I recently got an email from a fellow who is interested in a career in patent translation and I thought I would help to rectify the lamentable lack of posts on this blog by answering it in public.
I get quite a few letters of this sort every year, so it is not the first time I have considered the question. In fact, I gave a talk on the subject at the ATA Conference in New York. But the New York talk was directed at people who were already working as translators and who wanted to move into patent translation. The gentleman who wrote me recently, on the other hand, was a student, still plotting out his career path.
So here is my advice to people who are considering the career from a distance. The very first step has to be determining whether or not you like translating. Me? I can’t think of a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Given the choice between translating and almost any other gainful activity, I’ll translate (which is why this blog never gets updated). When I was first married, and my wife and I were living in Italy, I used to love sitting at the breakfast table translating Italian newspaper articles into Japanese for her. Nowadays, I am learning Chinese, and my idea of a self-indulgent Sunday treat is laying on the sofa with a Chinese book and my iPhone dictionary.
But I am also aware that I am not entirely normal. A lot of people, in fact, the vast majority of people, hate it. I have had many ex-patriot friends who have tried it and said things like, “I would rather have my fingernails ripped out, in the rain, while listening to ABBA.” Other people, including one or two professional translators of my acquaintance, while not seeing translation as an actual form of torture, tell me that they find it so dull that, for several hours after translating, they cannot safely operate heavy machinery.
It would be a shame to make a career plan only to find out that translation is not your cup of tea. And unlike lawyering or brain surgery, you don’t have to wait until you have established yourself as a professional translator to find out whether you like it. You can start at the hobby level by translating books for which translations already exist and comparing your efforts against those of the pros. With a little practice, you can even start marketing your skills to the bottom-tier translation agencies, which care more about price than experience. It will not be long until you know whether or not you have a vocation.
There is more to say on this topic, but I’ll have to put that in a second installment.