Friday, February 21, 2014
Stephen Schwanbeck, French-English Translator
It seems that many scientific and technical translators take a roundabout path in their careers. Is that true for you? Tell us about how you became a translator with your specialization.
I was never interested in physics, chemistry or any other technical subject while a student. History and literature were my favorite subjects. In college, I majored in French and minored in Renaissance 90s and was planning to become a teacher. A year of study abroad in Lyon changed all that. On a lark, I took a translation class at Lyon 3. It was a light-bulb moment: I realized that I wanted to be a translator. I considered literary translation, but, oddly, I started becoming interested in science at the time. When it was time to go back to the U.S., I decided instead to continue my studies in Lyon. I enrolled in a two-year program of classes in translation, interpreting and terminology as well as medicine, business and economics with a little politics thrown in. The same month I got my degree, I found a job as an in-house technical translator in an agency in Lyon. In the 12 years that I worked there, I translated documents in many fields, particularly engineering, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and biotechnologies. I learned my first specialization—HVAC-R—translating brochures and manuals for one of our key clients. In 2010 I left the agency and set myself up as a freelancer and began specializing in nuclear safety and security soon after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011.
Was it challenging for you to combine your scientific and linguistic interests? What advice would you give to translators or interpreters just starting their careers?
Yes, it was a bit of a challenge for me at the beginning. My French was good, but I still had a lot to learn about the hands-on aspects of translating. Also, I was working on documents in lots of different fields and which were not always well written. Luckily, the Internet was really taking off at the same time and I was able to learn and hone my online research skills. Also, I had my coworkers to help me with questions about grammar, vocabulary and technical matters. And if they didn’t have the answer, I would contact the client directly.
First, consider working for an agency for at least a year. You’ll gain experience not just in research, translating and proofreading, but also project management, customer relations and basic office organization. Second, if at all possible, live and work in your source-language country. Not only will that allow you to practice your source language on a daily basis, but you will also have greater visibility and less competition. Third, read the press in your area of specialization to learn the jargon and style, keep up with developments and identify potential clients.
What is unique about your skill set? What sets you apart?
The fact that I work only in French and English allows me to focus all my research and training on subjects in just one language pair without spreading myself out too thin. Also, I’ve been living in France for 20 years, so I’m fluent in the language and familiar with the culture. Lastly, my work over the past 15 years has allowed me to build up my knowledge base.
What is your favorite type of interpreting assignment or text to translate? What makes it fun for you?
The best type is those that immediately click with you and where the translation practically flows out all by itself. What keeps it fun for me is that nearly every day I learn something new and interesting.
Are there any resources you use when translating that you’d like to share with readers?
The IAEA’s website is great for information on nuclear-related subjects. What’s more, lots of its publications are available in English and French. Otherwise, for terminology queries in different fields, Termium is a great resource.
How can readers learn more about you and connect with you?