Interview with ITIA member Rachel McNicholl
Describe yourself professionally in a few lines.
I’m a freelance translator and editor. I also teach a few hours a week in an adult literacy scheme, and give occasional translation or editing workshops. My clients range from individuals to publishers, cultural institutes, corporate bodies and NGOs. My translations of fiction and non-fiction by German-language writers have been published in journals and anthologies including The Stinging Fly, Manoa, No Man’s Land, Trinity Journal of Literary Translation and Best European Fiction. My most recent book-length translation is sometimes i lie and sometimes i don’t, short-stories by Austrian writer Nadja Spiegel (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015). In 2014 I received an Arts Council bursary to pursue literary translation. In 2016, I was awarded a PEN/Heim translation grant by PEN America towards a novel I would love to see published in English, Operation Hinterland by Anita Augustin (Der Zwerg reinigt den Kittel, 2012).
When and why did you decide on a career in translating/interpreting?
It was an “organic” process. I always knew that I wanted to study languages, but I wasn’t entirely sure where that would lead me. I studied French (minor), German and Italian for my degree in 1981, then went on to do an MA in German. Degrees or post-grads in translation studies didn’t exist in Ireland at the time, but translation into and out of the languages you were studying was part of the course anyhow. Before I went to college, I did a secretarial course. I had vague notions that languages and secretarial skills might lead to good opportunities in the EU, but in college I became more interested in literature and in social and cultural history. I wrote my MA thesis about a nineteenth-century German journalist, novelist and early feminist, and then I started a PhD. I had a scholarship for the first few years, but I never finished the PhD, partly because I ran out of enthusiasm and money, partly because I discovered new career options through part-time student jobs. I had been temping as an editorial secretary in various newspaper offices, including Der Spiegel in Hamburg. I became fascinated with how news is made, how the media filter our experience of the world, pre-select the books we get to read, and so on. I had also been writing readers’ reports for publishers who were considering whether to translate an English-language book into German.
The insights I gained into how literature makes the journey from author to reader made me want to work closer to the coalface of literature production than to academic analysis of it, so I abandoned the PhD and started working in publishing and journalism. Translation was always an element of that work: at one stage I worked as desk editor and translator on a small team that produced a bi-lingual syndicated newspaper service set up by the German Press Agency.
I moved back to Ireland in 1997 and worked first as an in-house editor (Royal Irish Academy, then Blackstaff Press). In 2006 I went freelance, and decided that I wanted to translate again, not just edit. So I put out feelers, got some overflow work from former colleagues in Germany, started to get some commissions in Ireland, joined ITIA, and started to work on some literary translation projects of my own.
Name the most important thing you did that helped you launch your career.
That’s a tough question! In terms of re-launching myself as a translator, two things were very important: (a) researching the profession, including networking, and (b) translating a short story I really liked, not for any client but just to remind me why I love translating. (Later on I got it published.)
How important are training and qualifications for a career in translating/interpreting?
In terms of literary translation, reading widely in both source and target language is very important, as well as honing one’s skills as a writer in the target language.
I think there are different schools of thought on this. Younger translators who have had the option to take degrees or post-grad courses in translation studies will have started out with a greater knowledge of translation theory and have had more mentoring. On the other hand, some of the best translators I know had no formal translation training at all or didn’t even study the source language at university. In terms of literary translation, reading widely in both source and target language is very important, as well as honing one’s skills as a writer in the target language. I am a great believer in CPD, in attending relevant workshops, in learning from peer groups, and in keeping up with the literature.
How do you find clients?
Mostly I find clients through word of mouth and networking. Sometimes colleagues pass on work they can’t take, and I do the same. One experienced translator I heard at a seminar advised others to “go to the watering holes”. He didn’t mean pubs (although that could be part of it), but going to conferences or seminars, festivals or other events where the people who write the kind of texts you want to translate tend to meet, or where you will find the people likely to commission the translations. I suppose it is all about getting yourself on the potential client’s radar, even if you find “selling yourself” difficult. Sending out CVs is less effective and very much “pot luck”. I am registered with one agency but can rarely take the jobs as they tend to be last-minute with very tight deadlines. In terms of planning work ahead, I should probably do more to remind former clients that I’m still alive and working; that’s a neglected item on the “to do” list!
Do you think it is necessary to specialise?
Not in my case, but it may make sense if you have acquired specialist skills and can carve out a niche in that area. I like variety in what I translate, though I would be the first to turn down a job (or refer the client to the ITIA directory) if I thought it was too specialist for me. Researching the terminology and context for an unusual topic can be very time-consuming, so you have to weigh up the pros and cons in terms of fee, timeframe, and how much you want/need the job. I used to do a lot of translating-cum-rewriting of PR for a German car brand, so there was a fair bit of research initially, but it paid off when more work came in of a similar type. In literary translation, you often have to research specialist vocabulary anyway – for example, if a character is a train driver, or the narrator is describing the unihemispheric sleep behaviour of dolphins!
What is your favourite type of text/assignment?
I love literary fiction and essays where the author’s style presents interesting challenges; also any job where I end up learning new things. The downside is that a text that presents creative challenges or requires a lot of research takes longer to translate than something very straightforward. The payment model rarely allows for this.
What is the best/worst thing about being a translator/ interpreter?
Best thing: Through translation, I can make the work of German-language writers I admire accessible to friends who can’t read it otherwise. A close tie for “best thing” is the people: I have yet to meet a boring translator!
The worst thing in terms of literary translation into English is the fact that so little of it is published in the first place. In the whole Anglophone world, only 3% to 5% of all books published.
Worst thing: I was going to say fees, but I’ll save that for the next question! The worst thing in terms of literary translation into English is the fact that so little of it is published in the first place. In the whole Anglophone world, only 3% to 5% of all books published (regardless of genre) are originally written in a language other than English. So, basically, there are far more good books – and far more translators dying to translate them – than there are publishers willing to adopt them. There are signs that this situation is improving slowly: In 2016, the Man Booker International Prize published research showing that the volume of sales of fiction in translation in the UK had increased compared to stagnant sales of original fiction (i.e. not translated). Over time, this might encourage more inward translation and give Anglophone readers greater access to literature from the rest of the world.
Is it possible to have a good standard of living?
In my experience, it’s difficult to live from translation alone. We know from surveys conducted by CEATL and other associations that translators earn below the average industrial wage. Most of the literary translators I know in the US and UK, even very well-established folk, have to generate additional income, e.g. from teaching and workshops. In my case, editing and a little teaching are other income streams. It’s hard to see how translators’ standard of living can improve when the model of payment is based on a fixed fee per word (or line or page) and the “going rates” are very low. I keep a timesheet for every job, and it can be very depressing when I work out my average hourly pay for the job (fixed fee divided by total hours worked). It often works out at below the minimum wage – and that’s excluding time spent looking for work, chasing payment, doing admin, taking time off. Sometimes the creative reward compensates somewhat, but it would help if the “going rate” were more realistic to begin with. Which is why it’s important for us translators and interpreters to fight for – and uphold – reasonable rates as best we can.
What advice would you give someone thinking of embarking on a career as a translator/interpreter?
Go to the “watering holes”. Network. Keep learning. And remind yourself as often as you can why you like translating.
Read as widely as possible in source and target languages and translate as wide a range of texts as you can before specialising (if you decide to specialise). Go to the “watering holes”. Network. Keep learning. And remind yourself as often as you can why you like translating.