Freelance translator Paola Sorrentino, who is based in Italy and translates from English, German and Dutch into Italian, shares her experience and tips for new language graduates.
Q: What was the main reason for you to choose a career as a translator?
As corny as it’s going to sound, I didn’t choose words, words chose me. Ever since I was a kid, I found words to be the most interesting thing there was. I wasn’t mad for toys, imagery, cartoons; I liked to read and write, and I raided my parents’ bookshelves for real novels, because children’s books bored me to no end; they always used the same, very simple words! And such short sentences!
I will sound deranged now, but in my first year at primary school I got so bored with getting full 10/10 marks for all my work, that I… deliberately started to put mistakes in my texts. Just for a change. The teacher obviously understood what was going on and had a word with me; she knew how bored I was, and I got a kind of unofficial permission to read my own books when I was too bored, as the other kids got through the reading and writing exercises.
My parents also had books in English and Spanish – mainly poetry – and the epiphany that you could say the same things using strange, different words was an early childhood moment I still remember vividly.
I must say I am also grateful to my parents, who sussed out quickly that I had this talent and sent me to private English lessons since I was six. Back then, in Italy, you only started English in “scuola media”, aged 11; so I got a nice five-years head start.
I easily swanned through compulsory school and high school (a “Liceo Linguistico”, obviously, where I also discovered the pleasures of French and German). Science and maths didn’t interest me at all, I studied them just enough to keep out of trouble. Plus, I guess this happens in any school, we created a rather sensible arrangement where the language kids corrected the homework of the math kids, and vice versa.
I spent school hours copying and translating lyrics from my favourite bands on my school diary, and my evenings slowly deciphering the intricate reviews and interviews on music mags like NME and Smash Hits. My fortnightly walk to the only newsagent in town who stocked exactly two copies of those magazines was a moment of joy. (Do fortnightly music mags still exist?)
I knew I wasn’t going to study Foreign Languages in my local university: I already went there often to borrow books or just to see what went on, and they studied what we were already reading in my high school (which was, admittedly, quite tough, or rather, it had great teachers).
So I tried the entry exams to a private translation school, but here’s how I understood they also had nothing to teach me: when I got my perfect results back, one teacher, probably also because of my fair skin and eyes (as if pale, blue-eyed Southern Italians never existed since the Normans!), accused me of lying; which one of my parents was actually British? Was I born and/or raised abroad? Did I lie on my application form?
… They didn’t even see the back of my (then) bony arse when I slammed the door.
Back then, the top university for languages was the one in Trieste, at the opposite end of Italy. (I say “back then” because, sadly, the syllabus has been greatly simplified, so it’s not really worth it nowadays). The entry exams are no joke, only one applicant out of ten makes it. I took a train, sat through the exams – which included translating a page from Wuthering Heights, no dictionaries allowed – and passed. I moved to Trieste, and the rest is history.
Younger readers of this blog might think this wasn’t too difficult, but I went to school in the Seventies and Eighties, and here’s a list of things we didn’t have back then:
— Access to foreign-language TV; I only had a short-wave radio, if I was lucky I could get a few random hours of BBC World broadcasts.
— Low-cost flights. The first time I went abroad was terribly late, at 15. Going everywhere was an adventure, and quite pricey, considering I lived in the deep heel of Italy.
— Contact with foreign people; the only native speakers in my hometown were the teachers.
— Original-language movies or TV shows. This is still the reason why Italians are, on average, pig-ignorant when it comes to English. I have the utmost respect for our dubbing talent, Italian voiceover actors are the best in the world at their craft – but still, it puts us at a disadvantage.
— The Internet, which today, at least, forces kids to learn a wide technical vocabulary early on. Videogames also help a lot.
Q: How long have you been working as a freelance translator?
It’s my silver jubilee this year! I started in 1997, right after I graduated.
I never had any other kind of work; my only stint in an office, a data entry job that any eight-grader could have done, was when I lived in the Netherlands, and it lasted a grand total of four days. I got in on Monday and was kicked out on Thursday. The bosses’ reasoning was very practical and Dutch, I can’t blame them: “You are overqualified for this job, so why should we invest time and money in training you, when we know you will leave the moment you find a better job?”
How did they know I was going to do that? …. I’m afraid I actually said something along those lines during a lunch pause, while chatting with my new colleagues, and they overheard it…
So, it’s 25 years as a translator.
Q: What CAT software do you use the most?
Lately, agencies have become more sensitive to privacy problems, so many of them have their own in-house CAT tool. What I write never leaves their site, and I lose access to a project the moment I complete it. It’s OK for me. All CAT tools work on the same principles, so there is basically no learning curve; I use six or seven at the moment. I quite like Coach, it’s a sleek one.
I also stopped wasting money on Trados years ago: my main translation fields are advertising, fashion and lifestyle, so I rarely come across a text that’s repetitive enough to justify the purchase of Trados. In those fields you mostly do transcreations, so repetitions or fuzzy matches are nearly inexistent.
If agencies want to send me a Trados job, I ask for the bilingual file format, a two-columns Word document that they can easily re-import into the software later. Actually buying your own Trados licence is so early 2000’s….
Q: What are the main shortcomings of translation software?
It’d be quicker to list the advantages.
Translation software seemed a great idea when it came out – it remembers what you already translated! Wow! – but here’s what happened: first, deadlines got an awful lot shorter. Because “a software is helping you”, clients think nothing of sending you 7,000 words to process overnight… without even checking what percentage of those words is actually repeated. Prices also got lower, because matches and fuzzy matches are paid less than the other words.
Translation software actually slows me down; it freezes, it enforces quality controls of a Kafkaesque nature before it finally accepts a text (I do re-read my own work, thank you), and in general it makes me write slower than when I do a good old overwriting of a Word document.
Q: How do you spend your (very limited!) spare time?
Spare time is a strange concept when you are self-employed, because there is always that nagging feeling of “Well, I actually could start another job – after all, it’s extra money”.
When I do have free time…. I sleep a lot (at totally random hours), I read, I try to catch up with TV shows – I am an avid fan of BBC drama, the writing is just amazing compared to Italian fiction.
I also love clubbing and live gigs, but for obvious reasons, that stopped in 2020. I loved it so much that I organised parties myself for about ten years, a few big ones in Milan and smaller but regular club nights in Trieste. It’s been great fun, but I don’t think I will start again, if and when alternative music venues actually reopen in this town. I will happily go to other people’s clubs, so I don’t have to worry about how to pay the bands and the DJs!
Q: What language pairs do you work with?
English to Italian, which is still my main pair, as the sheer volume of English-language texts still provides work for everyone. German to Italian, and its near relative Dutch (I did not study Dutch, I learned it by full immersion in Rotterdam).
Three pairs are more than enough for me; I have the utmost admiration for those colleagues who translate to and from a dozen languages, but I can’t help wondering how accurate they can be…
Q: How important is travelling for your work as a translator?
The famous answer “It is indispensable if you want to always be up to date on the current situation, trends, language use” is genuine, but also a lovely self-absolution for each time you hop on a low-cost flight!
However, I haven’t travelled for two years now, I’m waiting for the current world situation to settle. I try to rely on news and TV/radio/podcasts to keep up with the neologisms, slangs, and the general mood of the countries I work with.
I miss that; I am the laziest person in the world but being somewhere new always fills me with an energy I didn’t know I had. I wonder if that’s just me.
I am rather envious of the younger generation of digital nomads who can really work from anywhere for long periods of time. In the early 2000’s, it was only possible in the few big cities which guaranteed an Internet connection…
Q: What advice would you give to newly graduated translators starting their career?
Most of my advice is based on the fact that nobody taught us about the practical side of this job. Academia lives in a bubble where daily existence gets forgotten, and entering the job arena can be a shock. So:
– Find a specialised field and get so good at it that you don’t even have to send CVs, direct clients will look for you. (OK, it does take a few years). Agencies are nice and comfortable, but the real money comes from direct clients, so try to become known in your specialised field and bypass the agencies.
– It’s tempting to accept cheap jobs just to feel you do have a job, but first, figure out how much you spend in life (accommodation, bills, tax, PCs/printers/dictionaries, etc), and the price under which you are losingmoney, instead of making it. Don’t waste your time on jobs below that line: that time is better spent improving your language skills or looking for better jobs. Or actually socialising!
– Speed is also very important; deadlines are getting tighter and tighter, and as we get paid by words or lines, the more we can cram in a day, the better our finances.
– Learn to use Google smartly. Nobody seems to teach this in college, that’s a pity. You are not paid for the time you spend on research about your translations, so learn to find all the info you need in two seconds flat.
Q: Will machine translation eventually make translators obsolete?
Never. As my professor used to say when explaining the basics of semantics: To a machine, the Bible quote “The spirit is ready but the flesh is weak” does not appear very different from “The alcohol is served but the meat is tender” .
I acknowledge that machine translation is getting better at simple subject/verb/complement sentences, but you can’t teach a machine all the rest, the things that only a human brain can process: double meanings, registers, puns, picking the right translation of a polysemous word (I notice this a lot in German, which is a surprisingly vague language, with terms that can have a dozen meanings), humour – basically any creative expression. A novel, a poem, a column, a fancy description of the clothes in a fashion show, an aspirational text, a movie review – these things simply cannot be translated by machines.
I use machine translation when I need a general idea of a text in a language I don’t know (I live near Slovenia and Croatia, so it happens often around here): I can get the basic info, but I know I can’t really trust any detail. That’s the only scenario where machine translation is really useful.
There are many websites and Facebook pages that collect the worst machine translation howlers found all around the world, they’re hilarious. Amazon is also an endless source of fun!
You can connect with Paola via LinkedIn.