International Trade as a Translation Specialization

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Amanda Williams

International trade and logistics translation bears a striking resemblance to scientific translation. Sound crazy? Bear with me a second.

Colleagues instinctively know not everyone has the subject matter expertise to translate chemistry-related texts. Although the same cannot necessarily be said for logistics company websites and shipping documents, that doesn’t make it any less true.

After giving a presentation on translation opportunities in the area of import/export in Colorado at the Colorado Translators Association’s Annual Conference in April 2018, a fellow FLD member approached me afterward to tell me she enjoyed my presentation and wanted to chat about how eerily similar her field of chemistry was to my field of international logistics and supply chain. We did a comparison:

Chemistry Translation International Logistics Translation
Highly specialized terminology
Has its own degree programs (undergrad through post-grad levels)
Prior experience in field preferred for translators
Highly government-regulated industry
Subject matter continuing education required

I believe international trade is a fascinating and complex area of specialization for a translator. And it is an area that offers substantial opportunities for those willing to put in the work to convince them of our value.

Finding My Niche

Ask some translators how they “picked” a specialization, and nine times out of ten, I bet they’d tell you their specialization picked them. That’s what happened to me. My experience in international trade didn’t come from a university. It came from working for one of the top 100 largest ocean importers into the United States. I was recruited to work there after college. I spent a couple years in sales, traveled to Chile to tour mills and see the manufacturing process, then I moved to the operations department where I managed imports into various regions in the US, oversaw third-party logistics provider (3PL) service levels, and handled any US customs issues that happened to pop up. Then one day, US customs came knocking on the door and announced their intention to conduct a focused assessment (the most intensive form of US customs audit) on the company. That was the “lucky” moment I was promoted to trade compliance manager and handed a nice big audit as a congratulatory gift. I spent the next two years working very closely with US customs auditors digging deep into several years of the company’s general ledgers, profit and loss statements and balance sheets to prove the legality of the company’s related-party transactions and their eligibility for the Chile Free Trade Agreement (CLFTA) and Generalized System of Preferences (another FTA).

As you can see from my varied experience, there’s a lot to this thing called international trade.

What Is International Trade?

Translators tend to think about the before and after of international trade – we think about translating the marketing materials, the websites where orders can be placed, the financial reporting after products are sold, but we often forget about what it takes to physically move cargo from one country to another, and there are mountains of paperwork and opportunities for translators during this phase of a product’s lifecycle.

Buying, selling and shipping and receiving goods across borders is not something you can just snap your fingers and do. It requires many partners (3PLs, a customs broker, maybe a freight forwarder, or a steam ship line contract if you’re not using a freight forwarder). Before you even start the physical process of importing goods, the seller and buyer have to define who will be responsible for each stage of the export and import process. An easy way to do that is agreeing on an Incoterm. Incoterms are rules created by the International Chamber of Commerce to facilitate the sale of goods. The terms were originally created in 1923, first published in 1936 and have been updated a handful of times since. You can buy a book explaining the incoterms from the ICC business bookstore. The latest update was released and published in 2010 and contains 11 different options that divide up which party is responsible for paying for each part of the export/import process. Below is an example of two different incoterms for illustration purposes:

CIF = Cost, Insurance and Freight
DDP = Delivery Duties Paid

Incoterm CIF DDP
Loading on truck Seller Seller
Export Customs Seller Seller
Transport to port of export Seller Seller
Unloading at port of export Seller Seller
Vessel loading at port of export Seller Seller
SSL fees (carriage fees) Seller Seller
Insurance Seller Seller
Vessel unloading Buyer Seller
Loading on truck at port of import Buyer Seller
Transport to dest. Buyer Seller
Import customs Buyer Seller
Import duties Buyer Seller

These terms have to be decided on no matter what type of relationship you have with the exporter. You could be buying and importing product from a random company, or you could be importing product from a subsidiary – either way, agreements and terms need to be negotiated on and drawn up, which creates contracts in another language that need to be translated.

How It Works

Below is a flowchart illustrating a simple import:

Remember — once cargo arrives to the United States, that’s not the end of its journey, but rather the beginning of a whole new supply chain journey over here that will most likely include distribution centers (DCs), smaller warehouses and either truck or rail shipments across the US.

Exporting is very similar to importing, but backwards. One difference is that US customs can hold and inspect your shipments before they leave the US, and then they also have to go through customs at the foreign destination. Customs wants to inspect outgoing cargo to make sure that no threats to national security are leaving the country.

Now that we’ve seen how to physically move cargo from one country to another, let’s take a look at the documentation US Customs and Border Protection requires each shipment to have in order to clear customs and enter the United States. Keep in mind that all of this documentation needs to be either translated or originally written in English. All of these documents come from the exporter:

And if an importer is lucky enough to be selected for a focused assessment, that list of documents required by CBP increases exponentially:

Other Opportunities in the Supply Chain

Most translation opportunities would come from the importer or exporter, but they are not the only parties involved in the process. There may be opportunities with some of the other parties involved in importing – especially with customs brokers and freight forwarders, because some importers and exporters are less knowledgeable than others and outsource the entire process to a freight forwarder or customs broker. Here is a list of all the different organizations that either create, process or review multilingual documents:

That being said, out of all the parties mentioned above, US Customs and Border Protection and other government entities that work alongside customs are the parties that will insist on quality translations when needed.

What Is US Customs and Border Protection?

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the largest federal law enforcement agency in the US. Its primary objective is to prevent terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States and it is also responsible for border patrol, regulating imports and exports, collecting duties, transportation checks, trade enforcement and trade facilitation.

When could CBP ask for translations?

  • During Quick Response Audits (very specific audits focusing on one single item)
  • During Focused Assessments
  • If an importer is working with CBP to join the Importer Self-Assessment Program (ISA)

In addition to Customs, the US government has other agencies that are responsible for enforcing trade laws and consumer protection laws, so these agencies work with customs during the import and clearance process as well:

Want to Learn More?

If you really want to go deep, several universities offer international logistics/supply chain programs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State, Penn State and the University of Tennessee all have distinguished programs. There are also a lot of MOOCs related to international trade, import/export, etc. Check out Coursera and Springboard. Large customs brokers and international trade law firms offer online and in-person courses. Sandler and Travis (STTAS) offers webinars all the time. CBP, some customs brokers and some international trade law firms offer free newsletters you can sign up for. Check out the census bureau and CBP, Census Bureau, the Bureau of Industry and Security and other government entities offer abundant resources. Lastly, you can get certified – IIEI, the World Academy and other organizations offer various international trade certification courses (links are below).

Training Resources

Amanda N. Williams is an ATA-certified French to English translator specialized in business, international trade and financial translation. You can find her on Twitter as the Adorkable Translator (@Adorkable_Trans), on her website at or reach her via email at

Review of Translation Workshop: French to English (Organized by Corinne McKay)

ata-fld-newsletter-logoBy Beth Smith

When I learned that Corinne McKay was going to set up a translation skills class rather than a business-oriented class, I was intrigued. How would it be set up? Who would the instructors be? Then when I saw the details, I knew immediately that I had to try it, even though the first time around with a new course risks some bumps in the road and hiccups. I don’t know about how it looked from the instructor side, but from my point of view, it was hiccup-free.

The course ran for eight weeks, starting on April 23. There were four instructors in four different specializations, each of whom taught for two weeks, starting with Michèle Hansen for medical, then Karen Tkaczyk for science and technology, Judy Lyons for financial, and finally, Tom West for legal. There were two live (online) sessions per week. On Mondays, the instructors did PowerPoint “lectures,” presenting information about their specialties, such as types of texts involved in the specialization, specific issues or problems you might encounter, and resources. Then the Wednesday editions were more informal question and answer sessions, where they answered questions students had posted in the class’s Google Group as well as anything else that came up along the way. Some of these questions were about the week’s homework assignment, but the instructors were very willing to answer more general questions about how they work, what they personally work on the most, and more.

All of the instructors had a different presentation style and emphasized different things, but I enjoyed every single recorded session. It was clear that they had all spent lot of time preparing for their sessions (or if they didn’t, they were really good at winging it). Even though Corinne wasn’t actually teaching the content of the workshop, she played a vital role during the live sessions, as she acted as a host/facilitator, asked questions, and discussed various issues with the instructors. So as a student, I never had the feeling that the instructor was just droning along while showing PowerPoint slides. I wasn’t able to attend the live sessions due to prior commitments (like teaching my 3rd-period class!), but the sessions were recorded, so I had no trouble watching them later (and even re-watching, especially when I was trying to follow everything Tom was saying about various legal concepts).

The main reason I signed up for the course was for the chance to do a weekly translation assignment and get feedback on my work, but as soon as I had actually registered, I started panicking about that very thing. My main goal throughout the class was to not humiliate myself in front of any of the expert translators.  I’m going to refrain from asking any direct questions about my performance, but my feedback was generally pretty good. Since this wasn’t a college class, we didn’t receive letter grades for each assignment; instead, the instructors rated them as outstanding, good, acceptable, fair, or poor. Each of these ratings was accompanied by a brief description. For example, the description of a “good” translation was, “A translation that would probably be acceptable to a professional translation client with a reasonable or expected amount of editing, that displays a strong command of the passage’s subject matter, and that is very solid in terms of accuracy, style, and flow.” In addition, the translation review sheet included instructor comments about overall impression, typos, accuracy, and stylistic quality. Plus the instructors also made comments and corrections on the translations themselves. As for the actual texts, they included part of a patient record, a product data sheet for an adhesive, an excerpt from an annual report, and definitions from a legal dictionary. The texts weren’t impossibly long; I believe they were all under 400 words. But they were definitely chosen to contain as much tricky vocabulary as possible, or so it seemed. There were times when I spent half an hour researching a single term. Then again, if everything were easy and obvious, there wouldn’t be much point in taking the class.

I was very happy with the course, from the way it was set up to the instructor feedback. I don’t specialize in any of the four areas, so for me, it was not only an excellent opportunity to get feedback from top-level translators in various fields and to learn as much as possible about each specialization, but also to test the waters to see if I should think about working in any of those areas. I discovered that I’m better at medical and technical than I thought, but in most cases, I should leave the financial and legal translation to someone else. Okay, I actually suspected that about legal and financial, but this class confirmed what I thought. But if I should need to translate any financial or legal texts, I now have a ton of resources I didn’t have before, and as I said earlier, I enjoyed those online sessions. It just turns out that if I have to spend a bunch of time researching something, I’d prefer it to be a medical procedure or a thingamajig described in a product description than legal or financial terminology.

For someone who already specializes in one of the four areas, it might still be worth considering the class, as we got tons of information and resources. Some of my fellow students had extensive backgrounds in finance, but they still seemed very happy with the course. If you work in a completely different field and have no interest in exploring any of the ones covered in the class, then this course might not be for you. But if you are a generalist or if you work in any of the four specializations, you might want to check out the course if it’s offered again. I would definitely be interested in taking another translation workshop class in the future.

Beth Smith is a French to English translator specializing in tourism, advertising/marketing, and the psychology of happiness (an accidental specialization developed when translating the book The Finance of Happiness by Renaud Gaucher). She currently serves as the FLD’s Facebook page moderator.

FLD Dinner in New Orleans for ATA’s 59th Annual Conference – Sign Up Now!


The French Language Division’s dinner at the 2018 New Orleans conference will be held at the Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar. We hope to see you there!

Friday, October 26, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.

Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar
509 Canal St.
New Orleans, LA 70130



~ ENTRÉEyou will choose one of the following when you make your reservation with the FLD:

  • Shrimp & Grits
  • Blackened Redfish
  • Crabcake And Shrimp Alfredo
  • Jambalaya Pasta (not vegetarian)
  • Fried Fish & Shrimp Platter
  • Combination: Gumbo, Crawfish Etouffée, Red Beans & Rice, and Cajun Jambalaya.
  • Vegetarian or vegan dinner – please tell us this when you register for the dinner.

~ DESSERT – New Orleans Style Bread Pudding

Note: Soft drinks are included. All alcoholic beverages will be the diner’s responsibility and are *not* included. Any other drinks not included in the price are also the diner’s responsibility.


Price: $55.00 per person and this includes three-course dinner, tax, and gratuity.

Payment for the dinner must be made in advance by PayPal ( to and received, on or before Friday, October 12, or before the event sells out.

WHEN PAYING: 1) In the notes field on PayPal, please include which entrée (see bulleted list above) you wish for your dinner. 2) Please select the “send money to friends and family” option on PayPal so that the FLD is not charged additional PayPal fees.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We do not provide refunds. You may sell or give your ticket to another conference attendee to attend in your place. If you do so, please notify us of the update, but the FLD does not provide refunds once a spot for the dinner has been purchased.


The Creole House Restaurant and Oyster Bar is is across the street from the conference hotel (the New Orleans Marriott). The distance is walkable.


Contact us at


For information about the 59th Annual ATA Conference in New Orleans, please visit