So, graduation! A Translator? And then what? Oliver’s story!

At school, I enjoyed and was good at the 2 languages that I had the chance to study: French and Latin. But the same could be said for most of my other subjects. Not being sure what I wanted to do in life, I took the route of reducing my options by the least amount, which led to a mathematics degree and a computer-science diploma at Cambridge University. In 1993, I embarked on a career in a software company in the same city.

As my role expanded from programming to include quality control, technical writing, and editing other people’s documents, my English language skills came to the fore, and I became the go-to guy for that kind of work. Not really fulfilled in the IT industry, after some soul-searching, I identified some strong basic skills that I could use in a potential career change: research, analysis and writing.

Nothing at this point had led me to translation, but something decisive was about to happen. In the early noughties, as the budget airlines arrived on the scene, I acquired a taste for jetting around Europe, from Estonia and Norway to the Basque country and Italy. I enjoyed learning a little of the language before I went, to exchange a few words with shopkeepers, waiters, that sort of thing. You should have seen the look on the receptionist’s face in San Sebastián when I asked for a hotel room in Basque. I found Italian a particularly delightful language, so I kept at it. A teach-yourself book led to an evening class, an A-level, a proficiency certificate from Siena University for foreigners, and 2 years of part-time day-release studies in Italian language and translation at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.

There, I met my future wife, Valentina (yes, she’s Italian!). Having exhausted all other options for continuing my Italian studies, I discovered the City University (London) 1-year distance-learning preparatory course for the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ diploma in translation. I found it excellent; apparently, I also had the skills to produce good translations. It took me several months to get up to speed – literally, to be able to translate fast enough – and at the end of the course, I thought, well, I might as well take the exam, which I did in January 2008. Not long after, the results came through: 1 Merit and 2 Distinctions in the 3 papers. Wahey!

We were arranging our wedding and planning to move to Italy, but I still didn’t have a job. Perhaps I can do some translation work, I thought. Not really knowing where to start, I sent out a few CVs and registered in the phone directory, which brought me a couple of free pens from people trying to sell me bookkeeping services, but no enquiries. I then heard about a seminar at Westminster University for new freelance translators, organised by the ITI, so I went, and one of the speakers mentioned ProZ. I duly registered, created a profile, and began to answer KudoZ questions and bid for jobs. Some of them I landed. I was still working at my old IT company in Cambridge at this point, so doing the translations at lunchtimes, evenings and weekends while organising a wedding and a house-move to Italy was something of a strain.

But it paid off, as I quickly gained a full portfolio of regular clients and real translation experience. The rates weren’t sky-high at the beginning, but as I’ve invested in my skills, I’ve been able to increase my prices and attract better clients and more rewarding work. Five years on, I’m satisfied with progress, but hungry for more. Onward and upward!

Oliver Lawrence is a freelance Italian to English translator specialising in marketing, tourism and contracts, with an interest in Plain English, translation quality, productivity and CPD. He tweets as @oliverlawrence1.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Well done Oliver! It requires courage, as well as talent, to steer a course through uncharted territories as you have. I was a translator (English-French) for 40 years and loved my profession. I don’t believe, as some Cassandras predict, that professional translators are doomed to become extinct because of the advent of automatic translation software. I wish you all the best !

  2. I really enjoyed reading this interview with Oliver! When I first signed up on Proz.com Oliver was one who stood out for the quality of his answers and his professionalism.

  3. Thank you Marina and Magda for your kind comments :).

    It felt a bit nerve-racking making the transition, but looking back, it was certainly worth it.

    I, too, have my doubts as to how good MT can get in the foreseeable future. IMHO, job security, if there is such a thing, comes from investing in quality, so that you’re high enough up the tree if the flood comes. Those whose approach to translation is largely mechanical, a transposition of grammatical rules and vocabulary elements, probably do have something to fear. But if we can continue to add value, to produce genuinely effective, fresh and authentic texts, then I think we can long continue to be useful.

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