Interview with ITIA member James Pelow
Describe yourself professionally in a few lines.
I am an English-Irish/Irish-English translator with nearly 10 years professional experience. I specialise in governmental, IT and legal translation, and am currently the only ITIA Certified Legal Translator for English-Irish and Irish-English. I run Snasta (a kind of Irish language SLV) with my partner, and together we manage the work of approximately 10 freelance Irish translators.
When and why did you decide on a career in translating/interpreting?
I fell in love with the Irish language while attending Newpark School in Blackrock, Co. Dublin and always wanted to continue with the language after leaving school.
Early and Modern Irish in Trinity College, Dublin gave me that opportunity and I was particularly taken by the Early Irish element of the course. It was extremely technical and focused heavily on the translation of early texts into English.
Towards the end of the four year course I came to the realisation that I wanted to continue with the language professionally. Knowing from the Early Irish course that I enjoyed translation, a career in translation in the modern language seemed like a natural fit and I found the technical, even solitary, nature of the work particularly appealing.
At the time, Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge were starting to run more and more post-graduate courses on their campus in An Chearthú Rua in Galway. I went with their H.Dip. in Irish Translation Studies, which allowed me to experience true Gaeltacht life and also hone my translation skills.
Name the most important thing you did that helped you launch your career.
Achieving the Séala Fhoras na Gaeilge (Foras na Gaeilge Accreditation for Irish language translators) is probably the single most important thing for an Irish translator. Without it, many government bodies will not consider you for work. Being on the panel also results in a steady flow of work.
How important are training and qualifications for a career in translating/interpreting.
In the case of Irish translation specifically I would say that qualifications are a means to an end, but they are not the be all and end all. If a translator can achieve Foras na Gaeilge Accreditation without formal training then he/she should be more than able for a career in translation.
That being said, the particular skillset required for interpreting written language, including all its various idiosyncrasies and nuances, and then reinterpreting it in another language is not something that comes naturally to most people. Irish grammar rules are also particularly cumbersome. In the vast majority of cases those skills can only be developed with tuition, study and, above all else, practice.
Computer skills are also incredibly important these days and ongoing professional development in the use of modern CAT tools is a must for anyone serious about a career in translation — you can’t bake a cake without knowing how to use your oven.
How do you find clients?
When I started out I registered with all the usual agencies and work started to trickle in. I would have been quite happy to continue on that basis, but certain agencies then started pushing my rate down, asking for tighter turnaround times and paying invoices late. These agencies push the rate so low that they are unable to produce a product fit for purpose, and I wanted no part in their race to the bottom.
Keen to offer quality at fair price, I developed a brand and a website to market myself directly to clients. This website started to move up the Google results and I started building my direct client base. Being on the Foras na Gaeilge Panel also brought in more clients.
Now we also tender for larger public contracts and are on the Office of Government Procurement’s framework for Irish translation. This kind of work can be financially rewarding, but the tendering process is arduous and often seems futile.
Do you think it is necessary to specialise?
Irish is such a small market that it’s not really possible to specialise in the same way as other languages, however desirable that would be. Generally speaking, an Irish translator is expected to be a jack of all trades. Excellent online resources, such as Tearma.ie (The National Terminology Database), Gaois.ie (Parallel English-Irish corpus of legislation), Focloir.ie (The New English-Irish Dictionary) and Logainm.ie (the National Placenames Database), make that possible.
What is your favourite type of text/assignment?
I love translating legislation, funnily enough. I have a very methodical approach to translation and the formulaic and technical nature of legal translation seems to suit that approach. The quality of the source text is also always excellent, having been properly drafted, edited and proofread, which further aids the translation process.
What is the best/worst thing about being a translator/ interpreter?
Best thing: Working for myself. Worst thing: Working for myself. I love the freedom of working for myself and the feeling that I am creating value in my own business rather than in some anonymous company. The problem is that the lines between work and life become blurred and I find myself picking up the laptop in the evening and on weekends when I should really be relaxing. It’s also incredibly difficult to get anything more than a couple of days off at a time.
While getting time off is tough, working online with no physical ties has given me the opportunity to travel a bit, which resulted in my living in Andalucía in Spain for 2 years. It also gives myself and my partner the freedom to visit family in Spain for extended periods, something which wouldn’t be possible with a conventional job.
Is it possible to have a good standard of living?
In the case of Irish translation, where the unit rate is still relatively high, absolutely. There is money to be made.
I would not expect this to change in the short to medium term. The Irish translation market is relatively sheltered from external influences due to its size and the small pool of qualified translators. Other potential concerns, like machine translation, have not progressed far enough in Irish to affect the status quo.
What advice would you give someone thinking of embarking on a career as a translator/interpreter?
You need to make sure that translation is the right choice for you. Try to take on a few smaller freelance assignments at first to make sure you like it. Working for yourself from home requires discipline — will you be able to get up early every morning, work alone for long periods of time, meet deadlines and maintain professionalism at all times? Great, you’ll be a natural. If not, maybe an in-house role would suit you better.
When you start, you need to set a reasonable rate and stick with it. There will always be downwards pressure on your rate from your customers, especially agencies. Strongly resist that pressure. If you’re offering a quality product, pricing yourself a higher than the competition can work in your favour.
Always be realistic about the deadlines you set yourself, allow yourself extra time in case something goes wrong, and never promise the world to clients if you can’t deliver. Always, always, always meet your deadlines.
If you subcontract work to other translators, remember how you like to be treated. Always pay a fair rate, set realistic deadlines, and pay ahead of time if at all possible.