Home > German Translator 101
My guide to offering your own professional translation service
When I started out in my career as a translator in German to English, it was very much a case of “learning by doing”! I could have done with a few good tips and ideas at the time.
Here are some of the questions I had - plus the answers I gained from working as a freelance translator myself.
I hope they’ll help you now.
A passion for language, a very good understanding of German, an ability to write well in English, and a love of precision and detail!
Add to this the ability to motivate yourself, to stick to timetables, to deliver what you promise and when you promise, and - when going through an “empty patch” - to use the time to advertise your services and extend your networks. Plus a commitment to continually improve your language & business skills.
Obviously you can only be a translator – German or otherwise – when you have a pretty good grasp of a second, foreign language. If translating from German into English, then I believe that English should your native language, your mother tongue. (But it's a subject of much debate!)
As a rule, translators translate from their foreign language (the SOURCE language) into their mother tongue (the TARGET language).
Why? Well, if you know anything about English, you'll be aware of just how subtle it can be. For example, by omitting a single pronoun (e.g. “the” in “Do not use in case of fire” - frequently seen in Austrian lifts!), you can entirely change the meaning of a sentence.
And don’t forget about interpreting (dolmetschen) either. Perhaps you are a better speaker than writer and would prefer to provide simultaneous interpretations, rather than translation. Most translation agencies provide both interpreting and translation services, and I am often asked if I will do both.
When I started off translating from German into English I frequently heard “you’re a native English speaker, you can translate this”.
There is, of course, an element of truth in this, but the general understanding that translation is a discipline in itself is, sadly, still limited. The skills involved in translating are hugely underestimated.
Nowadays, thank goodness, standards are much higher.
Qualifications and memberships of
professional associations give you recognition in the field. You can gain
qualifications in German translation by studying full-time,
part-time, or even at home.
Increasing specialization in the workplace is also mirrored by increasing specialization in translation.
Which means that there's a real call for translators with a specialist background in a particular professional field.
If you’re a native English speaker with a background in medicine, law, finance or IT, for example, and are living in, or have a lot of contact with, a German-speaking environment, then you are probably very well placed to launch yourself into a translation career.
Often non-native speakers with excellent specialist knowledge often make very good translators. I've spoken to several of them in my interview series.
Here are some of the key things to consider when providing a professional translation service:
How do I find translation work?
As a translator you fundamentally have 2 choices – either to work as an employee in a translation department, or as a freelance translator.
If you've studied languages
and translating at university, and done well, then this is the pathway to
plum jobs in translating for international organisations, such as the
However, 80% of translators work as freelancers (2012 CIOL study), so you're most likely going to need a business mindset to succeed as a German translator.
If you work as a freelance translator you’ll need to build up a stock of professional relationships, both directly with translation agencies and clients, and indirectly by establishing an online presence.
You’ll also need to learn to advertise yourself and your services – by approaching companies directly, writing your own website, or word of mouth.
I’ve also included a few tips on working with agencies and private clients.
If you work as a professional German translator, you’ll probably be required to join an official body, such as your local Chamber of Commerce. If you are living in a German-speaking country, you’ll find there is often a love of bureaucracy and compulsory membership of various trade and professional organizations.
The upside is that they often run seminars and workshops which can be a great source of new ideas – and new clients! (Make sure you always have your business cards with you!)
It's also worth being a member of a professional language association.
Most German translators are freelancers, taking on projects from a variety of professional translation services and direct clients.
However, the only way to grow your business as a translator is to employ other translators to do the actual translation work. This means you effectively become an agency, and spend your time project-managing translations and acquiring clients.
A nice compromise is to translate yourself as well as passing on some jobs to a network of translators you know are good. Other way of taking your career in German translation to the next stage include diversification, into other language-related areas.
There's a great book about this just out by Nicole. Y. Adams called Diversification in the Language Industry: Success beyond translation.
I work as a professional freelance German translator, and I have to say, if you're the entrepreneurial type, the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages I can think of.
OK, there are potential minuses too, but the skill is to recognise how to turn them into pluses! ;-)!
Well the first step is to be sure your German language skills are good
enough! If you're looking to improve them, check out Peter Heinrich's
great materials for learning German using mnemonics. This is a great way of making German grammar and vocabulary easy to remember.
I hope this quick overview gives you a bit of a feel for life as a German translator.
Click on the text links for more in-depth information
on each of the topics above. And be encouraged - it's a great
German Translation Tips & Resources
Home > German Translator 101