Melissa Harkin, PLD Blog Editor
No, really. I mean it. Let me explain.
On the morning of May 14, I woke and did what I always do — poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down to drink it while scrolling down my Facebook timeline. Among the sea of alerts, one stood out. James Kirchner, a translator based in Michigan, shared a PragerU video presented by TV personality Mike Rowe, star of “Dirty Jobs” and “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” in a group called “Marketing for Translators and Interpreters.”
With the title Don’t Follow Your Passion, the video was an immediate eye-catcher, and my first thought was “whaaat?”.
Should you follow your passion, wherever it may take you? Should you do only what you love… or learn to love what you do? How can you identify which path to take? How about which paths to avoid? TV personality Mike Rowe, star of “Dirty Jobs” and “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” shares the dirty truth in PragerU’s 2016 commencement address.
Whether this is good or bad advice depends on one’s point of view, but to me it seems worth giving some attention.
James’ post sparked a very interesting discussion. So much so that he shared a second video on his own thread – Mark Cuban – Don’t follow your passion – Insights for Entrepreneurs – Amazon.
Lots of people have passions. Instead, says Mark Cuban, you should follow your effort.
Mark Cuban is a serial entrepreneur, author, philanthropist, and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Since season two in 2011, he’s been one of the “shark” investors on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank.”
In James’ opinion, “It often turns out that the types of work that you don’t like are the ones that like you. And as you get deeper into them, you start liking them back. It’s vital to break loose of your limiting ego that says, “I’m bored,” “I’m better than this,” “I’m worthy of something else,” and to look outward at what benefit your work is providing to other people. Is talking someone into buying a certain brand of perfume really more exciting or important than preventing people from being injured or electrocuted? Is the perfume really more interesting than that boring recycled-plastic shipping contraption that annually prevents enough food from spoiling to feed Chicago? In my opinion, it’s not. When some seemingly mundane work comes courting, it pays to look deeper — and also to realize the offer may be coming to you because you’ve been recognized as good at the work.”
When applied to the translation and interpreting industry, I see two different passions which often collide — one is the passion for languages, culture, and even intellectualism, and the other is a passion for standing out in the crowd. It is the latter that worries me.
Wanting to stand out is not a bad thing. I’ve had the chance to do several high-profile translation and interpreting jobs over the years and did not keep quiet about it (unless a non-disclosure agreement forced me to keep it confidential). The jobs help show my progress, different areas of specialization, and the type of client that trusts me professionally, so I used them for marketing purposes. But if standing out were my only focus, it would mean that I’d be ignoring other work opportunities. Opportunities that are just as important and lucrative.
If you want to become a literary translator solely for fame (some translators become well-known after translating certain authors, and maybe that prominence motivates you), or if you dream about translating and subtitling blockbuster movies so you can take friends and family to the theater and point to your name in the credits (disregarding what it takes to work in that field), then you’re not looking at all of the options in the market — and there are many.
I once did an English to Portuguese translation on water flow. Back then, there weren’t many references in Portuguese in that particular area and the client knew that. They were looking for someone who would know where to look and research in order to deliver a good translation. I knew immediately that a per-word rate was not going to cut it, because the project would involve more research than translating hours. We agreed on a per-project rate that was substantially higher than my per-word rate and, three weeks later, I delivered a stellar translation, glossary, and list of references, and got a big, fat check for a job well done.
Certain fields may not bring you the “fame and glory” of literary or movie translations, being a UN interpreter, or interpreting for celebrities, but they may offer you higher-than-average pay precisely due to the need for specialized translators and interpreters, that is, professionals that have a working or theoretical knowledge of the subject and know where and how to research.
Karen Tkaczyk, Ph.D., is a French to English technical translator and editor who is currently serving as Secretary of the American Translators Association. She often speaks about the need for specialized translators, how and why translators should pick a specialization, and has offered insights into lucrative areas.
Karen says that “Specialization — and by that I mean true subject-matter expertise that comes from years of hard work, not just choosing a field to market yourself for — has so many benefits. You can solve thorny problems, so you add value for your customers and they come to rely on you. You know more so you spend less time researching, so you make more money per job. You can answer 90% of your colleagues’ term queries off the top of your head, so you gain their respect. Narrow, deep specialization is an excellent way to stand out in our crowded markets. Think beyond the obvious specializations too — if your passion is diving equipment or horses, go for it! You only need enough work for you.”
So, you see, many lucrative areas of expertise need translation services. Are you sure you are exploring the market as well as you should?
About the author and fellow translators quoted in this article
Melissa Harkin (Harkin Translations) is a technical translator working in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, and specializing in journalistic, legal, energy, and sustainable development content. She transitioned full-time to translation from her career in legal/sustainable development in 2012 — before that, she translated part-time from 1997 to 2011. She is a member of the American Translators Association (ATA), Brazilian Translators Association (Abrates), New England Translators Association (NETA), former administrator of the New York Circle of Translators (NYCT) — a chapter of the ATA, and editor of the ATA’s Portuguese Language Division blog. Twitter.
James Kirchner is a translator working from German, Czech, French and Slovak into English. Because he works in two “small languages,” he has had to develop a larger-than-normal number of specializations, but mainly does technical, marketing and fine arts translations. James is a past president of the Michigan Translators/Interpreters Network (MiTiN), which is the Michigan chapter of the ATA. He has a BFA in Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies and an MA in Linguistics from Wayne State University, as well as a Czech Proficiency Certificate from the Státní Jazyková škola in Prague. He has a black belt in Aikido, which he has been involved in for 40 years, and is an avid beginner at Karate and Iaido.
Karen McMillan Tkaczyk (McMillan Translations) first trained as a chemist, then after having children changed course and became a freelance technical translator and editor. She has been translating and editing since 2005 and credits her success to narrow, deep specialization. She is certified in French to English by ATA and is a Fellow of ITI. Karen is originally from the UK and has lived in the US since 1999. She can speak extensively about English dialects and how to localize them, but she can only speak with a lilting Scottish accent. Karen is currently the Secretary of the American Translators Association. She tweets as ChemXlator.