Orla Ryan has hands-on experience of a range of different roles within the translation industry. She has set herself up as a successful French and German freelance translator and project manager, added Irish to her working languages and made a move back to inhouse work. Today she is based in Dublin with a major international translation company, working closely with Irish, European and other international government bodies. Read on for Orla’s take on managing your career, spotting gaps in the market and moving between the freelance and inhouse worlds.
Sarah Dillon: Could you tell us about your current job? What does this involve day-to-day?
Orla Ryan: Essentially, I am the point of contact and support for the translator and client for all linguistic issues (prepare translation memories / glossaries / translation guidelines for projects, as well as collating reference materials). My previous role as a translator has been an asset in helping me plan and organise translation support for a project because I can see it from a translator’s perspective (If I were a translator, what kind of support would I want for this project, would I need help with certain terms). I look after all requests dealing with Irish Gaelic, but I cover other EU languages where required.
Another important aspect is quality control – tracking feedback from customers and reviewers. I work side by side with the project manager in the pre- and post-production stages of a project. I also work with vendor managers in recruiting and testing potential translators for new projects. I also compile and check translation tests, support the sales team and project manager if they need stats or information about various language resources and vendors. I have a couple of other projects going on too. 🙂
SD: I’m always interested in hearing about how self-employed translators cope with moving back to the world of employment. Could you tell us a little about how you made this transition, and what advice you would have for others considering the same?
OR: I suppose I had a slightly different attitude to this compared to other freelance translators, because I never saw freelance translation as my “Job for Life”. My plan was to do it for about 4-5 years to get more industry experience and then move into a translation project co-ordination / management role. I didn’t just do translation though; I also worked as a freelance project manager for a client for about 3 years. I really enjoyed doing that, because I had a great camaraderie with them and it was a fantastic experience. I sometimes found it dull translating all day long, so doing PM work was a welcome diversion.
The transition to in-house work was very easy for me. I had worked in-house twice before, so it wasn’t a big culture shock. The “worst” part, if you could call it that, was updating my wardrobe for an office and learning everyone’s names! I’m still involved in the industry and I’m working with a similar client profile as before, but from another angle. It is the nature of the translation industry, of course, that many of us have freelanced at some point; it certainly hasn’t been a drawback for me.
If a translator wants to go back to the office, it depends on where they want to go – continue translating or move into doing something else. If they want to do something else, do they have the skills for that job or not? I think it also depends on the office culture as well and you should get a good feel for that when you are there for an interview. I think if you want to go back to the office, it shouldn’t just be for the money.
SD: I’d love to hear how you picked up your study of the Irish language again after studying French and German for your first degree. Any particular challenges with this?
OR: I found I had passively retained a lot of vocabulary from school and TV, but my grammar had become very rusty since the Leaving Cert! It is very difficult for English speakers to get their head around Irish syntax because we have no direct equivalents to lenition, noun mutations, prepositional pronouns or the copula.
Originally, I started off translating DE-EN technical/historical texts and was busy with that. After a while, I noticed that more and more clients were asking me if I could do Irish translation as well – “You’re Irish; you do speak Irish, right?” This was just after the Official Languages Act came into effect here in 2003. There was talk of Irish becoming a working EU language around that time as well, so it was clear that there was going to be a lot of action in this area in the next 2-3 years. Hard to believe, but there were very few people doing Irish translation work back then! I think only two universities offered Irish in their translation courses when I was in third-level. Irish translation was just seen as a nice little earner for retired teachers at the time.
In 2004, I did a refresher course with Conradh na Gaeilge and then I heard about the new two year part-time Dioplóma sa Ghaeilge course in NUI Maynooth. I applied for that and started the following year. At the time, I figured if I got my Irish up to speed and really worked on it, I would be able to get more work in that field by the time the legislation kicked in. I also visited the Rathcarn and Aran Gaeltacht areas as part of my studies.
People think it is strange, but the vast majority of EN-GA translators are not native Irish speakers (albeit with a high standard of fluency of course). Whenever I’ve spoken to native speakers about it, they say they wouldn’t go into translation because they think you need a fancy degree or loads of experience. Or they just don’t feel comfortable doing that kind of work, which I can understand – this kind of work isn’t for everybody. Foras na Gaeilge launched an accreditation scheme last year to encourage fluent Irish speakers to go into translation. There are also a number of new Irish-language translation and interpretation courses now, so I should expect supply will meet demand in the next year or two.
SD: Any advice for aspiring translators?
OR: When I started, I gave myself a year to make a go of it and if it didn’t work out, then I would go back to the recruitment agencies and sites and get some other job. I used to work as a project assistant in a small translation agency before I went freelance. Through that, I learned how to pitch my rates and present my services in such a way that I would soon get work. I picked up some fantastic customers within the first couple of months and was almost always booked for work in advance until the day I stopped. So what I would say is, if you’re going to do it, make a plan, work out your targets (professional, financial etc) and do it properly.
Do not say you can do all kind of jobs in all kinds of languages, because you can’t. Think about what you are good at; it doesn’t have to be legal, medical or whatever. If you enjoy sports, then why not highlight that? There is a nice niche market for sport translations, for example.
Keep regular hours. You don’t need to be a slave to your email or phone, but if you do want to take a couple of day-time hours off, set up an “out-of-office” message for your email. Get an email account that can handle large attachments.
I would recommend a newcomer to get an accountant or do some kind of basic business/entrepreneurship course so they learn how to price their time, create invoices etc. Many new translators have no idea how to charge for their services or are bashful about negotiating rates with customers. As regards general administration, I used Translation Office 3000 and I found that great for overall file management, reports and accounts. There are books and basic courses on Accounting & Taxation for self-employed people and I’m sure there is similar material available online. I have friends who are accountants and they were able to help me out with the basics when I started.
I wish translation courses had some kind of freelance business module. If I were teaching a translation class, I would get students to treat their homework like a real-life job. I would email them a job request and purchase order as their homework, they accept and translate it, then return the translation to me on time with an invoice. Maybe some courses do that now, I don’t know for sure. I really think translation students should be taught soft skills like time management, basic office administration, marketing and communication skills etc as part of their course. Too many graduates finish their translation degrees and they have no idea how to get started as a freelancer and they have little business-savvy.
While I was freelancing as a project manager, I used to receive unsolicited CVs from newbie translators and most of them were rubbish. If I had to outsource a German-English job, for example, I would receive plenty of emails from people who didn’t have this language pair. They would send me their CV on spec “Please consider me for future jobs if you ever have a job in my language pair”. What a waste of time – it just made them look desperate and I don’t think that was the impression they wanted to make! So if you are going to send your CV on spec, then put some thought into it and only send it to those who will definitely have work in your languages!
This may sound incredibly obvious, but do not use txtspk or a low register when approaching clients. You are selling your writing skills. You are supposed to be a professional language expert, so don’t let yourself down by leaving stupid spelling mistakes in your emails, invoices, application forms etc. I know I sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but if you cannot write an e-mail to a client in an appropriate and professional manner, then how do you expect them to place a translation order with you? It is the simple things that will trip you up.
Specialisation is how you will make good money as a freelance translator. I originally trained in technical translation, where we had to take Physics for the first two years of the degree. I also gained specialist knowledge in various areas mainly through my practical work as a translator. A common problem with translation graduates is that they often don’t have enough real-life commercial/specialised experience. So where do you go from there? It is a vicious circle. You have to think long-term here, but a graduate could consider getting a job in a field that interests them, where they can also use their languages. It cannot fail to help when you do go freelance, because you’ll have real-life industry experience by then and you are in a better position to command higher rates. You’ve got to create your niche. For example, I worked for a computer company for two years after graduating, I had been involved with my University’s computer society and was one of the very few Irish Gaelic translators who could handle IT texts, who owned a CAT tool. I was almost certainly the only freelancer who could do small Gaelic voiceover jobs from home! 🙂
SD: Finally, can you recommend any other resources, websites, etc. for translators or advanced language learners?
OR: Proz.com for starters! They’ve really made an effort to become the top support site for language professionals. However, I notice that people join the likes of Proz and TranslatorsCafe.com and expect the site to do all the work for them. That is not how it works. Paying for a subscription is like taking a large boxed ad in the phone book. It makes stand out, but it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll pull more work in, if your presentation isn’t up to scratch. At the end of the day, these sites are just one method to help you build up your reputation and credentials. It worked for me; it may not work for someone else.
There are loads of ways you can get some free advertising for your business. For example: I participated regularly in the Proz forums, I used to organise translator meetings in Dublin and I mentored a second-year translation student as part of a University & Business programme. You should get involved in your local business community and go to associated events. You can never know too many people.
With regards to language learning, I read Gaelport.com every day, to keep up to speed with events in the Irish-language community. I also pop into www.beo.ie, which is a monthly online magazine in Irish. I also have the French channel TV5 at home and I speak French with native speakers at work.
Actually, I think podcasts are a brilliant way to learn languages. I subscribe to An tImeall and BBC Uladh’s “Blas” show for Irish. I also download ProSieben’s “Galileo” show for German.
I used to subscribe to the “Laura Speaks Dutch” podcast for a while. I would absolutely love to master Dutch. I can read it up to a point, thanks to knowing German, but putting sentences together is another story. I’m still at the stage where I recycle German vocabulary with an exaggerated Dutch accent 😉
Definitely lots of good tips and advice there, Orla. Thanks a lot!