Interview with a Translator

Nicole Rodrigues is a Brazilian translator who specializes in translating, localizing and transcreating web and mobile content from English to Brazilian Portuguese. She is also a content curator and the official translator for Tumblr in Brazil. I talked to her about being a translator as part of the linguistics jobs series.


What do you do as a translator?

I am a translator specialized in IT and advertising. Within these two areas I offer localization and transcreation services.

Localization involves translating softwares, videogames, web and mobile content (sites, user interfaces and mobile apps). There are two main differences between localization and other types of translation:

1.  In localization, you translate and test your translation within the existing user interface, to check for context, space and layout issues. For example, if a word will appear inside a button, and the button is a certain size, you can’t translate the text on it with a word that’s twice as long, so you have to be reading the website or using the mobile app both before and after your translation, in order to find out what is the best translation option and to then see how well your translation fits. If you copy-paste all the text from a website or a mobile app into a word document, translate it, and then send it back to the company, then you’re not really doing localization because you’re not testing it in the original user interface.

2. Localization also involves the adaptation of cultural references according to the reality of the local market where that product will be used. Because I offer Brazilian Portuguese localization, it is not enough to use Portuguese. I have to use Brazilian Portuguese terms, spelling and expressions and make sure that everything that is mentioned in the text will be adapted accordingly, so that it will make sense to a Brazilian native (names, jokes, date format, local currency, local measure units, etc.)

Transcreation is translation within the marketing/advertising world. So, let’s say, a German company will send me a brochure, a banner, a magazine or newspaper ad, and they want it to be adapted to the Brazilian market. This task will be less based in keeping the meaning of the original text in terms of words (translating word by word) and more focused on transmitting the emotion (the concept) of the original text. So if the original text was designed to make the reader desire a product, support a cause or go to an event, but the story that is told or the characters presented in the original ad do not correspond to the reality in Brazil, then they will get in the way of the emotion that we want the reader to feel.

So my job is to understand what exactly that ad creator wanted the audience to feel and to adapt it, or even rewrite it, so that it will look like it was written in Brazil and for Brazil. And, often, this process will not only involve the adaptation of the text, but of the images, graphics, and colors used in the ad as well. I am not responsible for recreating the other elements of the ad, apart from the text, but it is my job to point out that a certain color, image or symbol can be considered offensive, vulgar, or dubious in our culture, so that the advertising agency has the chance to change it to something that will suit the target market best.

Transcreation is very close to localization and, in many way, it is a form of localization, but in addition to excellent language skills, it demands outstanding copywriting skills, significant knowledge of marketing and deep understanding of the target culture you specialize in.

How did you get started?

I have a degree in advertising, which is one of the reasons I transcreate advertising content now, and I have a post grad in literature. Right after I finished my post grad I left Brazil, my home country, to live in Sweden in 2008. I was quite keen on the idea of working as a translator for a while, so it was a good time to start working on it. I already had the language proficiency, after studying English for 12 years in Brazil, but I had to teach myself how to translate. I pretty much spent a whole year teaching myself translation from books, online courses, webinars and networking with professional translators who had lots of experience to share and who helped me a lot.

From the beginning it was quite clear to me that there were many areas within translation to explore, like business, medicine, law, finances, mechanics, where I wasn’t going to be a good fit as a translator because I don’t know the first thing about it. And without relevant understanding of a certain area and no grasp of the terminology, for example, it’s really hard to do your job well. So I started a profile on and I was kind of a ghost member for a year, figuring out basic stuff like what other areas were there, how to charge (per hour, per page, per line, per word; and how much to charge for them, how to get clients, etc…).

Then, after I was feeling a bit more confident, I completed my profile with my education background, previous work experience and contact information. I chose the areas I studied as my expertise areas, so my profile said that I was an advertising and literature translator. Soon after that, I also decided that IT was going to be my third area of expertise because even though I don’t have formal training in it, I did have and still do so much interest in this area, so I started reading all I could about it (sites, blogs, books, magazines). I really did my best to refuse work outside these 3 areas, because I didn’t want to do a bad job and develop a bad relationship with a client, but it was not always possible, especially in the beginning. Then, I worked really hard to develop my search skills, so that I could find and build glossaries in these areas.

On my proz profile I made it clear that I was just starting out, and I was lucky enough to get clients who gave me a chance, liked my work and who kept sending me jobs. Once you get that first client, if they’re satisfied with your work, then it’s easy, because you get a reference letter that you can send to the next one, and so on. And it’s been six years since then.

Right now, I’m taking a post-graduate distance course in linguistics and translation through a university in Brazil, because when I was talking with other experienced translators I felt that there were some holes in my knowledge about translation. Even though I’ve been doing this professionally for 6 years, I feel like there’s a reason why there are degrees, because they teach you things in a way that’s systematic and logically ordered, which is more cohesive than what I picked up on my own. I wish I’d studied it properly earlier, but all the universities here in Sweden only offer Swedish-English translation degrees or other combinations that include Swedish, so I couldn’t find a translation program that I could take with Portuguese until recently when this online course became available. So you can study translation first, get all the theory you need, and then go out to the real world and look for a job, or you can teach yourself along the way and then get more formal training later, either of them work, if you really wish to understand what this profession is about, but it’s definitely not that you can just speak two languages and automatically become a translator.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part is being able to work anytime and anywhere. I am a freelance translator, not an in-house one, so my work is completely remote. I can very easily cross the Atlantic to see my family or go to the South of Europe and my clients won’t notice the difference at all, so I love the flexibility. I can also stop for a long break, go for a walk or have a coffee with some friends if I don’t feel like working in a given morning, and leave some work for later in the day or at night.

I’d say the worst part is the invisibility. Quite often, we translators get the feeling that our work is not noticed or valued at all. Especially in a time where it is becoming more and more common to hear that machine translations are reaching human levels of proficiency, which is definitely not true. I mean, a machine can translate terms, but certainly not expressions, cultural references, metaphors, all the stuff I work on. Last year, Google announced that Google Translate translates roughly enough text to fill 1 million books in one day. Well, this might even be true, but it does not mean those 1 million words are well translated. If somebody needs a rental contract, a medical history, a marriage certificate or a poetry book to be well translated, I hope they understand that Google Translate cannot do the job. It is just something that it is not possible. There’s also invisibility because you can work for three months on a translation project but you might never see your name on the website. The users who are using the service have no idea that you exist. So if you want to be a superstar you shouldn’t become a translator.

The temporary aspect of it is quite heavy on us as well. All my scheduling is from project to project. I am never quite sure when the next job will come or how much money I will make at the end of every month, which can be tiring.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a translator?

Read everything you can about the profession, before you get into it. And I don’t just mean technical books about how to translate. This you will learn later on anyway, if you decide to follow that path. But there are many things that are not said or taught in a classroom, or in most classrooms anyway. So many people go and get out of a language course nowadays thinking they are going straight to the UN language department to translate the speeches of the major policy makers in the world, when this is actually an interpreter’s job, not a translator’s (and it takes so many other skills, such as memory, the ability to handle pressure, public speaking, etc).

Even the translators that do work for the UN have to go to an exhaustive selection process, have to speak more than two languages fluently. And even if you do speak 3 of 4 languages and pass in the exam, there are only enough places in the UN for a relatively small number of translators. Not for hundreds of thousands. Most of the translators in the world don’t work for the UN. So the reality about translation work and the different kinds of translation work isn’t well-understood even by the people who intend to study and dedicate themselves to this career. You’re not necessarily going to become Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter.

So the first thing is reading a lot about it, since there are plenty of books these days that will give you an introduction, testimonials of translators, and that reveal the ins and outs. [Nicole has helpful lists of translation-related books and links on her blog.] But the second piece of advice that I can give you is to find a mentor. Find somebody who actually works as a professional translator for a good number of years and ask him or her as many questions as you can, without being annoying. This person might be able to clarify some things much faster and to allow you to make a career decision based on the reality of this profession and of the market it serves.

However, you should do your research first before finding a mentor, so you don’t ask them the basic questions where the answers are already online or in books that are easy to find. But if you do your research first then you can ask them the really good questions that you’ll never find written anywhere. There’s a real difference between asking someone who has theoretical knowledge of the translation world versus someone who’s actually been in the trenches translating themselves and knows what it’s like to work under a deadline and everything else that comes with this career.

Another thing that’s important is: if you decide to follow this path, make time to read a bit about ergonomics, so that you can build a proper home-office for you. Learn how to take care of your body. Exercise. Stretch. Take breaks. Eat well. Sleep well. I heard it all the time at the beginning but because I was 23 years old I didn’t think I needed to worry about it anytime soon. But translation is the type of job where you sit in the same position all day, and it’s very likely that in the beginning you won’t think about arranging a proper office because you don’t have any money to spare, so you buy a computer with terrible resolution and you’re squinting at it all the time, then you start having headaches everyday and you don’t know why. Or you end up eating crap food because you’re so busy you don’t have time to cook a proper meal, so you just eat frozen pizza every day for a week but that’s not great for your body in the long run. Or you work in a wooden chair, that doesn’t give you proper back support and start having back problems, and you will blame your work.

So much has to do with the conditions that you work in. They can affect your life quality hugely and the sooner you learn about it and act on it, more chances you have of a long and more pleasant career as a translator. I must confess it took several years and the arrival of pains in many parts of my body for me to understand I had to respect and take care of the physical aspects of being a translator. That’s something my mentor really taught me since she’s older than I am: translating is not just a work of the mind, it’s also in your body.

Finally, you also need to learn and develop business skills in order to manage your clients, if you are going to be a freelance and not an in-house translator. I realized very early on that it wasn’t going to be enough for me to just sit here and translate the things that come in: I also have to do all the arrangements to get myself work and then get myself paid for it. So I have to be my own project manager, accountant, marketing expert, and so on. Sometimes it takes 10 emails to actually close a deal with a client and this is all time that is taking away from doing the “pure” translation work but it’s also really important. If I want to have a twitter account or a blog about translation or to get clients then I have to make them myself. I’m my whole own company. By the end of the day, sometimes you realize that you only translated 1000 words, and you’re wondering where the time went, but it’s because you’re doing all this stuff that’s not translation. So remember that when you choose a freelance translator career, it’s not all flexibility and freedom.

What might a typical “day in the life of a translator” look like?

It depends on whether you work as an in-house translator or as a freelancer from your home-office. For people who work in the translation department of a client’s company or in a translation agency, they have colleagues, and often a team of translators who work together in the same project. They share resources, terminology and infrastructure and they usually have a fixed income, guaranteed rights, and a more defined routine: from 9 to 5 or 8 to 6, Monday to Friday. If you are a freelance translator you are your own boss, which is great, but you also are your own company with all its departments and responsibilities.

There are definitely good things and bad things about both types of system, so it comes down to personality and also what opportunities you have at the beginning. Some people hear about an in-house position quite early on in their careers so they do it without a second thought and might never try the other way. Others don´t get the chance to work in-house or prefer to have a more flexible schedule, so they start their own business. If you’re a very sociable person, who does not like to be alone, it may be more important to you to have colleagues to interact with during working hours, instead of working alone at home the whole day. If you don’t have much discipline, it might be easy to have established working hours and the eminent threat of being fired if you don’t get in time, to make you get up and work everyday. If you don’t need a tick tock in your head or people telling you what to do to get things done, then working from home could be a good option for you.

Some translators who have children might want to have a guaranteed fixed income and other rights like sick days, so they work in-house. Others might prefer to spend more time with their children, so they work from home. I really don’t think there is an absolute and universal “best path”, it’s all about what you want. For me, what I want, is that if there’s a U2 concert in Ireland tomorrow or I want to spend the summer with my family in Brazil, I can just pack up and go to it and my clients won’t even notice because I can still get them the work they need, in the plane or in the hotel. But maybe in 10 years I’ll want something different, who knows?

What kinds of equipment and tools do you use for translation?

For equipment, I have:

  • ◦ A good computer with a fast processor and a screen with a decent resolution (which is something I can proudly say I have now, after years of underestimating the power of such things).
  • ◦ A second monitor, which is something I think every translator can benefit from, so you can have your original text on one screen and your target text on the other screen at the same time.
  • ◦ Bilingual and monolingual dictionaries in your source and target languages, both printed and online. Thank God we’re now in an era where a lot of books and dictionaries are available online or as CDs so you don’t have to carry them around, although I do have a lot of books, as well. Online language corpora [English examples: COCABNC] are also very useful to check how words tend to occur with each other.
  • ◦ Glossaries in all my working areas (always a work in progress).
  • ◦ A good working chair.
  • ◦ A printer.
  • ◦ A tablet (for testing the apps I localize).
  • ◦ Yet to come: a footrest. [Allthingslinguistic also highly approves of footrests!]

Some translators use CAT tools (Computer-assisted translation) like Trados, Worfast, Memo Q, and many others, which let you build a translation memory. This means that every time you translate a term you can save it and find it easily to use again next time. The lexicon doesn’t come ready-made, so you have to build your own, but it’s useful when you’re working with technical areas, which have a relevant amount of terms repeated. The translators who work in more technical seem to invest in tools like Trados or Worfast as soon as they have the money to do so because they find them really useful. However, because I work in the creative areas I never felt the need to use them. I have been thinking more and more about it and will probably get one of them at some point, now that I am working more and more with IT, which does have a bigger level of repetition than advertising, for example.

There’s a huge debate in the field about whether to use CAT tools though. Six years ago when I started, people seemed to be more on the side of no, or maybe one day, when I have money, but these days a lot more translators are using them, and there is a much bigger pressure from the market to use them. Some clients and colleagues even get to the point of saying that those of us who do not use it are not professional translator, which I think is absurd in some many levels.

What I do know is that using a CAT tool or not should not be an automatic decision. It is something you should do “just because” you are a translator. It is a decision you have to make based in the reality of your working routine and needs. You have to take into consideration what services you offer, in what areas, who are your clients, if they require these tools, whether you’re going to really use them, how much time it’s going to take to learn how to use them really well, and how much you can actually get back from this investment (as most of them are not cheap at all). Like I said earlier, some translators, mainly in technical areas, seem to really get a lot from CAT tools specially in terms of productivity, as they translate more words per day. But this is not the reality of all translators, who work in so many different areas, so it should not be considered a must-have to everybody.

I read a fantastic article about whether to use CAT tools the other day by the wonderful Joy Mo, a translator who shares so much knowledge with our community, which you can read on her blog.

Every translator should also consider hiring a proofreader, who provides another pair of eyes to look at their work. I don’t know how it works for other translators but I tend to establish long relationships with proofreaders. I have two proofreaders who I’ve been working with for a few years now and I send them my jobs after I’ve finished them, and they read the translations and I pay them (you include their rate in your rate). The proofreaders should definitely be native speakers of the language they’re proofreading. Even if you’re a good translator and writer, after 8 hours looking at the same text, you definitely miss things. You may notice the mistakes the next morning, but it is not always that we have a reasonable deadline to allow us to sleep on a task like that… it can be faster and more effective to send it to someone else who is refreshed and can see your mistakes.

I actually started a LinkedIn group for proofreaders in Portuguese because I had a hard time finding professional proofreaders to work with in my first years as a translator, and now it has about 1500 members. After the group had a few hundred members, I asked them to send me their CVs and I picked people who also were interested in working in advertising, because the proofreaders that I work with don’t just check for typos: they also evaluate whether the translation sounds like a really professional, localized ad campaign. Since I don’t send the original text to the proofreader, but only my translated version, they know immediately if it sounds unidiomatic because they’re not comparing it to the source like I have to do when I’m translating. So I’d definitely recommend getting a proofreader who has at least some affinity with the areas you’re specialized in.

Is there anything else you think people should know?

I think the most important thing is that translators should always translate into their native languages, even though some people insist that they can do the other way around. It’s a controversial topic but that’s what I think. If you work in a technical area where the terminology is a bit more fixed and static, it might be different, but for an area like advertising or literature where it’s changing all the time and it’s all about metaphors, style and tone, it’s really important that you have an intuitive and modern knowledge of the cultural context. It’s also important to realize that knowing one or more other languages is not enough to make someone a translator. You need training and you have to specialize in some areas, because you cannot know everything about everything.

Thanks so much to Nicole for answering my questions! For more information on being a translator, you can check her out on tumblr or twitter if you have more questions but please don’t ask her for homework help! Especially helpful are her list of links and books about translation.


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