'Competition in Italy for translation work is fierce'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected] • 15 Jan, 2014 Updated Wed 15 Jan 2014 15:10 CEST
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Denise Muir, from Scotland, has worked as a translator in Italy for 14 years, focusing on literary and creative translations for the publishing and advertising sectors. She tells The Local why you need more than just fluency in two languages to become a translator, and why it's worth the hard work.


How did you get into translation as a career?

I got a job teaching business English in a language school in a seaside town in Italy, where one of my students offered me a job in the Italian subsidiary of a US multinational. I took it, and got better at Italian and translating.

However, my career as a translator-proper started as a night job to pay for a new car. I enjoyed it so much that I ditched the full-time job and decided to go it alone as a full-time freelance commercial translator.

Is it still possible to make a full-time career out of translating in Italy, or is it more usual to supplement it with other jobs?

For the first ten years of my career, jobs seemed to fly into my inbox and I had to turn away a lot. Then in 2012, the recession started to bite in Italy. Nowadays competition is fierce and a lot of businesses are struggling to pay for translation at all.

Refusing to be drawn into the 'race to zero' and underselling translation services, I decided to carve out a more specific niche.

Now I work as a literary and creative translator for the publishing, media and advertising sectors. I created an online profile, a website ( and a blog, and I started attending training days and networking events. Most translators do this at the beginning of their career. I seem to have come at it from a different angle!

I was a passionate reader, and wanted to put my creative writing skills to different, and what I consider more "ethical" use (not just to sell consumer goods). However, it's a slow and difficult process to make an income from literary translation alone, so keeping a commercial portfolio of clients is important.

So how easy is it to find the right contacts?

Online networking is proving very important, but we can never rule out human contact. I find that following up introductions made at book fairs or professional events generally gets a better response than email or cold-calling.

On a general scale, finding work is still not that difficult as a freelancer in the commercial sector, if you're willing to work for low rates. But since taxes in Italy are very high (51-52% of income goes in tax/INPS with no guarantee of ever getting pension in return), it makes it difficult to make a decent living as a translator in Italy. The only way round this is to either move away, try to specialize and target very specific clients willing and able to pay more, or simply accept the low rates but work fast, not always to your best, and around the clock.

But even when you do this, work can be scarce, so you have to do other things to supplement your income anyway. This is not always a bad thing, as translating full-time can be a lonely job, working from home. For example, I also do reading projects in schools, at the local library, and for a local council in Italy.

Are there any particular qualifications or skills which help when going into work as a translator?

To be a good translator, first and foremost you have to be a good writer in your own language. It's not enough just to speak two languages. A translation qualification may be necessary for new entrants to the market. I got my first jobs through my practical experience, but this kind of job offer is difficult to come by now.

On the business side, you need to be a good time manager and tech savvy. Not just to find your way around the web when researching and preparing for a translation, but to keep accounting records, create terminology bases and translation memories (special software for translators), keep abreast of what's going on in the industry, and be online as much as possible so that clients can find you.

For 80 percent of the translators I know, this means being constantly online via smartphones to check email and respond to job offers. You need to have a clear idea of the market and where you fit into it, as this will help in setting rates and negotiating with clients.

You also need a lot of self-motivation (do I really want to have my laptop on my knee on the beach instead of a good summer read?), enjoy your own company and be prepared to work long and sometimes unsociable hours.

How does living in Italy benefit your understanding of the language and translation skills?

It's essential to know the culture you're translating from inside out. To pick up the nuances, register, tone, hidden meanings and general sense that someone understanding the language but not living in the country might miss. There are lots of funny examples of where this can go wrong.

Do employers prefer to give translation work to someone who lives in the countries in question rather than someone working remotely?

I don't think where you actually live has any relevance any more, as long as you can demonstrate a fluent and natural understanding of the languages you work between. However, translators working into English living in Italy tend to have to settle for lower rates than those living in the UK – that's just the way the market is. I'm sure Italian tax and administrative issues weigh a lot in the decision.

So what are the benefits of translation as a career?

Getting the rates and recognition you deserve is difficult, but if you find the right clients and the right texts, it is a highly creative, and a very intellectually fulfilling job. No day, week or year is ever the same.

I've learned a whole lot of things I would never have known otherwise. It's great for cocktail party chitchat; I translated a book about pigs once, and what they mean in Italian culture. I could also explain the technology behind thermal skiwear, or tell you what shoes will be on the catwalks next year.

You also have the freedom to work where, when and how you like – I've translated breaking news on the beach and sports bulletins from a mountain chalet. 



Catherine Edwards 2014/01/15 15:10

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