The Translator Diaries is a series that looks at how current freelance translators made it into the career. In this 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.
Megan Onions (@speechmarksxl8) has been translating since the age of 15! She now runs Speech Marks Translation in Herefordshire and translates from French and German into English. With nearly 6 years of professional experience, she specialises in travel and tourism, sport and leisure, fashion and design, and marketing and advertising.
At what point did you know you wanted to become a translator, Megan?
I can trace this back to when I was around 15. We were all required to do a week’s work experience placement wherever we chose, so I searched high and low for companies with a translation department in my local area. I ended up going to a great, close-knit translation team within a polymer processing company, and my mentor guided me through a lot of both technical and general translation, as well as proofreading work done by external translators. The week really cemented my intentions, and I worked on getting volunteer experience (and finishing my GCSEs!).
What relevant qualifications and experience do you have?
When choosing a university degree, I was looking for something different. At the time, there were only a small number of specialist translation degrees, and I found mine at Swansea University in South Wales. I had a great time there and the year abroad options were fantastic – I spent 5 months working as a translator at Volkswagen in Germany and a semester at the prestigious Ecole de traduction et d’interprétation (ETI) in Geneva, Switzerland.
During my degree, I started to work with a pregnancy and childbirth charity and carried out voluntary translations of clinical trial papers for them. I also spent two summers as an au pair in Austria, which did wonders for both my general confidence and spoken German. In addition to developing my language skills, I gained valuable knowledge of the translation industry from a series of internships in local companies.
How did you make the transition from university to freelance translation?
I started with a lot (and I mean a lot) of research, collecting and drawing inspiration from fellow translators’ CVs, and getting some experience with volunteer translations. After that, I just worked very hard and did a good job every single time, which made it easier to move on and get more clients.
I also found student membership of both the Institute of Linguists and Institute of Translation and Interpreting to be rewarding in terms of advice and networking. I have since moved up the membership ranks, contributed articles to the ITI Bulletin, and feel part of the community.
Having already established yourself as a translator, you have taken up an MA in Translation. Do you think a postgraduate qualification is necessary to have in the industry?
I certainly don’t think it’s necessary. I’m not doing an MA because I don’t think I could get work without it. I feel like I’m getting the best of both worlds, in that I’m getting that extra piece of paper, but not sacrificing too much of my working hours (at most, I have two two-hour lectures per week).
You really have to decide for yourself what a Master’s will offer you, and if you need it. Everyone has a slightly different path to translation, and their previous employment or education may cancel out the need for further formal study.
Do you find that agency clients really do require 5+ years’ experience, a postgrad and half a dozen test pieces?
If you work with languages of lesser diffusion, you may well find that your skill level outweighs the experience requirement. Even for more common languages, there are agencies that put more emphasis on your current abilities. I was speaking to a fellow translator only last week, who has worked as a project manager. She said that she has worked with some brilliant translators with only a few years of experience and, similarly, has had to clean up the mess left behind by a guy with more than 15. There are agencies out there who appreciate that.
How much experience did you have when you went freelance, and how hard did you find it getting work?
I have been very lucky when it comes to work, but I also work extremely hard. As soon as I made my mind up that my goal was to be a freelance translator, I set about getting as much experience as possible: pro bono work, translating news articles as practice and making glossaries for specialist fields. Of course, I was also translating in my lectures and workshops at university, too. All of this stood me in good stead for looking for paid work, which started while I was saving interesting-looking agencies to my favourites. I noticed that one of them was looking for translators working with German for work on medical reports – something which I had pro bono experience in. That was my way in.
What major problems did you face and overcome?
As has been discussed by many colleagues (including this great post by Marta Stelmaszak), one of main problems is myself. Working at home can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation or issues with self confidence. I certainly had my fair share of doubts about my abilities when I started freelancing, and I can’t say that those feelings have completely disappeared, but feedback from clients and colleagues have helped me realise that I’m actually pretty good at what I do!
Has it all been worth it?
Absolutely! I’m pretty much where I wanted to be when I started out, and everything is coming along nicely to push on and make a great career for myself. I’m always working on ways to develop skills, gain knowledge and forge relationships to further my business, and I honestly couldn’t enjoy it much more. In time, the career I have made for myself will lend itself to being adapted to fit around family commitments, and long-term job satisfaction was a really important factor in me choosing to go freelance.