Career Strategies and Pitfalls of a Full-Time Translator

There was one time when I was hosting a Clubhouse session and a nine-to-fiver in a corporate job shared that she wanted to become a freelancer but didn't have a stable source of cases and ended up staying within her current job. When everyone else in the group was suggesting how she could increase her case load, I instead asked her "Why do you want to become a freelancer?"
There was a deeper implication to this particular question.

"My company needed interpreting and translating from time to time, so I took my current position in the company doing that" she continued. Yet even though her manager thought she was doing a good job with translation work, sometimes there wasn't enough work to go around, and she began to take the thought to heart that her company wasn't valuing her. Everyone else thought she didn't have a good enough understanding of her company's industry though, which made her feel like she was out of the loop and undervalued.

"My coworkers have already been in this field for several years; some for over a decade. I haven't even been working in this position for a year yet. My familiarity with everything is just lagging far behind that of my colleagues." Even with her general manager affirming her ability to translate, they would often call her over to work on projects pertaining to other industries or to take meeting minutes, and then not satisfied with her for not grasping the main points. When it came to that, there were some in her office who thought "She has nothing more than a good command of English." There were also some others who would chide her, saying "Why haven't you gone to take some certificate exams in our industry?"

Of course, professional interpreters and translators by a large margin aren't just skilled in language pairs. This is something that almost goes without saying, but it's not the point I'm trying to make to the reader here. To sum it all up, she felt very discouraged by her coworkers and wanted to switch to freelancing.

"So just by what you've observed, what are the job duties that are given the most importance in your company?" I continued asking.

She thought for a second and then responded, "Strategic planning, running of the company, and workers who can bring a profit to the company."

"Right. The truth of the matter is that it's not solely your company. Within your company, nearly all of the people within the organization are important, even if it’s a translation agency, because these job duties directly influence whether the company thrives or fails." She listened and affirmed what I had just said.


The full-time translator's breakthrough point

Once I understood what her circumstances were, I gave her two options for a direction.

The first one: If she wanted to gain respect from her coworkers or gain a sense of accomplishment, she could switch professions and work full-time for a company or firm where translation would be the company’s bread and butter, such as a translation agency or a localization company. With that kind of a job position, she could easily solve her current work issues, and she wouldn't necessarily have to become a freelancer.

I still told her that it's not easy for enterprises to survive right now. Many people sitting in the driver's seats as CEO's or managers all "make good use" of every single full-time employee to the utmost and this managerial attitude is very commonplace no matter where she goes. The only issue is that some enterprises know how to guide their employees. Even if at first one’s resources and skills aren't being closely tied to what their company wants, sooner or later, they will give all they've got and bring all their strengths to the forefront. However, some companies are pretty awful at curating their employee's talents and strengths. Inevitably, some people will leave a company if they feel like their strengths aren't being put to good use and they feel undervalued.

The second option is whether she could recognize that strategic planning and operations are the most important duties in a company, then she could consider training herself in areas apart from her main skills in translation and interpretation. It takes some time to hone these skills to be sure, and the process can be arduous, yet it could allow her to develop a lot more flexibility for her career over the long run.

Next, I told her a story about another new acquaintance I had met through Clubhouse. This acquaintance used to be CEO’s assistant at Sinyi Realty (信義房屋), the biggest real-estate agency in Taiwan. When he had just started at his former job, whenever he would follow his boss and other higher-level managers into a meeting, he couldn't understand a single thing about the strategies they were discussing. During each meeting, he would look blankly at his boss as if he were from another planet or felt as if he himself was the odd one out in the room.

To hone his own skills, he would spend a lot of time reading business books and trying to figure out his boss' strategic mental mapping. After plying hard at these skills for half a year, he began to comprehend what his boss was saying. After continuing to push on with his sideline skill developments, he started to know what his boss would think about certain strategies without being prompted. Carrying on with his self-study for even longer, he could finally pitch some ideas of his own to his boss. This friend's transformation didn't just raise his status in his boss' eyes, he was also able to produce a high-caliber career from all this self-development, and later continued growing in his expertise.


There's no wrong answer but the results can differ dramatically

So, going back to the translator from before, neither of these choices is right or wrong. It's totally dependent on the attitudes she holds towards her career and her expectations. There's a catch though. I still gave her my personal opinion in the end: If we're talking about the long-term, the second option is a much better choice.

She thanked me continuously after listening to all I had to say. She then said she'd never considered that second direction, but if she looked at her current circumstances with this second option in mind, then the hostility in her work environment could be transformed into an opportunity for growth. When thinking about it this way, she immediately felt like brushing away the tears and continuing the fight.

To be honest, the problems this full-time translator was facing are ones that many, many full-time employees face in the workplace. No matter if it's graphic designer who becomes an administrator or an administrator who's made to do janitorial work, they're all facing similar circumstances. Much of these issues are related to the value we provide in the workplace. I'm ecstatic to have given direction to someone I've never met face-to-face before. I hope she won't be afraid of the difficulties ahead of her and will break free from the current pattern she's in.



Joanne Chou

Joanne is an English-Chinese translator, a UI/UX designer, and the co-founder of Termsoup.