The Translator Diaries is a series that looks at how current freelance translators made it into the career. In this second set of interviews, we will learn what makes them so passionate about translation, how they established themselves, and what obstacles they have overcome to succeed as a translator.
Claire Agius (@ClaireAgius) is a French, German, and Spanish into English translator who has been running Agius Language & Translation since 1999. She has worked in the language services industry for more than 17 years and is a self-described full-fledged linguistic geek!
At what point did you know you wanted to become a translator, Claire?
Like most little girls growing up, I envisioned myself being a hairdresser/nurse/teacher depending on what day of the week it was or what mood I was in. However, by the time I reached 12 I knew exactly what I wanted to be…a vet! I was so hooked on the idea that I studied extra-curricular physics and biology, staying behind after school and at lunchtimes. But all my hard work and enthusiasm wasn’t enough. I just wasn’t cut out for the sciences.
My natural flair seemed to be for languages. Though it wasn’t until I got to university that the idea of becoming a translator started to really appeal to me. The course I followed was combined French/German with modules focusing on language, culture, politics and translation and interpreting.
I knew pretty much straight away that I was never going to be a world-beater when it came to interpreting. As soon as I placed the headset on, panic and fear would set in. I would forget parts of the sentences and regurgitate words that can only be described as utter nonsense. I found I was much more at ease working with the written word, having time to reflect on a text and formulate ideas.
How did you build on this passion for languages?
My year of study abroad took me to Geneva and Heidelberg. I was fortunate enough to be able to follow a translation course at the School of Translating & Interpreting (ETI) in Geneva and was taught by working UN translators. The experience was invaluable and reinforced my desire to work in the translation field.
How did you break into the translation industry after university?
After graduating, my first job came through the Student Job Shop. It was for a language academy, teaching French and German in local schools and private companies. The work was sporadic and I needed to look for a more permanent position.
Eventually I found my way into the industry by accepting a position in a translation company as a multilingual checker and administrator, finally progressing to commercial manager. It was this latter role that gave me the skills and confidence required for running a small business. Soon after, the company was taken over by a larger translation house. I continued there in a managerial role but the size of the company meant I was able to gain more hands-on translation experience. My director at the time supported my application to become a member of the Institute of Linguists (as it was back then).
The company then decided to relocate the northern-based office and continue all operations from its head office in the south, making the decision to move from in-house employee to freelancer an easy one for me.
What did the transition from in-house translator to freelancer entail?
I turned freelance in 1999 and I’ve never looked back. It suited my work/life balance with – by then – having a small family. I managed to build up a decent size client base and repeat business kept me ticking over. Most of my clients have come through speculative applications. I have rarely been asked to take any translation tests, though I have no objection to undertaking small unpaid texts of fewer than 300 words – and providing the text is an extract of a larger piece, and not copy to be published. In my work, I also subcontract to other language professionals and operate as a translation agency.
How necessary do think it is for translators to have a postgraduate qualification in translation?
I don’t hold a postgraduate diploma in translation and when recruiting translators for my team, I don’t consider this an imperative factor. Though I would recommend postgraduate studies, I believe a combination of in-house industry experience, passion, dedication and diligence are equally important.
Likewise, membership to one of the known professional associations (ITI, CIoL, etc.) can be of great benefit, not only from a marketing perspective but also from the point of view of keep abreast of current trends in the industry and networking with other translators and interpreters.
What advice can you give to newcomers to the industry or those who are finding it hard to access it?
The industry can be difficult to break into. You have to prove your worth and find your unique selling point.
Besides being reliable and punctual and producing the obvious accurate and clearly presented work, a freelance translator must be approachable and flexible. Taking time to focus on subjects areas that you are really interested, with the aim of adding those to your specialist fields, will give your services added value.
Being your own boss can be immensely rewarding, but don’t underestimate the hard work involved in running a small business and the solitary nature of the job. You have to be disciplined and methodical.
Over the years, I have found the flexibility of working for myself to far outweigh the more laborious aspects of the job.
That concludes the second series of The Translator Diaries. Thank you to all of our freelance translators (Marta Stelmaszak, Eva Hussain, Louise Péron, Ana Naletilić, Marie Jackson, Alison Hughes and Claire Agius) for sharing their stories and all their practical, concrete advice for aspiring translators and newcomers to the industry.