Before I started my own translation business, I worked several years as a general assignment reporter for a large daily newspaper in the heartland of the United States. I was young and full of enthusiasm about living the exciting life of a journalist, where every day is different and every assignment offers the opportunity to learn something new.
But as it so often does, life threw a wrench in my dreams of journalistic fame. Various military PCS moves and the desire to spend as much time as possible with our children while they were young caused me to abandon my journalistic ambitions and instead pursue another passion of mine: languages and intercultural communication. As it turned out, though, the two professions aren’t all that different, and I quickly found that the journalism training I had received had prepared me well for my specialization as a translator for integrated marketing communications.
While a journalistic background may not be a common way to get started as a translator, it is hardly unique. For creative writers with an aptitude for languages and a thirst for knowledge, the jump from journalism to translation actually makes a lot of sense. “I find [the two professions] highly compatible,” says Céline Foggy, a bilingual journalist and English into French translator. “Being a qualified journalist proves that I can write properly – something some people have doubts about when you say you are a translator.”
Indeed, the writing training you receive in journalism school is a major benefit for any translator, particular if you are working in the area of marketing and PR, news translation, or highly creative work such as transcreation. But that’s not the only benefit journalism training holds for translators.
Here are 10 lessons I learned in J-School that directly apply to my current job as a translator:
- Know your audience
Journalists are experts at finding the right tone for their readers, whether they are relaying industry news in a professional journal or keeping the general public informed through a local daily. In marketing translation, this skill is just as important. A press kit has a different target audience than a product flyer, and translating a multimedia presentation requires a different writing style than transcreating native content for social media platforms.
- Hone your writing skills
Many people believe that fluent command of two languages is enough to work as a translator. That’s like saying good interviewing skills are enough to be a journalist. Those aspects are basic job requirements, but not enough on their own. Both journalists and translators must be able to write with clarity and conviction. Spelling and grammatical errors are unforgiveable, of course, but good writing also means keeping sentences short, avoiding convoluted clauses, and preserving the thought flow of the text. All of those factors work together to produce texts that resonate with readers, whether you are the original author or the person adapting the text for an international audience.
- Pay attention to stylistic devices
Journalists and other successful copywriters use stylistic elements to create impact. Whether it is alliteration, repetition or a play on words, a translator must recognize these techniques in order to adapt the text for foreign readers without losing any of its nuances. Imagine a German text containing a figure of speech that is unknown in the US. Translating this saying word for word would be pointless, because the message would be lost in the process. In this case, the translator would need to find a way to convey the meaning of the expression in a way that US readers will understand.
- Become an expert
As a journalist, you specialize in a beat – politics, economics, music, lifestyle, etc. – and learn as much about your chosen area as possible. To succeed as a translator, you also must choose a niche to focus on, such as legal translation, pharmaceutical translation, or in my case marketing translation. But even within your chosen area of expertise, you will come across topics that are unfamiliar to you. While a journalist covering a new surgical procedure may consult a medical journal for background information, a translator specializing in pharmaceuticals may seek out a medical journal to research terminology for a translation he is working on. Effective research skills are vital in both professions. In order to write with authority and inform people clearly and concisely about a topic, you must be an expert in the subject yourself. This holds true whether you are writing the copy or translating it. Because if you don’t understand what you are writing about, neither will your audience.
- Beware the art of headline writing
Writing captivating headlines is a special skill. Even among journalists, there are some who are good at it and some who (should) leave this part to an expert copywriter. When it comes to translation, you cannot simply exchange the words for their foreign-language counterparts and expect to have a title that speaks to your audience. A killer headline needs careful consideration. It must have the right length, hit the right tone and evoke the readers’ interest. And because we live in an online world, there may be SEO factors to consider as well. A lot of thought goes into those few little words, and a translator who approaches the translation of a title from the viewpoint of a journalist is likely to craft a more compelling heading.
- Be careful with quotes
Quotes are a tricky subject for journalists, and can be even trickier for translators. Direct quotes must convey the speaker’s exact words, and any adjustments or alterations must be marked. But what do you do if you must translate a quote, which by its very nature means that you must change not only the words but often also the sentence structure? As a translator, you must stay as close as possible to the original wording while keeping the speaker’s tone and manner of speaking in mind. It’s often a very fine line – one where journalism training and the knowledge of how to deal with quotes comes in particularly handy.
- Forget about perfection
Journalists and translators know all too well: a text is never finished. Most of us will never read over our own work and think, “This is perfect.” No matter how often you read and re-read your story or your translation, you will always find something you think you could change to make the text even better. So forget about perfection and accept that you will never get there. And no one will notice. Because no one else (except maybe your editor) will read the text as critically as you do. Obviously, you never want to send off your first draft, but accept that you will always find something to improve, so at some point, you just have to call it quits.
- Never skip the proofreader
It doesn’t matter how great of a writer you are, how good your spell check program is, or how often you’ve read over your text – always have a second set of eyes look over your work before you send it off. Even the most accurate writer makes mistakes. Moreover, an editor will look over your text without bias and from a first-time reader’s point of view. Because, let’s face it, something that is clear to you (because it originated in your head) might be confusing to someone reading it for the very first time. News outlets follow a four-eyes-are-better-than-two principle for a reason, in spite of having professional, trained writers on staff. Translators – and translation clients, for that matter – must realize that adding one more step to our workflow can prevent negligent, embarrassing and potentially costly mistakes.
- Learn to take criticism in stride
Journalists need a thick skin. Their work is constantly scrutinized, not just by their editors but also by the general public. Translators are in a similar position. Proofreaders and editors can be brutally honest, and even the end client may have some feedback about a finished translation – and it is not always positive. Of course, no one likes to be criticized for his or her work. But just like journalists, translators need to accept that criticism is part of the job and can’t be avoided, no matter how good we are. We need to learn to appreciate constructive criticism as a way to help us get better at what we do, and to ignore foolish criticism without giving in to doubts about our professional aptitude.
- Have an inquisitive mind
Journalists are curious people by nature. They are always eager to learn more about the people and the world around us. Many translators share this trait. What I enjoyed most about working as a journalist was that no two days were ever the same. One day, I would write a feature story about an outstanding student in our community, and the next day, I would rush to the scene of a house fire. Likewise, as a marketing translator, you never know whether your next translation will be a press release about a new product or a brochure for a fun tourist destination. Every day can hold a surprise. The best way to prepare for that in both professions is to soak up as much knowledge as you can through reading, continuing education, and always keeping an open mind.
The fact that there are so many similarities between journalism and translation should come as no surprise, since both are highly creative professions that deal with written language. And the career transition goes both ways. For Sandra Kathe in Germany, an education as a translator led to her dream job as a journalist. She, too, believes that the two professions go hand in hand. “I studied languages to be able to express myself in more than only one language, and I studied cultures to learn more about the world we live in” she says. “I will always be a freelancer AND a journalist.”
And therein lies, perhaps, the biggest advantage of this career path: Since journalism and translation can be practiced on a freelance basis, those of us who are adept at both can swap from one to the other to avoid famine periods and burnout. As Céline Foggy points out: We don’t have to put all of our eggs in one basket.