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Making the switch to a career in translation

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Interview with Marnie Christensen, Translator at Peschel Communications

Where are you from and how did you become a translator?

I grew up in New Glarus, Wisconsin, a small town south of Madison, the state capitol. Known as “America’s Little Switzerland”, New Glarus was named after the Swiss canton of Glarus, and the community remains very proud of its heritage. Thanks to the many festivals that are celebrated there each year, I was exposed to (Swiss-) German at a very early age. When I was seven, I began learning German from my mother, a former German teacher who decided to offer lessons for my classmates and me after school. So it’s safe to say that my interest in language and culture developed at an early age.

When I went to college in Minnesota, I continued my language studies with a Bachelor’s degree in German. Translation wasn’t really discussed as a potential career path, so when I graduated, I opted to pursue an academic career in order to continue to work with language.

As part of my Master’s program in German Studies, I spend a year abroad in Berlin, where I had the chance to work as a translator for an academic center. I found the work exciting, and it offered the perfect opportunity to apply my language abilities and the skills I had honed during my studies. After I returned to the US, I continued to work as a translator part time, while also taking online courses through New York University to earn a Certificate in Translation. The courses helped me to learn more about the industry, various translation tools and fields such as legal, financial and technical translation. With my move to Germany four years ago, my focus increasingly shifted to translation. I finally made the leap to translating full time when I was hired at Peschel Communications two years ago. To further bolster my qualifications, I successfully passed the German state exam for translators last year.

How did you discover Peschel Communications?

When I moved to Freiburg, I wanted to learn more about the translation industry here. As part of my research, I came across the Peschel Communications website. At Peschel Communications, I saw an opportunity to work in a tight-knit team and to learn from other experienced translators. I also identified with the company’s mission statement and its focus on quality and close collaboration with customers. In short, I felt that Peschel Communications was a place where I could grow as a translator. I kept an eye on the website and when a position for an English translator opened up, I applied.

What do you particularly enjoy about your work?

I love being immersed in language every day. I like to write, and I enjoy working with texts and thinking about how best to convey a message in English. Another perk of the job is the wide variety of interesting topics that I get to work with on a daily basis. My workday might look something like this: I start off the morning with a marketing text, where I can really let my creativity flow. Then I move on to a contract, where a precise translation is required. And to wrap up the day, I dive into the world of renewable energies. With so many diverse tasks, there’s always something new to learn and I never get bored.

Which languages do you speak and would you like to learn any more? If so, which ones?

In addition to English and German, I studied a bit of Russian, but that was quite some time ago. While there are many other languages I would like to learn, given Freiburg’s close proximity to France, French is currently at the top of my list.

How do you relax after hours of focused work?

Since I spend most of my workday in front of a computer screen, I enjoy spending my free time outdoors – often hiking or biking. I also like to cook and I play the piano.

When are you satisfied with a translation?

A good translation doesn’t just reproduce the content of a text, it reads as if it had been written in the foreign language. When I translate, of course I ensure that the content of the original text is conveyed correctly and professionally, but style and clarity are just as important. If the reader stumbles over awkward phrasing or has to fight their way through overly complicated sentences in order to understand the translation, the effect of the original is lost. I work on a translation until I feel that everything is in place, and the final text is one that I would enjoy reading. In the end, however, style is subjective, so that I am only truly satisfied when I know that the customer is satisfied as well.

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How important is context for a translation?

It will come as no surprise that a text for experts is written differently than a text for lay people and that the tone of an advertising flyer is different than that of a contract. Many words also have different meanings depending on the context and must be translated accordingly. When the German word “Absatz” is used to refer to a section of a text, the English equivalent is paragraph. But a financial context, “Absatz” most likely means sales. And if you come across the same word in a text about fashion, it is probably referring to the heel of a shoe.

A colleague recently told me a joke: How many translators does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on the context. In other words, context is key. Although you can often infer the context from the text, sometimes that isn’t enough. One example that has come up a few times as of late is a brochure to be included with written correspondence. While English makes a distinction between an enclosure (included with a letter) and an attachment (included with an email), German uses the same term for both. Thus in order to correctly translate the text, the translator needs to know whether it will be sent as a letter or an email.

Computer or red pen – which would you prefer if you had the choice?

A while ago, one of our customers requested that a proofreading job be done on hard copy with a red pen. At first it was a bit unfamiliar, but once I got going, I really enjoyed it. It was nice to get away from the computer for a bit, and you read a text differently on paper than on a screen. But even if I’d like to work with pen and paper sometimes to change things up, doing this job without a computer is unthinkable. From dictionaries to specialist articles to our customers’ websites, almost all of our research is done online. In addition, we rely on a translation tool to archive our translations and save our terminology. This allows us to establish that when translating for Customer X, “Arbeitsvertrag” should always be translated as employment agreement (and not employment contract) and that the “Geschäftsführer” of Company Y is known in English as the Managing Director and not the CEO. If the same (or a similar) sentence comes up again, we can see how it was translated the first time. Not only does this save us time, it allows our customers to rest assured that their terminology will be used consistently across multiple texts and by multiple translators.

How important is contact to colleagues?

For me, the opportunity to collaborate with other translators is the biggest advantage of working in an office. If I’m working on a really tricky German text and want to be certain that I’ve understood something correctly, I can ask one of the native German speakers in the office. If there are questions of style or the difference between British and American English, I can consult with my British colleague. Or if particular creativity is needed, the two of us can brainstorm together. The end result is often better than if I had worked alone.

Why is it so important for translations to be checked by a second translator?

Anyone who has written a text knows that language is fraught with error. No matter how careful you are, typos and other inadvertent mistakes are alarmingly common. The translator may also overlook a word or misread a sentence. A second pair of eyes serves to ensure that these sorts of errors are avoided as much as possible.

Are translators in direct contact with customers or do they sit silently with their texts?

Translation requires intense concentration, so a quiet work environment is important. However, I have worked in several large offices over the years, and as a result I’ve gotten pretty good at tuning out noise. Our office is set up so that the project managers coordinate all contact with customers. Projects often involve multiple languages and thus multiple translators. When questions arise, the project managers gather them together before passing them on to the customer. The customer’s answers are then forwarded to all of the translators. This ensures that the customer has a consistent contact person and does not receive the same question from multiple translators. And if the customer has questions about a translation, the project managers likewise collect the information and pass it on to the translator. This way the translator (who may be deep in another translation at the time of the customer’s call) has time to find their way back into the translation in question in order to provide an appropriate answer. Often queries are settled via email, but sometimes it’s helpful to speak directly with the customer.

Do you think that studying languages and literatures is a good starting point for working as a translator?

I have found that my degrees in German Studies offer several advantages for translation. First and foremost, as part of my studies, I had the opportunity to spend considerable time in German-speaking countries and learn German at a very high level. The focus on literature taught me to read texts very closely and pay attention to things like word choice, style and register. The research skills that I honed during my studies help me to identify reliable sources and to quickly get up to speed in new subject areas. Close attention was also paid to good writing. As a result, I learned to write clearly and well – a very important aspect of translating that is often overlooked.

Many people are skeptical of translators who have not studied translation. Is their skepticism justified? Do you feel that as a career changer you need to do more to be taken seriously by both customers and colleagues?

“Translator” is not a protected job title, which means that anyone can theoretically call themselves a translator. But just because someone speaks several languages doesn’t mean they can translate well. Translators not only need to have a broad vocabulary and an impeccable command of both languages, they also need to understand the material to be translated and be able to express themselves like an author or an editor.

Unfortunately a lot of people who decide to switch careers lack this expertise and these skills, and are therefore unable to deliver good translations. As a result, those who have studied translation are often rightly skeptical of those who have not. In order to be taken seriously as a career changer, it’s important to be able to demonstrate that you understand the industry and specific specialist areas, and that you actually know how to translate. Taking courses and, of course, gaining as much practical experience as possible is helpful in this regard. Specializing in one or more areas and taking the exam to qualify as a certified translator are also recommended.

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