Coffee With An Alumnus: Tiia Tsurkka
Translation is one of the more clear-cut career paths for English students. It’s possible to get a glimpse of what the work entails from translation courses but the true nature of the trade is best unveiled by a professional. I sit down with Tiia Tsurkka over coffee and sweet buns to talk translation.
Tiia’s journey to a career in translation is a long one. In the beginning, there was just a fascination with the English language.
“Originally completed a degree in marketing and business and then worked for a few years. But never really figured out what I wanted to do. One day I went to the English department’s website just to check it out. In about ten minutes I knew I wanted to study English. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that. I only knew I wanted to study English. I applied and got in. After the first six months, when we had to choose between philology and translation, I chose the latter,” she recounts.
For Tiia, the lure of translation was that it provided a clearly defined profession. Five years, hundreds of hours of translation work and three internships later she graduated and is now a full-time self-employed translator.
There are numerous paths a translator can choose to take: large companies, law firms and banks often employ in-house translators. Governmental agencies at both national and international levels also provide employment opportunities for translators. But perhaps the most common route is self-employment and that’s the path Tiia has chosen. As a relatively new freelancer, she has opted to work through translation companies which send her job offers and handle most of the administrative load as well as formatting and proof-reading her texts.
Tiia’s previous degree has been put to good use as a bulk of her work revolves around marketing and sales related material. Despite that, I need all my fingers and a few toes to keep track of all the types of texts Tiia tells me she has worked with: one day she translates child service documents, the next day make-up packaging or instruction manuals. There is no lack of variety it seems.
But is there a lack of work? Without a doubt, translation is a field characterized by uncertainty. As a freshman, sitting in a compulsory career course, I remember translation being presented as the epitome of doom and gloom: all translators are undervalued and underpaid, there won’t be enough work, machines will take over, the deadlines are inhumane and you’ll fight for every cent you make! Alright, I might have added a pinch of hyperbole but it did seem to me that a future as a translator was bleak by all accounts.
Tiia is familiar with the discourse. She thinks it’s unfortunate if students are turned off by translation based on this ominous undertone in discussion. Her experience in the field has been quite the opposite. Tiia and the translators she knows are mainly satisfied with their jobs. The reality is far more positive and hopeful than the portrayal I was presented with made it out to be.
“How much work you have depends a lot on your languages. I have English and Swedish so I have a lot of work. I do turn down work almost every day. From what I’ve heard, if you don’t translate English it is harder to find work,” Tiia says.
“I haven’t felt like customers would have questioned my language abilities,” she continues.
“I think you can get a good average salary but of course I don’t know what it will be like in ten years. At a regular job, you get pay raises with experience. But with translation work there is a cap on how much you can raise your prices.”
The translation industry is tiptoeing the edge of a new era where working conditions are increasingly governed an accelerated speed of information output, price competition and the development of machine translation technology. Many see that the development of technology, in particular, will redefine how the industry operates. As ever, the future is cloaked in mystery but Tiia believes the wisest course of action is to prepare for a shift and plan professional development accordingly.
“The best thing to do is to think about how you can adapt your working skills to suit future needs. There will probably be more opportunities to work on the technical side in developing machine translation programs. On the writing side, it will shift to more editing than translation,” Tiia reckons.
For now, machines are still a future worry. So, let’s talk about current challenges. For Tiia, the challenges don’t lie in the work itself but rather the mental strain of being self-employed.
“Being self-employed can be lonely. You don’t have a colleague to advice you. Also, even though I’ve had work steadily, I’m still unsure about the future. It’s hard having to worry whether you’ll have enough work,” she says.
It begs the question, why do it? What tips scales in favor of crafting a career out of words? Tiia’s answer is simple: freedom.
“I was just in California for two months and worked from there. I can do that with this job. Or I can choose not to work on a specific day. For example, yesterday it was sunny for the first time after a long gray period. I thought I have to go out, right now. So, I went to enjoy the blue skies. If I had a regular office job, I wouldn’t have been able to do that,” she explains.
Based on what I’ve learned so far, translation seems to be suitable fit for personalities that crave freedom, don’t topple under stress and can handle a spoonful of uncertainty. But what other skills does the job require?
“You have to have a great command of the language and the culture of the target language. And you need to be curious about everything because you’re going to be researching a lot. I think you also need to be resourceful when searching for information,” Tiia says.
As language professionals, translators want to produce text that is as accurate and fluent as possible. But an equally important working life skill is knowing what one’s time is worth.
“Something that’s usually hard for translators is that you can’t be a perfectionist. The source text might be poorly written or it might have a tight deadline. Often you don’t the time to polish it forever. So, you have to be ok with putting out work that’s good enough.”
This is just one difference between translation studies and working life. Howe well do studies prepare for a career in translation? In Tiia’s experience, the sheer amount of translation work given and feedback received during university studies is useful.
“I think it’s important to try and learn from the corrections you get. It can be tough because everything you do gets evaluated. But that’s what working life is like as well, so it’s preparing you for that”, she remarks.Finally, a few words of sage council for current and future translation students from someone who knows what she’s talking about. First, be curious about everything and complete a minor that you can market as your specialty.
“Being able to say that you know about something because you studied it will work to your advantage”, Tiia points out.
Second, complete a traineeship.
“They are helpful because you get feedback from professionals in the field. You learn so much and you do what you’ll be doing in working life.”
Third, try project coordination.
“Even if you know you don’t want to do it in the future, it will teach you so much about the industry. Once you know how the project coordinators think then you know how to be a good translator because they are the people who are giving you work.”
And last but certainly not least, have self-confidence.
“I think every translator needs to have a bit of a sales person in them”, Tiia says.
“You need to trust your own skills and have the attitude that you know what you’re doing and you can do a good job”, she concludes.