What does a translator actually look like?

A few years ago, I moved house and found myself living amongst many different families, all of which were total strangers at first. There was the usual mix of friendly, nosey, suspicious and private people in this particular area, but we were all eventually to get to know each other and be on friendly terms, to varying degrees of course. One of the first questions I would be asked when meeting someone in the parking lot and making small talk was what I did for a living. Although my job includes many aspects of the language industry, I would always answer “I’m a translator,” as I felt this to be the simplest description for people to understand. People would always seem very pleasantly surprised to learn this, but I was unaware how little it actually meant to those people.

One particular family we became very friendly with, and one evening, after a lovely dinner and a few drinks, they finally admitted to me how surprised they were that we got on so well and how “normal” I was. Obviously, I was very surprised to hear this and asked why. They said that as soon as they found out I was a translator, they had assumed I translated major literary tomes and high-brow academic journals. Their stereotype of a translator was of a bespectacled, highly educated, bookish professor who, being of a socially-awkward disposition, sat in the back room of libraries so as to avoid all public encounters. When they found out that I had recently completed translating for a fantasy video game, they laughed and thought that I must have skipped school at 15 and probably sat around all day playing video games, while still socially awkward, of course. I don’t know which stereotype was more insulting! It’s easy to dismiss their view as funny or even uneducated, but the fact is that we all develop stereotypes and they often remain until we actually meet one of “those” people.

The truth is, of course, that translators are a varied bunch and it’s almost impossible to generalize. There are some commonalities though. First of all, they will all have some qualifications in languages, usually to a higher level, which means beyond secondary school. This could include university degrees, college diplomas or specialized translation qualifications. Secondly… well, actually, that’s about where the commonalities end. You see, there are so many paths to becoming a translator and so many different jobs when you actually get there. Add in the fact that each linguist has his or her own preferred way of working, interests and specific skills, and you realize there is no such thing as the “average translator”!

Speaking briefly about my own experience, I graduated with a degree specializing in French and Italian. After university, I worked in the media industry and developed some project management skills while flexing my creative muscle. I then became an IT analyst for a few years, learning some very technical skills and generally becoming a geek. After a year travelling around the world and learning about different cultures between beaches, I was ready to get back to work and back to the world of languages, some six years after my degree. I took a job in the localization department of a video game company, managing the translations and cultural adaptations of sports games. Four years later, I finally became a translator. Nowadays, my job is an amalgam of all my previous jobs combined. I still project manage, I still implement technical solutions, I still use creativity to adapt content and I use my knowledge of different cultures in all of the previously mentioned aspects of my work. Some of my specializations for translation include IT, media, video games and the Internet. It’s probably easy to see why.

I use my own path not as a prime example of a typical translator, but to show how diverse that path can be. Every linguist will have his or her own unique path and their past will undoubtedly have a huge bearing on what their current job looks like. Some may have spent almost all their lives in a particular industry, for example medicine, and then later in life decided to use their love of language to become a translator. With a suitable qualification under their belt, they are then in the perfect position to become a medical translator. Some translators are young, hip and connected; others are older, wiser and in touch with yesteryear’s values. Each brings a different and much-needed expertise to the table. There is so much content out there needing translation that we need a diverse set of translators to fill every niche.

So, next time you meet a girl with tattoos and a skateboard under her arm chatting with an elderly man wearing a bowler hat and a middle-aged woman with a stroller, you might just have encroached on the local translation association AGM. You won’t see me there because I’m at the back of the library, clutching my book far too tightly and avoiding everyone’s gaze.

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