I spent Tuesday evening excitedly telling around 60 undergraduates how much I love being a translator. It was an event called ‘Make Languages Work for You’, arranged to give students an idea of the careers in which they can use their languages. Designed as a speed-meet, there were 6 tables of students from all year groups, and myself and 5 other professionals moved on every time the ten minutes were up. It was really tricky to squeeze the essence of what I love about being a freelance literary translator into ten minutes, but hopefully I succeeded. At the very least, I hope my enthusiasm managed to convey how important it is to follow the path that makes you feel most passionate. I was instructed to give them an overview of my own background, as well as providing tips and resources for those who are interested in becoming translators themselves. I did this, but I also used the opportunity to tell them a few of my own thoughts. Firstly, that it’s good to stay open-minded when it comes to your career, especially when you’re as young as they are. Sometimes, what you think is your dream job might not work for you in reality, and something you haven’t yet thought of might turn out to be perfect. I strongly feel that the best approach is simply to try things. For example, I interned with publishing companies during holidays from my existing job. I didn’t end up becoming an in-house editor (not so far, anyway), but I did learn a great deal about the ins-and-outs of a publishing house, something which has been invaluable.
Some of the students’ most frequent questions were:
1) I’ve heard you can’t make a living as a literary translator. Is that true?
2) My teacher/adviser told me it’s too competitive and not to bother. Should I?
Answering the first question, I did make sure I highlighted the importance of initially building up freelance activity while maintaining other sources of income. But I also reminded them that we’re no longer living in a world where people have jobs for life, and that — although you need to be more proactive — it can even be safer to maintain different income sources. The question that most bothered me, however, was the second. I understand the need to make people aware of the pros and cons, but time and again I hear of teachers dissuading young people from exploring options they are clearly excited by. It happened to me, too. When I was an undergrad, I started to research an MA in Translation and Interpreting, and was promptly told by my personal tutor that it was unbelievably hard and that several of her former students had dropped out of the course after weeks of tearful struggling. She advised me against applying. My decision to work for Reuters before choosing an MA wasn’t based on her words, but I still don’t agree with how negative her advice was. It was great to see so many language undergrads giving serious thought to their future career options, and I really hope there are many teachers who are encouraging them, like I tried to in those brief sessions.
On a related topic, Anna Holmwood and I will be chairing panel discussions at the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre next month on ‘Becoming a Literary Translator’. We both have a great line-up of speakers who will have excellent tips and advice, so do look out for us if you’ll be at the Fair! Further info on the two events can be found here and here.
I’m heading to Leipzig for its own Book Fair next week and will report from there — if the pile of new books doesn’t distract me too much, that is.