored easily, you are in the right place. You should also know that translation is a rather solitary career with most translators working at home. Depending on your personality, this will either make you very happy or very sad.

As for me, you should know that I am ridiculously happy to have found translation as a career. Back in the dark days when I worked at an insurance company, we would joke about “going to our happy place” when the latest crazy edict came down from management. This is my happy place.

Jenn is also a poet and writer. She delights in knowing that anything she learns, no matter how esoteric, may somehow come in handy some day. Jenn lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband, daughter, cats, fish, and as many dictionaries as she can fit on her shelves. You can read more about Jenn by visiting her website (link highlighted in red): www.jennmercer.com or follow her on Twitter: @jennmercerFE

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