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Interview with an Expert: A Day in the Life of a Freelance Translator

This quarter we are happy to share some insights from an extremely talented freelance translator, Tricia Perry. As you will read, working as a freelancer has many positive points, but they don't come without many years of hard work and dedication to learning languages and expanding knowledge in specialized content areas. TRICIA PERRY is a freelance translator and editor with a strong interest in medicine and global health. She holds a BA in Spanish and Anthropology from Smith College, an MA in Media Studies from the New School, and earned a Certificate in Translation Studies from the University of Chicago Graham School.  She works from Spanish and Portuguese to English, having spent time living and studying in Costa Rica and doing research and online communications work in Brazil on a Fulbright grant.

Describe your day-to-day work life for us. What languages do you work with, what are your areas of specialization and what kind of hours do you like to work?

I’m a freelance Spanish and Portuguese to English translator based in the Bronx, and I do editing work as well. I work in a variety of fields but I’m most interested in medicine, global health and international development. I also manage and edit the online quarterly newsletter of the American Translators Association Medical Division, and I’m an avid volunteer translator for the microlending organization Kiva.

In terms of the hours I like to work, I definitely mold my work schedule around social outings and other activities as much as possible, but I tend to work in the afternoons and evenings – unless I have a deadline to meet, in which case I’m surprisingly good at waking up at 5 or 6 a.m. to get my work done. But ­I do like to exercise and do errands in the mornings so I can then settle in at my desk with the knowledge that I’ve already taken care of everything else I had to do that day. I do work weekends quite often, but I enjoy having flexibility in my schedule all week long. I work from home most of the time but try to co-work with grad student friends a day or so each week – and I do drop in on my family for a few days at a time fairly often.

Why did you decide to become a translator?

This was basically an accident. While I do have a BA degree in Spanish and anthropology, I had gotten an MA degree in Media Studies and was building a career in online communications when I got a Fulbright grant to do research in Brazil in 2008. Towards the end of a glorious year in Rio de Janeiro, an HIV/AIDS organization I was working with was applying for grant funding from a foundation in Europe. The organization needed help preparing its application documents, so I pitched in. One of my roommates in Rio also knew a professor who needed some chapters of an anthropology dissertation translated for research purposes. Gradually I realized that I loved translating and shifted my focus into that realm. I’ve now been a full-time freelancer for thirteen months, and I’m thrilled to be so busy with work that suits me so well.

What have been/are some of your most interesting projects? 

I’ve been fortunate to work on a wide range of documents in the past few years, from academic papers and book chapters to birth, marriage and death certificates. I’ve done survey responses and some legal contracts, and I love the randomness of the things I get to learn about with each new assignment. A good chunk of my projects these days are medical records and documents related to clinical trials, and I enjoy these a lot. Confidentiality Agreements really prevent me from going into more detail, but suffice it to say that boredom is not an occupational hazard I’m up against!

What do you love most about being a translator? What is the most difficult part of the job?

Being a freelancer has obvious perks, but my favorite thing about translating is the sense that I’m constantly solving a complex puzzle. You can’t just take words from one language and turn them into words in another language; you have to rearrange and rephrase and think hard about word choice in order to produce seamless writing in the target language. This is also a difficult aspect of the job, but resources like the Daily Writing Tips blog have been helpful. Being a freelancer also has obvious pitfalls, but I do think the perks outweigh them so far.

Where is the most exciting place you’ve ever traveled? What upcoming trips do you have planned?

That’s a tough question, since I find travel so exciting in general! Other than Brazil and its many wonders, Costa Rica is a hub for me since I studied there for a year in college and still have many good friends in San José and in Cartago. I was in Costa Rica in January and trekked down to the Pacific coast at Playa Santa Teresa, which is a relatively rough surfing beach but offers great swimming in natural pools that form among the rocks at low tide. I did work a ton on that beach trip, but at least I did so from a hammock!

I definitely have a reputation in my family for being a nomad, and this year will be no exception. Since my work now travels with me, I feel even less compelled to stay still. This summer I’ll be spending a couple of weeks in Seattle and going to various mid-Atlantic beaches with family and friends. I’ve been working on my French so I’m going to indulge myself with a couple of weeks in southern France too…and that free stopover in Iceland was too enticing to forgo, so that’s on the agenda for early August. I probably won’t get to Brazil this year but that’s high on the list for 2015.

Hiring Translators With Specializations Is Key For Any Industry’s Translation Needs

The texts your business produces are not all the same in content. Some may be meant for ads, while others are more technical for manuals or internal documents. Your industry may have very specific register, or terminology that is used only within your industry's setting. The common person may not have any idea what a “sidewall retainer bolt” is, much less know how to translate it into another language. The same can be true for terminology regarding advertising, human resource materials, website text, etc. Just as businesses specialize and operate in niche areas, so do translators. Therefore, it’s important to consider working with specialized translators for your documents and web materials in order to obtain the most accurate translations possible.

Consider a scenario in which your company’s legal department requires a service provider agreement to be translated into Spanish. You may have a trusted translator who handles your brochures and marketing materials throughout the year. However, the translator may not have the same level of expertise or linguistic knowledge in the target language when it comes to legal texts. In this case, it’s best to seek another translator with such expertise or hire an agency with the ability to place a professional legal translator on your project.

When receiving a resume from a potential translator that has areas of specialization in just about every field imaginable, we become very skeptical. Even in one’s own native language, it can be difficult to carry on a conversation with someone in a field with we don’t deal with daily. Even if a client requests a translation and adds, “It’s really not technical at all,” or “It’s pretty straightforward content,” we make sure to place it with the linguists who we know are specialized in the content area(s). One can never be too sure when it comes to accurate translations for their business. It could mean the difference between winning a contract with a potential client or never hearing from them again.