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The freelance translation profession:

- lecture given by M.S.N. CARPENTER within the framework of a series of conferences on trades and professions, University Rennes 2, November 20, 1999.

The lecture was built up around questions from students as well as some articles published in Ouest France about the job of the translator.  For example, I  referred to an article published in Ouest France (November 6, 1999) which describes the career of a technical translator who has recently set up business in the region.

Here is the question which provided a useful starting point for the discussion:
does the job of freelance translator make it possible to earn a living?

The business is uncertain… because of several factors:

  • The economic crisis is being transformed into a globalisation and a splitting up of the market.
  • This leads to a growth in the black market, since translations are carried out by people who do not declare their earnings.  The very heavy pressure of social contributions in France contributes to this tendency.
  • Development of  resource centres established by companies in the countries where they wish to make trade.
  • Evolution of tools for computer-assisted translation, with increased demand  for post-editing (possibility of translating without knowing the source language!).
Lack of status

There is no official recognition of our economic activity (for example, code APE 748 F is shared with secretaries).  Unfortunately, the process of discussion is very slow (lack of solidarity between translators, pressure of business managers and agencies).  It is difficult to raise the awareness of politicians on the status of translators (compared with the defence of French-speaking culture, protection of the French language, multilingualism).  Indeed, it is a question of protecting  translators against the worst abuses of the current system.  In my view, the translator must engage to carry out the activity defined in his or her APE code at the time of being registered at the URSSAF.  On the other hand, the government should grant a status, but would have nothing to say on the quality of the service or the competence of the professional concerned.

Those aspects can be decided by the market and/or a national "Guild" for the profession.

But how can we develop our profession in any other way?

To gain the respect of the client

  • Credibility must be founded on a true status.
Transparency on the market
  • Translators are professionals actually registered with the URSSAF, having a recognized and specified activity.
That is more important than any  diploma of accredited translator, because the quality of expertise is constantly called into question by the client.  A test of competence would be too difficult to manage and moreover useless because of its excessively artificial nature - it would not measure the quality of the service under real conditions of work.

Question:  how can the freelance translator be defended against these uncertainties and pressures?

We should  especially develop our knowledge of accountancy and administration.  More and more, those agencies accredited by the standard ISO 9000 will organize the translation market by applying criteria of efficiency (procedures, selection of human resources).  In fact, the primary criteria of managers have nothing to do with the relations established between a client and a translator.  In the absence of a true status, the skills of the translator will be measured by these criteria, but very few freelance translators will be able to comply with  the standard ISO 9000 merely to impress some potential customers.

To survive in the future, the professional translator will have to:

  • Diversify activities towards technical drafting, terminology, development of multi-media content, etc.
  • Develop capacities in the field of computer-assisted translation (CAT), design and management of databases, post-editing of texts translated by computer, and rewriting.
  • Group together increasingly in  networks, to be able to meet the needs of the client (large  volumes of work with very short deadlines).
  • Use Internet to good effect (for publicity, creation of personal Web pages, messages, search for resources and partners, consultation of on-line multilingual glossaries ) and to propose new services (design of Web pages, content of multilingual glossaries).
  • Promote solidarity with other translators, via membership of the  Société Française des Traducteurs (SFT).
                    
 
         This national trade association groups together 750 members, and offers some interesting advantages (professional
         directory on Internet, quarterly information bulletin, etc).

Question:  how do you say "no" to a prospective client and under what conditions?

Unfortunately, there are still many discourteous people who begin their phone call with the question "What is your tariff?". At that, you only need to reply "What is your name, please? ". If the telephone approach seems  doubtful to you, or if you are not entirely satisfied with the answers given, do not hestite to consult the sources of information on companies (INFOGREFFE or VERIF on Minitel).  Paradoxically, in certain cases, you can benefit from saying "no".  In my opinion, it is to better refuse to work for customers who lack respect for the translator - they are likely to be bad debtors who do not value the quality of your service.

Question:  how do you judge the credit-worthiness of a potential customer and avoid unpaid fees?

It is very difficult to know if somebody is able to pay within the agreed delay or even if there is a risk of bankruptcy.  To know the reputation of an agency or company, you can always address your enquiry either to other translators, or directly to the SFT.  In my personal case, I  went to the Conseil de Prud'homme to be able to recover unpaid wages from an agency in Rennes.  After that, I set up in business on my own account as a liberal profession, and now I pay attention!

Question:  how do you  become a translator for a publishing house?

That depends on your choice of speciality.

In my case, my scientific knowledge enables me to propose my services to authors in certain highly technical fields.  My asset is to work in France with English as the target language, while remaining in the same country as French-speaking authors.

Initially, it is necessary to come into direct contact with the author (even if he or she lives abroad).  According to the type of contract, there will be a negotiation with the publisher, and possibly also with the author's employer.  It is really too hard to negotiate with a publisher without being recommended by the author.

To dissipate your illusions, I must tell you that  literary translation represents only a negligible part of the market, being largely
the reserve of  unversity professors  or other specialists who are not translators by trade.

Question:  What is terminology, and are there any job opportunities thanks to such a  training?

Terminology is a scientific discipline which serves to organize knowledge in a documentary form.  Of course, all that provides help to the translator who seeks some  specific information  to be able to understand and translate a text.  In the same manner as with translation, you will not earn your living with terminology as your sole activity.

Question:  Which languages do you need to choose to become a translator?

Indeed, the option does not arise, for it is rather a question of emphasizing the knowledge you actually possess.

Your mother tongue will be your target, with another language as the source, but the latter must be studied in depth, preferably during a placement in a foreign country (in the case of French-speaking translators).  Certain persons have a knowledge of languages thanks to their multilingual cultural heritage (immigrants, inhabitants of cross-border regions, etc), but the majority of translators must be limited to only one source language to maintain their credibility in front of the client.  It is better to have a thorough command of only one foreign language rather than to become superficial or mediocre in several languages. Very few supposedly bilingual persons are really able to write with same professional quality in both of their languages.

If you love your mother tongue, it will provide you with advantages, i.e. an aptitude for drafting can increase your effectiveness of communication and your capacity of work.

Question:  Which speciality or module is  needed to further my course of studies?

First of all , it is necessary to recommend knowledge in economics and accountancy rather than a third language.  It is important to carry out relevant training courses in the speciality of your choice, preferably abroad (or at the resource centres of multinationals established abroad).  Like the young technical translator quoted in Ouest France, your chances of succeeding in this profession depend on your strategic choice of training course.

Question:  Which qualities are necessary to become a translator?

In short:  a great tenacity, capacity to organize your own work, a good level of drafting in your mother tongue,  a thorough knowledge  of the source language and at least one technical field (acquired during a relevant training course abroad).  You also require mastery of the tools (data-processing, CAT, terminology, Internet) and some writing experience in your field of speciality. Lastly,  freelance translators must know how to manage a business and to keep their own accountancy records (cost estimates, definition of job specifications, invoicing).


Golden rules

1.  Do not carry out work that others should be doing (for example, leave the work of the specialist to the specialists).
2.  Refuse to work on the black market.
3.  Translate only into your mother tongue.
4.  Do not agree to revise texts written in a language other than yours, even if the lecturer asks you to do it.
5.  Respect the deadlines requested by your customers.
6.  Confidentiality.  Do not use your knowledge of a document
for the benefit of a third party.
7.  Honesty and solidarity between translators. You should not criticize them in front of others.
8.  Discuss your fees with great discretion, possibly in the context of negotiating terms and conditions.  Moreover, it is against the law to fix a tariff, even if - as an freelance translator - you do not have a legal status!

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