After working as a nurse in several countries, Andrew Bell set up AAA Scandinavian Translations in 2001 and now specialises in medical/pharmaceutical translation services. He also runs the popular translator-networking site Watercooler. Here Andrew tells us about how he became a translator, and offers a wealth of advice for new and experienced translators interested in moving into the highly specialised field of medical/ pharmaceutical translations.
Sarah Dillon: You have many years of experience in healthcare, and are in fact a Registered Nurse (RN). How difficult was it to make the conversion to being a medical translator? What preparation did you have to undertake to supplement your existing knowledge, and do you have any tips for aspiring medical translators who might not have this background? [Sorry, I know that’s really 3 questions but I couldn’t resist!]
Andrew Bell: Hi Sarah. This is an interesting question. Making the conversion was fairly straightforward for me, although it didn’t take place overnight – in fact it took about 3 years from my taking on my first project, to when I stopped nursing and became a full-time translator.
Without boring your readers with my life story, I’d lived and worked in a number of countries, including as an RN in the UK, Australia and Norway, and had even taken the U.S. NCLEX-RN (the American examination for entry into nursing for graduates of foreign schools of nursing) in Atlanta Georgia, and so I had a broad experience of different healthcare systems. At the time I started translating I’d been an ICU nurse for over 10 years and was ready for a career change. I’d been living in Norway with my (then) partner and I actually took an aptitude test at the local job centre (I wasn’t unemployed, I hasten to add) – and translation was at the top of the list. That’s when I had my “epiphany” and realised that the perfect career was actually staring me in the face.
In terms of making the transition, I spent 2-3 years where I juggled my ICU role with translation projects (often taking work with me on night duty). Fortunately, if you’re an agency ICU nurse you often end up with the long-term patient in a sideroom, which – though antisocial – was perfect for my needs.
To answer the second part of your question; in terms of preparation I had no “big plan”, but rather felt my way slowly from general translation into medical projects. It was obvious to me that I knew more about chronic obstructive airways disease than I did about Swedish backhoe loaders!
The first thing I did was join Proz – which was very useful for me as an entry point – and I used their hosting service (still do) to create a web presence, and that’s when the first projects came along. I’d also read Alexander Eames’ “How to Earn $80,000 a Year as a Freelance Translator” which, despite the cheesy title, was full of excellent tips in terms of creating a CV, marketing to clients etc. If any of your readers are looking for something a little more current, I’d recommend Corinne McKay’s “How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator”, Geoffrey Samuelsson Brown’s “A Practical Guide for Translators” or Morry Sofer’s “The Translator’s Handbook” – all these were helpful to me.
I joined the Institute of Translators and Interpreting (ITI) as soon as I met the entry criteria for associate membership. I knew I needed professional support and mentorship as well as access to a professional journal, CPD and e-groups. This was a smart move. As soon as I could I took the examination for full membership and then joined the American Translators Association (ATA) and the Australian Institute for Interpreters and Translators Inc. (AUSIT). One of the major benefits of joining the ITI was that I could become a member of ITI MedNet, the ITI network for pharmaceutical translators and interpreters. Nine years later I’m still a member.
My first medical translation, for which I was wholly unqualified in terms of experience, was an online medical dictionary. Before the project folded due to lack of funds I’d translated around 10,000 words and had struggled with many issues along the way.
ITI MedNet was a revelation: the e-group provided fantastic support and was/is populated by bright, funny, articulate and educated people – all of whom shared my passion for language. Not having come from the traditional University route into translation, this was the first time I’d shared space with people who talked the same “language” as me and it was a revelation.
Anyway, I’ve drifted about 10 kilometres away from your original question. For translators who are new to the profession but want to go into medical translation, I would suggest that it helps to get some general experience under your belt before you specialise. If you’re going to make mistakes, which all people do, then do this with general texts rather than medical or pharmaceutical documents: medical translation has potential for litigation, but if you adopt good standards for quality control then there’s no reason to go into it fearfully.
One of the first things I did after gaining some general experience was to actively market myself as a medical translator. I created a new, professional website (http://www.scandinaviantranslations.org/) and made sure that key words such as “medical translator” and “pharmaceutical” appeared in the body of text and the metatags – a good way of getting picked up by search engines. I also made sure my CV focused on my medical background and experience. Keep the CV focused; keep it short, and make sure it’s professionally edited or looked over by a colleague you can trust to be honest.
In terms of expanding my existing knowledge, I did this by attending CPD events, by reading extensively and by supplementing my library with specialist reference books (Dorland’s, Stedman’s, the Oxford Clinical Handbook series, Munksgaard’s medical Danish dictionary, Kunnskapsforlagets medical Norwegian dictionary, Cressy’s excellent Swedish<>English medical dictionary, the Merck Manual and others).
I maintain that medicine, and hospital-based medicine in particular, has its own language – and in many ways some of this can only be learned by experience (some academics would disagree with this view). If you’ve worked in medicine or nursing then you know it’s a “nasogastric tube” not a “stomach tube”, “scanty bowel sounds” not “faint gut noises”, an “i.v. giving set” not an “IV infusion line” and terms like “systolic murmur”, “rebound tenderness”, “PERLA”, “alert and oriented”, “i.v. cannula”, “indwelling catheter”, “residual urine” form part of your everyday working language. This “secret” language is really a dialect: medical notes have their own grammar (or lack of) and medicine definitely has its own vocabulary.
If you’re translating patient notes and you come across a term or expression you don’t know, try your hardest to get it right. Ask professional colleagues (ProZ Kudoz might be useful for some queries but some answers are, in my experience, way off), use your specialist e-groups, ask a trusted colleague. If you can’t find the right translation then be honest – leave an edit comment for the project manager or editor, or make a list of problem terms in a separate Word or Excel document.
Medical acronyms are a common sticking point for medical translators – I often use the Armenian Medical Network’s excellent Dictionary of Acronyms, which is a really useful tool, as is Acromine – a database of medical acronyms produced by Medline. Also, if you use Firefox as your browser you can download Speed-dial, which enables you to “preload” a number of blank frames and you can populate these with your most commonly used medical resources, dictionaries etc. This is a real timesaver when deadlines are tight.
I would suggest that if you’re planning to translate patient notes, medical records, surgical texts or journal articles then you might consider a course in medical writing/editing, read prolifically around the subject (“Medical Translation Step by Step” by Vicent Resurrecio and Maria Gonzalez Davies is excellent) or even consider working in a hospital on a paid or volunteer basis if you really want to get a handle on the language of medicine. Membership of professional e-groups such as ITI MedNet or the ATA Medical Division are both essentials in my book: you can’t “best guess” medical translation and having trusted, professional colleagues to turn to at times of need is essential.
If you’re just getting started as a medical translator then as well as following the advice above you might try finding a friendly co-translator to revise your translations. Make it worth their while too: if you pay them promptly (within 7 days) and at a decent rate then they’re more likely to drop everything to edit something for you at short notice. A “quid pro quo” relationship always works well too: I have a number of collaboration colleagues and we often cooperate on medical projects – I’ll revise their work or they mine and my experience is that second-translator review is always worth doing.
I’d absolutely recommend that you gain a thorough working knowledge of some of the industry standards, i.e. the EMEA templates for summaries of product characteristics (SPCs) and package leaflets (PILs) – standard templates for descriptions of pharmaceutical preparations produce by the European Medicines Agency. Not only do SPCs and PILs follow standard headings and sub-headings but the register and style are highly specialised. I’d also recommend that would-be medical translators become familiar with the ICD (International Classification of Diseases) codes produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as these are commonly used in medical notes.
Finally, I’d say that one of the best qualities a medical translator can have is tenacity: you should stop at nothing and use all possible resources, including e-groups and peers; until you’re convinced you have the right term or expression. My experience is that project managers, and clients generally, appreciate this highly and this will help you achieve repeat business.
SD: As part of your CPD, you’re studying for a Diploma in Publishing (Book Editing, Proofreading and Publishing). In practical day-to-day terms, how do you feel this is contributing to your ability as a translator? Would you recommend it?
AB: Absolutely! I didn’t follow the traditional route into translation so I invested in an extensive library of editing reference books and started a distance diploma in copy editing and proofreading for publishing (run by the Australian College QED in New South Wales), which I’m halfway through. I also studied linguistics and German at the University of Western Australia which was extremely useful to me as an autodidact, particularly in terms of learning about prescriptive grammar and the components of written language.
I’d recommend writing regularly for pleasure to enhance your writing skills. I think there’s some truth in the statement that constant exposure to your source languages, particularly for those of us who write regularly in our source language(s), can impact negatively on your ability to write “well” in your native tongue. In her book “French Lessons” the author, Alice Kaplan, wrote on her writing ability:
Dan read my drafts right away. At first he was grouchy—I was sloppy, I couldn’t spell, my English was awkward from reading too much French…
I think she has a real point here. I’ve always read prolifically, but I now try and stretch myself in terms of choosing writers with different styles and also read a bit of fiction too – which has paid off, I think, in terms of my work. I’ve found it helpful to put your work through a “quaintness test” before sending it to the client. Michael Frayn, discussing his translation of Chekhov’s novels in the ITI Bulletin (Jan-Feb. 2003), wrote:
I really do believe the characters have to express themselves in absolute English otherwise it’s not really a translation. The point is that the original doesn’t sound quaint and odd and foreign to Russians, so it shouldn’t sound quaint and odd to English people.
Keeping this in mind has paid real dividends in the quality of my own work and I recommend it to others. Lastly, I’d recommend printing your translations out (with double line-spacing, large font) and editing them in hard copy. It’s not very smart in terms of your carbon footprint but it is an excellent way of picking up errors you don’t see on a monitor. If you really can’t compromise your green principles then consider printing your Word document to PDF, which is a pretty good alternative to hard-copy editing as it removes a lot of the background “noise” you get in a Word document.
SD: You’re a member of the ITI, AUSIT and also the ATA, and I understand you’ve attended conferences run by all three associations too. I’d be interested to hear about any specific or unique traits you might have noticed in each. Do you find they support you in different ways, for example? Is the membership process very different?
AB: Interesting question. I think they have different approaches to the industry, which largely reflect the cultural differences between the two countries.
The ITI is very CPD- and education focused and has extremely active divisions and regional networks.
The ATA divisions are independent, self-governing entities, which I think results from the sheer size of the United States. The ATA is also a much larger organisation and its conferences are very well marketed and attractively packaged. The ATA conference material is also made available to members and non-members on DVD and contains all sessions in audio format, plus PDF notes and PowerPoint slideshow. These are reasonably priced and a great resource. Both the ITI and the ATA have professional journals and the ATA Chronicle is also available to members in archive form via the ATA website (going back to 2002).
Another major selling point in terms of freelance translators is that membership of both the ITI and ATA will give you access to the corporate membership database. I’d say that around 50% of my work comes from American clients now, and marketing to corporate members of your T & I [translation and interpreting] organisation is always going have a greater chance of succeeding if you’re also a member of the organisation. Both the ITI and the ATA are represented on LinkedIn too – although the ATA seems to have gone cold on the former since it advocated using crowdsourcing to have its content translated.
SD: Finally, what tends to be your approach to finding new clients? Do you actively seek them out, or rely on word-of-mouth?
AB: Actively marketing to corporate members of my of my professional organisations has been one of the most successful methods for me, but I do seem to get a lot of word-of-mouth work too. I think one of the traps people fall into easily is stopping marketing once they start getting a regular supply of work, but if 80% of your work comes from 10% of your clients then you’re in a potentially precarious situation. You only have to lose 2 or 3 clients (through natural attrition) to lose a large part of your regular work.
I try and do some marketing every week and I keep a strict record of these activities, including the agencies I approach, the method used, when the marketing took place and any follow up. I also re-contact agencies if I haven’t heard from them in a while. Project managers come and go and it may simply be that the new PM doesn’t know you exist, or that you are highly-experienced with pharmaceutical texts, so a simple “catch-up” email can be a real winner. Google Open Directory and LinkedIn are both good tools for marketing too.
SD: What is the best and worst thing about freelancing? Any tips on countering the downsides?
AB: Best and worst thing? The best thing about freelancing is freedom: the freedom to work when I want and to adjust my workload according to other stuff going on my life; the freedom to go to the gym in the morning, to work from a coffee shop, to take a day off mid-week and catch up on the weekend and the ability to work from home. All plusses for me.
Downside? Tax returns and cash flow would have to be up there, although employing a decent accountant and working on your negotiation skills and project management can effectively negate these. The isolation isn’t always good, but I try and meet a friend for coffee and a chat at least once a week, I’m in a number of professional e-groups, I run a networking blog for translators called Watercooler (http://www.translationandlanguage.ning.com) and I insist on going to at least one or more conferences a year – just to stop me turning into a dribbling, socially-inept hermit!
I should point out that I’m a home parent, a father of three school-age kids and we also have two dogs – so the likelihood of my suffering from isolation is pretty slim. I think the key is to be disciplined in your work, focus on your deadlines and the project at hand, take regular breaks and make sure you take care of your physical and mental health.
Translation, for me, is still the most intellectually stimulating and enjoyable profession I’ve been in and I’m passionate about it. Working from home, despite some of the drawbacks, is still infinitely more attractive to me than returning to the corporate yoke. I think that as long as we stay socially-engaged, remain connected to our professional community, keep a sense of humour and—most of all—keep enjoying our work, then this really is the best job in the world.
Thank you Andrew, for all these great sources and tips and for your patience in answering my many-more-than-five questions!