How I became a professional translator

Published by: jankapoun, dated: February 20, 2021

This is the story of how I became a professional translator.

The beginnings

I certainly did not become a translator at a university, I don’t have any formal translation education whatsoever. Hell, I would really struggle to pass those admission tests to our Translation Institute at the Charles University in Prague even today, after 13 years in this industry!

I actually studied to be a teacher of the German language, and of music education. So my original profession was to teach children a bit of German, and to sing and play an instrument with them.

I don’t want to talk, I want to do stuff!

Well, unfortunately, during my studies at the faculty of education, I pretty soon realized that they did not teach us how to DO stuff, they taught us how to TALK about it. And that really bothered me deeply. I wanted to be good at something! I wanted to be able to say: This is what I can do really well and this is the product or service I can deliver!

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So, I started reading books. Like really lots of books. In English… because I perceived English as a much cooler language than German :D. Actually, I learned most of my English from McGraw-Hill psychology textbooks. I just loved psychology so much back then. I also used to practice piano a lot, 5 hours a day no problem. Because guess what!? I wanted to become a piano virtuoso! Yeah, I know, how crazy was that, right?

Well, I was not too pleased with this kind of education and career prospects, but in the hindsight, that was probably the best thing I could do back then. Because… let’s face it, I didn’t know sh*t about life back then. And I did not know any mathematics or physics either to be able to go and study computer programming, which was really my dream. Luckily, I was able to correct it later when I realized that with proper guidance and with some practice, high-school mathematics and physics is something a trained gorilla could do, and got my Bachelor’s in computer programming 10 years later.

Perfectioning my English…. in Finland!

Anyway, with my studies closing to an end I went to Finland to do that EVS volunteering EU thing for 1 year. Best year of my life ever. I loved it so much! Warm greetings to Villa Elba, Kokkola, Finland, very fond memories of that. Yes, I did not know any Finnish, so I spent 1 year practicing my English, because let’s face it: Scandinavians are weirdly good at this language. I did learn some Finnish, but unfortunately never enough to be able to actually communicate. Too bad 🙁 I regret it deeply to this day.

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Don’t give up! Chances are it’s just bad luck

Then I got back to the Czech Republic feeling really strong in English. So, I went and got this general state language examination certifying my skills in the English language.

And this is the first time in my life when I tried to establish myself as a translator – I went to this Czech translation agency, probably the biggest in our country at that time, to apply for a job as a translator. And they gave me some tests, saying: Please return them sometime next week.

Well, 2 pages of text, but I spent hours working on them! I just wanted to pass those tests sooooo badly. And you know, if you try too hard, chances are you’ll f*ck it up. And that’s exactly what happened 😀 They told me my translation was a real piece of crap, totally unusable for them and recommended me to apply later again when I get more skills. I felt completely discouraged and decided that the translation industry was not for me. And it took me 4 more years to try it again. In the hindsight, that was just bad luck. The proofreader just did not like my test, he/she probably had had a bad day. I should have known better. But it taught me one thing: Don’t give up! Chances are it’s just bad luck.

The Art of Conference Interpreting

So, I said: Well, f*ck it. And went for 3 months to Germany to practice my German and write that final thesis of mine called Georg Büchner and his fictional characters… or something like that.

The University of Cologne, that was the name of the school. And one day, I found this book in its library: The Art of Conference Interpreting by Roderick Jones. Or at least I think that’s the name of the book. A very thin book indeed, but what an impression it made on me! Later on, I actually met Roderick Jones in person in Budweis, Czech Republic. He gave a lecture on interpreting there. Well, what can I say: it’s an interesting dude who can speak Czech almost flawlessly along with God knows how many other languages. And I felt like: Wow, this sounds interesting! I wanna try this, I wanna be an interpreter! …. which I also did a couple of years later, but more on that in a minute.

Teaching, teaching, teaching… being fired… teaching again

So, I came back from Germany and started looking for a job in Prague. I applied for various jobs, a teacher of German at an art school, a Vodafone operator, a clerk in a travel agency…. but nothing worked. But one day, I saw this poster: Language school looking for teachers! I applied, went through an interview, and got immediately hired to teach German and English in commercial companies. And it was interesting, I met some really interesting and nice people there.

But then I decided I wanted to see the world and went to Egypt to work as a guide…. to be fired 2 months later for being allegedly incompetent. Or, that’s what they told me. But later on they fired my extremely experienced colleague too. And she explained to me: that’s what they do: they just hire people for a couple of months for the high season, then fire them again when they have no use for them anymore.

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Well, that was slightly discouraging… my dream of living abroad just collapsed. After feeling depressed for a while, I decided I did not want to go back to Prague, because I simply dislike that city, and ended up back in Budweis… and went back to teaching to a private language agency.

An interesting turn

And one day, things started to take an interesting turn.

I was approached by one of those agency girls asking me if I wanted to try some translation and interpreting. I remembered my first experience with that other translation agency and politely declined saying I was rather a teacher than a translator. But I kept thinking about it. One week later I returned and said: yes, I want to give it a try.

So they gave me some tests. Again, some 2 or 3 pages, struggling again, especially with those “bitumen barrels”, I remember very clearly looking this up, as I had never heard that word “bitumen” before. But this time, I did not care that much. I was like: Okay, let’s give it one more try and see what happens. And if it does not work out, then to hell with this translation crap!

And of course… it worked! They actually liked my tests! And actually started giving me regular jobs. It was not much, perhaps 200-300 bucks per month, but it was a good start. Yet, it was difficult. I did not have the hang of it back then, so I was struggling hard to translate at least 1 standard page per hour. Also, I didn’t know anything about CAT tools. And when I first heard about them, I thought it was exceedingly funny to make cat jokes. Yeah, yeah, like we have never heard that before…. or so probably thought the agency girls.

Developing my little business

I actually found out I liked this type of work. So I went to the other agency we have in Budweis and offered them my services. I don’t remember anymore if they wanted any tests or not. But they started ordering work from me too.

It was still not enough to make a solid income, but I was also teaching, so financially I was more than able to sustain myself.

The financial crisis in 2007-2008

And then it came. It was the year 2008, the world economic crisis. My total income dropped to some 450 euro per month and I started to freak out. So I decided I had to do something about it… and went to those remaining 2 other agencies to offer them my services. To no avail. So I decided to go global, meaning global in the Czech Republic. I started looking for agencies in our country, offering them my translation services. And in the course of 2 or 3 months I suddenly had my schedule full of translation work!

Trying some interpreting

During that time, I was also offered to try some interpreting. I remembered that book by Roderick Jones and said: Yes, I want to try this too! But with no formal training in interpreting whatsoever, oh boy, I was so scared. So I remembered those chapters from Roderick’s book where he spoke about note taking and consecutive interpreting, and got a decent notebook and a pen. I was so f*cking scared of that very first job, but I knew I wanted to try it out. So I went there. And to my great suprise, it went suprisingly well! Soon enough, the agency started giving me more and more interpreting jobs. I mean, consecutive interpreting, because I would have burned like a paper in simultaneous intepreting, and I knew it very well. I think simultaneous interpreting just really needs to be trained, to get used to that feeling that you listen to what one says and you almost simultaneously translate that idea into another language.

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I very much liked clear and concise speakers. Those who could formulate a clear idea. Because ideas can be very easily remembered. So, I was able to retain 3 minutes of their talk or perhaps even more with just a few notes in my notebook. That’s why it’s called interpreting, I guess. You don’t translate word by word, you interpret ideas.

On the other hand, I utterly hated idiots who just talked and talked without actually saying anything substantial. Because as you can imagine, I couldn’t just say: “This idiot is full of s*it and nothing he says makes any sense whatsoever“. So I had to remember his crap almost word by word or to just try to make at least some sense out of it. It was very exhausting and more often than not, I felt like a total idiot, because my translation did not make too much sense either.

But anyway, clients obviously liked my interpreting, so I was getting a steady influx of jobs.

Getting disillusioned

Unfortunately, I soon realized that the stress level I felt during those interpreting sessions did not match the remuneration I was getting for it. So I said to me: 1 hour of interpreting for 10 eur? I can just f*ck it, let’s concentrate on translating only.

I actually realized the very same truth with teaching: Well, teaching is fine, mostly relaxing, sometimes it’s even just conversational talking, but for 8 eur/hour? That’s exactly the moment I realized that 90% of all teachers in our school were young people, 25-30 years old. And it just struck me – yeah, that’s why there are young people only… because older ones just need to make some money to sustain their families.

I was actually very busy at those times – teaching, translating, interpreting… and studying at university again, this time it was computer programming. I still wonder how I was able to manage all of this. But I was just enjoying myself, I really liked studying computers, and I liked my job too. But I just realized that translating was the way to go, because it gave me maximum time flexibility…and also money. I was finally able to translate at least 1,5 standard pages per hour so the remuneration started being interesting.

And one day, I got this phone call: Hi Jan, we would have some 10,000 words to translate for you, would you be able to deliver that within 4 days?

And I knew I had those courses to teach and did not have the time for this. And suddenly I realized how much money I was actually losing on teaching. I declined that job, but it gave me a helluva thinking. And that was the day I decided to end my teaching career and go for a full-time translator’s job.

Travelling again

And then I decided I wanted to travel again. And that is relatively easy to do when you have no wife, no children and no location-bound job. So I packed all up and went to Goa, India! But unfortunately, I was stupid enough not to check what the best time to visit that region of India would be. All I can tell is: don’t go there in June! Because it’s the rainy season and there are all those infected mosquitos.

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Sure enough I ended up in a hospital with malaria. Some 10 days or so filled mostly with vomiting, headache, depression and antibiotics. Then they released me. I was insured, no problem, but had to pay all those bribes to those nurses, because that is the way things work in Indian hospitals. Anyway, I started translating again, but was really surprised how wet everything was! My towel would just not dry up, even when hung outdoors on a cord. And sure enough, because of this constant humidity, I got that a kidney infection. So hospital again. They gave me some pills, but those did not work, my kidneys in constant pain. I was feeling more and more depressed: “What the f*ck am I doing here?”, that’s exactly what I thought. I booked my flight soon after. The flight back was from hell. There was no direct connection to Vienna, Europe, so we flew from Goa to Mumbai, then to Quatar and then finally to Vienna. Small planes with small legroom, very crowded, Quatar was extremely hot. And me in the middle of this, with my kidney pain, thinking if being dead wouldn’t actually be better.

But I survived 🙂 Went to this small village doctor in Horní Planá, Czech Republic…. she consulted some books, then gave me some pills…. and my pain was after some 7 days finally over.

Translating, translating, translating….

And I started translating again. I was invited to translate some articles for a popular computer magazine, regular jobs, some 3 issues of this magazine per month. My income suddenly skyrocketed. I had never been making so much money in my life! I suddenly did not know what to do with all that money. But it’s true that I had almost no free time, worked almost every day including weekends. Sometimes from 8 AM to 9-10 PM.

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And it went like this for some 2 years, I had almost no weekends and was happy for some 2 weeks of vacation every year…. during which I partially worked as well.

But one day I finally came to this conclusion: Well, I have made and I still am making a pile of money every month…. but I don’t have too much time for myself! So, let’s go and buy an apartment and let’s continue working for some 2 or 3 years more, and then just f*ck it! I don’t wanna spend all my life over a PC keyboard!

And that’s how I have made it

And that’s where I am right now in my life. Still working as a translator, but only few hours per day. I want to work in the morning, then perhaps 1-2 hours in the afternoon and thats’ it. And yes, it’s also in a great part due to that tool of mine I developed for myself, it streamlines the work greatly, saves lots of time. Well, even if people don’t buy it, it has made me a pile of money already.

The rest of the day is then filled up with my motorcycle, C# programming, piano, reading books, having a good time with friends and my girfriend… and travelling. Yes, I want to do that sooooo badly again. But this communist flue outbreak is devastating me so much. I feel like in prison.

So that’s probably why I started developing this software of mine, writing these articles, making videos…. just to do something useful before they let me fly again.


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