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Four-leaf clover

How often do we hear people saying “Oh you’re so lucky to have worked in-house/have direct clients/work from home…”? And yes, there can sometimes be an element of being in the right place at the right time, but when you look into it, how many of our “lucky breaks” are actually the result of a lot of hard work and planning?

A positive attitude certainly helps, but that alone is not enough – groundwork is what counts. To succeed as a translator, it goes without saying that you need to be good at what you do: producing accurate, fluent, fit-for-purpose texts that sound as though they were written in your target language. As well as a flair for words, that means maintaining your source and target languages by constantly reading and honing your craft. That’s a given – CPD is continuous for a reason!

Having established that you’re good at what you do, you can’t just sit back and expect work to come flooding to your door. Those pieces of luck have to be earned by getting out there! The right attitude can stand you in good stead even back in the heady days of studenthood, when you come to decide what to do on your year abroad. For many, the easy option may seem to be studying at a foreign university, yet actually finding a job abroad, and moving away from the safety net of a university environment, can often prove more useful in the long run. I used to work in NatWest Bank in my summer holidays, so had written, of my own bat, to the Frankfurt office and managed to secure a job there for my time in Germany. However, I knew even at that tender age that my heart was really set on translating, so I asked my course tutor if he knew of any jobs in translation. I studied at Salford, where they prided themselves on finding work placements for language students – sadly the course is no longer in existence, which is such a shame. Sure enough, he came up trumps and found me an internship as a proofreader in a translation agency in Sindelfingen, just outside Stuttgart. We were expected to work extremely hard, but I learned a huge amount from the staff translators (all dictating away – no wonder Dragon is second nature to me now!) and it confirmed my choice of career.

Of course, work experience looks good on your CV too when you come to try and find a job after college. My sons don’t work in the language profession, but both always had weekend jobs in the sixth form and then holiday jobs in the summer. It doesn’t really matter what kind of jobs they are; it gives you an experience of real work and demonstrates commitment to future employers – and as translators, we can be asked to translate about a huge range of subjects, so you never know when that interesting snippet of learning may come in useful!

My elder son, at 28 now a manager in a high-end pharmaceutical recruitment company, was only saying at the weekend that they are struggling to find the right calibre of staff at the moment. The current crop of graduates just don’t seem prepared to commit; when asked how they would respond if they hadn’t finished a given task/project at the end of the working day, most simply said they would go home without a second thought. And while no-one wants to be a doormat, and companies shouldn’t automatically expect their pound of flesh, surely there should be that sense of professional pride in finishing what you’ve started? Project managers and clients in general appreciate people who go the extra mile. Working hard does reap its own rewards – you can’t expect to get on if you don’t put the requisite effort in.

But back to translating. When I graduated, I tried really hard to find a job as a translator, but translation jobs were just as hard to find back in the ’80s, so I ended up applying for a sought-after place on the NatWest graduate scheme and was “lucky” enough to be accepted. It was a gruelling interview process, with lots of psychometric tests and while my vacation work experience undoubtedly helped, I’d like to think I got the job on my merits too. However, I have to admit my heart was never really in the banking sector; I kept on writing to local companies and finally received a response offering me an interview, and subsequently a position as in-house translator at a large nuclear company just five minutes walk from home. So, yes, lucky in some respects – but not for want of trying. I was with the bank for just under a year in the end, but I knew it wasn’t for me. Sometime you just have to admit that and move on.

Having got that coveted in-house role, learned my craft and picked up a new specialisation, I left to go freelance when I had my first son some 28 years ago. Since then I’ve been self-employed and have gradually built up my client portfolio as I moved from very part-time translator/mum to full-time again these last ten years or so. And yes, I am still working and outsourcing work for my former employers and some of my current direct clients have come about as a result of recommendations when I was working in-house. Others have come to me by word of mouth referrals from colleagues or from online translator forums or professional association e-groups. But does luck have any part to play? I really don’t think so: if you create an effective online presence, market yourself judiciously, join your professional association or even regional translators’ group and make networking work for you, it should be possible to find new clients.


If, on the other hand, you create a negative impression when you interact with colleagues or potential clients, it will undoubtedly have the opposite effect. I think people underestimate just how damaging a chance remark or flip aside, especially on social media, or e-groups, can be. Constantly moaning about having no work, behaving aggressively or using inappropriate language, or asking a stream of “easy” term queries in a professional group, especially if a little independent research would have brought you to the right answers, or you are plainly out of your depth, are absolute turn-offs. While I don’t go as far as to keep a little black book, a negative image can be just as enduring as a positive one….

I know it can seem expensive to join a professional association such as the ITI or the CIoL when you’re first starting out, but I honestly think it’s one of the best investments you can make in your future career. There are often more affordable entry-level memberships, and they will still give you an entrée to a host of valuable colleagues, who may in turn pass work your way, refer you to their clients or generally guide you in your chosen career. You have to speculate, to accumulate, as they say – and this really is a no-brainer. Likewise attending translation conferences and workshops – yes, full-blown conferences can be expensive, but you only have to make one useful contact or pick up one key tip to recoup your initial outlay several times over. Regional events or workshops can be much more affordable, but just as effective in terms of making new contacts. And having sown those initial seeds, it’s hardly luck when one of them takes root and ultimately bears fruit.

Poppy and Leo with the apple tree

Taking the analogy back to domestic situations, I made the decision 10 or 11 years ago, when my fixed mortgage rate was up for renewal, to opt for a tracker mortgage at the (then) rate of 5.75%. The next move was up (heart in my mouth – have I made the wrong decision?!), but since then it has steadily come down to its current 0.99%. A lucky decision? Perhaps, but it was based on a lot of reading of the financial pages and research in the first place. A mortgage broker at the time had offered me a fixed rate at 5.5%, but my gut instinct (doubtless based on that research) made me hold my nerve.

I certainly didn’t feel lucky when my husband of 20 years, best friend (or so I thought) for 26, ran off with his secretary, but in retrospect, the whole experience, horrible though it was, has made me stronger. I’ve been able to stand up for myself, fight for my own and my children’s rights and build up my business from part-time to full-time, despite punitive marginal taxation rates at times. At times, it might have been easier not to keep on striving for greater things or working so hard, but that’s not the way I’m made. Sometimes, we have to view adversity, or lean times, as a learning experience and an opportunity to ensure it doesn’t happen again, whether by extending our skills, reading, marketing or simply talking to others.

Doing the groundwork is essential, no matter what we’re trying to achieve. Lucky breaks may seem “lucky” to those who don’t know what lies behind them, but I’m convinced we make our own luck. Here’s hoping it pays off for you too.

Poppy and Leo in the garlic at Snape

(No four-leaved clovers in my little corner of Sussex, but plenty of wild garlic 🙂 )