What I wish I had know before I became a (Russian–English) translator

It has been a few years now that I’ve made my living as a freelance Russian-English translator. For the most part I’m quite satisfied with the job for the great freedom it involves; I can either work from home or as a digital nomad around the world when so desired. Translators actually based in Russia or in English-speaking countries, where they can provide certified translations, probably get a steady stream of dull-but-unobjectionable birth certificates and university diplomas. Since I am based in a third country, I don’t get those, but most of my work continues to be similar to what one might imagine a translator might do: technical manuals, company websites, advertisements, press releases, subtitles for film or television, the occasional full-length book.

Most of what I had read about the art of translation concerns the rendering of the source text into the target language itself, and how to do this well. And yet there are everyday aspects of the job that no one ever told me about before I started. For example, when I began networking with other translators, a universally popular cause of complaint is clients not paying and the need to spend some of one’s precious time chasing them. But another challenge I knew nothing of was that to get to the really good jobs, one has to deal with such irksome or disquieting offers as the following:

  • Propaganda. Due to the deteriorating economic situation in Russia, some clients in the business or arts world are cutting back, but the Russian state continues to have deep pockets. More and more of the work offered to me has been of a crassly political nature: hit jobs on members of the Russian opposition or on the leadership of neighboring countries. Even with things that initially don’t seem of a propaganda nature, one finds somewhere in the text that the writer suddenly mentions the Ukrainian, Georgian, or Kazakh leadership for curiously precision-targeted disparagement.
  • Science cranks. Two or three times a year I am offered a job translating someone’s book or scientific paper, only to discover that the client is a crank claiming to have discovered perpetual energy or some Time Cube-ish understanding of the universe. Such jobs would have to be turned down regardless, because the text is often garbled enough that it is not subject to translation into another language, but by the time you get to the point that you turn it down, you’ve wasted enough time already communicating with the author to try to figure out what exactly his text is about.
  • Self-published fiction of no literary value whatsoever. Nine of ten potential clients here will back out once they realize what translation actually costs, because the average person really does seem to believe that they can get their 300-page book translated for US$100. The tenth client has agreed to your rate, but the writing is so excruciatingly bad that it doesn’t feel worth it at any price.
  • Online casinos. There are quite a few of these around, and they offer a tremendously high rate, sometimes higher than for the aforementioned siloviki-funded propaganda texts, but should one really contribute to this exploitative industry?

Is it still a job worth doing? Sure, I think so. But it’s not all glamour, and even being able to turn something that one loves into a paying job doesn’t mean that one is saved from all hassles and stresses.

One thought on “What I wish I had know before I became a (Russian–English) translator”

  1. Thanks for writing this post. I’m learning Russian and thinking about becoming a translator in the future. This was good things to keep in mind. Being an African American (AA) female with a love for the Russian and English language is awesome, but I fear my fate in a country (Russia) that seems to look down on AA’s. Scary.

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