April 26 2019

How to go through your transition period

A translator read an earlier post of mine and told me, "I want to go deeper into the medical field, but I'm afraid of turning down cases in other fields because then I'd have no income. But if I don't turn them down, I don't have the time to develop my expertise and clientele in the medical field." So what can he do?

This is a good question, and is essentially like altering your clothes while still wearing it.

Unless you have savings that allow you to live without income for a while, you'll go through a transition period where you have to work while developing in the new field.


Free Your Time by Making Use of Tools

If you are a freelance translator, you'll still need to take on various types of jobs to make a living during this time, but I would suggest that you spend less time on these cases to free up some time to develop new skills and clientele for the field.

For example, if you spend 8 hours translating a day, you can shorten that to 7 hours, and use that 1 extra hour to work on that new specialty. Don't underestimate the power of that 1 hour; it's no small portion of your original 8 hours at 12.5%. If you can persist, this 1 hour will be the key to whether you can successfully switch tracks.

When you shorten the translation time by 12.5%, obviously you need to be able to complete your workload with only 87.5% of the time. Aside from focusing on your job better, you can also make use of tools to increase your productivity. The smart use of the tools can have an enormous leverage effect, so you can achieve the same or more output for a smaller amount of effort.

I believe that all translators can improve their efficiencies with CAT tools, unless you are working on very specialized content, e.g. transcreating copies, or you can't get your hands on an electronic version of the source. You can only do so much translating in Microsoft Word; it's difficult to improve the speed or the accuracy.

Take Termsoup, for example, which I designed. It can vastly improve your translation speed and accuracy by helping you avoid omissions, look up source text, ensure term consistency, record editing history, and collaborate with other translators or editors. Most importantly it has a simple interface, making it well suited for new users or for translators who do not need an elaborate CAT tool. In addition, since I used to be a book translator, the Termsoup interface is especially convenient for literature translators. From my own personal experience and that of many translators, we all feel like Microsoft Word is a tool from a different era. Translating with word is simply too inefficient and too painful.

Besides translating, there is quite a number of software programs that can help you with time management. These include programs that block specific social media websites or calculate the time you spend on each website so you can have a concrete idea of where your time actually went. With this data, you'll be well-equipped with the knowledge to optimize yourself so you can better concentrate on the job at hand.


Carrying Water and Constructing an Aqueduct

Someone may ask, "If I take that one hour originally meant for translation to develop a specialty, I instantly lose an hour's pay. Would it be worth it?" This is where I tell the following well-known fable:

Once upon a time, there were two young men, Lee and Ting, who earned their living by carrying water into the city to sell. At one dollar a bucket, they each could carry 20 buckets a day for 20 dollars of income. It was a tough job, but it was enough for them to live a decent life. One day, they sat down to have a talk.

"Every day we are carrying water. We may be able to carry 20 buckets a day now, but can we still do this when we're old?" said Lee, "Why don't we dig an aqueduct to the city and save ourselves some work in the future?"

"But if we spend time digging the aqueduct, we won't be able to make 20 dollars a day!" said Ting.

So Ting rejected Lee's idea. Meanwhile, Lee decided to carry only 15 buckets a day, and use the extra time to figure out how to dig an aqueduct. Once he figured it out, he began digging.

Fast forward three years, Ting was still carrying water, but could now only carry 18 buckets a day. Lee, on the other hand, no longer had to carry any water buckets, but could sell more than 100 buckets a day since he had completed the aqueduct. Lee still had to shoulder the cost for maintaining the aqueduct, but his income and quality of living was head and shoulders above Ting's.


Digging Your Aqueduct

Developing a niche is quite similar. On the surface, for every hour you spend developing your niche, you lose one hour's wage. But as you develop your specialty further, you will enhance your ability to gain more value than that one hour of translation income you lost.

The other key point in developing a niche is that you'll be better equipped to go deeper into the field than your competitors. You would also gain the ability to better assimilate knowledge from a related field, and that is essential. Remember we said that the blue oceans, or unexplored markets, are found deep in the depths of the metaphorical sea. The ability to dive deep into a specific field is thus very important. If you don't develop a specialty and instead spend your time chasing cases in the shallows, you will find it difficult to dive into the depths.

If you want to begin developing a specialty, but have to take whatever cases that come by in the short term just to make a living, consider allotting a small portion of your time to work on your long term goal. You won't reap any immediate returns as you prepare yourself, just as Lee's aqueduct didn't bring any value during the construction phase. However, as long as you move in the right direction, learn about your potential clients, identify a niche in the target market, and persistently employ the right methods, your aqueduct will eventually be completed to bring you a better income and quality of life.

career translation


Joanne Chou

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