I Tried It: Hiring a Translation Intern


One of the best business decisions I’ve made in recent years was to hire an intern. I had learned about it while take a massive open online course (MOOC) on employment law through Northwestern University. If you don’t have a budget to pay an assistant yet, or want to test the waters before you hire part-time help, recruiting an intern is a solid move.

Because of the nature of labor laws, an intern generally can’t produce work product for you. (If you’re not compensating them, you can’t earn profits off their labor.) Interns must have documented knowledge gains from their experience, and they have to learn about the meat of what you do – coffee jockeying and photocopying shouldn’t be their main responsibilities. Likely, working with an intern will have a negative ROI – it will take some time away from your regular work, and for anything they produce you will have to take extra time to correct it. But it’s not as useless an effort as the language of the law makes it sound.

I found my intern like most opportunities I’ve had in business, through happenstance. M. graduated from the same departments at my alma mater as I did, and her advisor had suggested she contact me in late 2014 with questions she had about becoming a translator.  (The French Department was putting together a program on alumni who actively use their language degree in their career, so my name was already being thrown around in those discussions.) I had put out a call for a remote-working intern through the University of Virginia alumni career board with only OK results. M., on the other hand, was a perfect candidate and her interests aligned with mine; it was a natural connection.

We set up a 20-minute telephone call to discuss logistics, our mutual expectations, and some of her other questions about the field. A week later, M. submitted her resume and an example of her translation work (executed as part of coursework, rather than for a client). Based on her availability and my own, we decided to work together for 10 weeks by email, with weekly telephone calls to discuss assignments in detail. She signed a standard non-disclosure agreement before we started; you may also consider using a non-compete agreement or limiting access to your active client database.

In order to meet the legal requirements of having an intern and still get something helpful out of it for my business, I created a curriculum for M. that gave her an introduction to the business side of things and also had “real-life” translation assignments based on my past client work. M. had what we called “permanent tasks,” to be completed every week, and also “variable tasks,” which alternated between language and business lessons. All of it was designed to be doable in 8 hours or less of her time per week – since I didn’t have the budget to pay an assistant, I wanted to be sure she could help me around an income-generating job. Everything was flexible except the weekly phone calls, which I structured using preset agendas.

The permanent tasks related to market research and advertising. She was responsible for sending me links to 5 articles of interest to the translation community every week; this helped her form an important habit for herself and learn more about the industry, and I used the links I liked to post to my social media. She was also responsible for submitting the names of at least 3 new prospective clients or events in my area that might be useful for meeting potential clients; this gave her insight into how prospecting works, and I learned of events I may not have found on my own. She was also responsible for coming up with “fun stuff,” mainly related to marketing. This is a skill that is difficult to teach – applying your creativity to business, and learning to create your own tasks. If you’ve only ever worked as not-a-boss, it can be difficult to learn to make up a to-do list for yourself. Through this permanent task, M. came up with some fun quote pictures for me, which were becoming popular on social media at the time.

The variable tasks were more like homework assignments from traditional courses. M. translated short passages from my prior client work on a range of subjects, including a diploma translation assignment that proved helpful to her in a later job. She learned to create glossaries and take the time to focus on deceptively simple phrases (“Je suis Charlie” was our first example). She learned how to cold-call people and find out how much agencies versus individuals charge for certain kinds of work. I provided her with an office form I use to track common errors (which I catch during the proofreading stage of projects) and differences in various client styles. We also discussed client management issues, such as how to set up a new project cleanly and work with a range of client personalities.

Throughout the 10 weeks, we had a constant dialogue for feedback – Were the assignments addressing her needs? Were they addressing my needs? Were we communicating our expectations well? Based on her comments after the internship ended, she gained confidence in her abilities, new skills, and a wider perspective of what translating professionally truly entails. I strengthened my ability to manage others, delegate tasks, and separate business concerns from language concerns. The experience also forced me to organize myself better and to actually implement some of the systems I had set up for marketing.

In all, it was quite a rewarding experience to be both a boss and a mentor. She still sends me links of interest from time to time, and I still answer her occasional questions as she finishes up school and enters the working world. If you are looking to do something new with business in 2017, definitely consider an internship program!

Carolyn Yohn

Carolyn Yohn translates French and Hungarian legal and academic texts into American English under the name Untangled Translations.