How I Tripled My Translation Business in One Year

by Ilse Wong, C. Tran. (Canada)

The phone rang at home one late afternoon. It was a gentleman, wanting to know why he was having trouble sending me a fax. I asked what he was trying to send.
"It’s a German document I’d like you to look at…. for translation into English. You do translations, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do… oh! I’m sorry—I think there is no fax paper. Would you please try faxing again in half an hour?”
The nice gentleman agreed to try again. I put down the receiver and ran to my husband who was in the next room.
“Could you please go to the nearest store and buy a fax machine and paper?” I asked.
I wasn’t lying when I told the gentleman we had no fax paper, but I did leave out the little detail that we had no fax machine either. I had just gotten certified as a German into English translator by the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO) and had set up a separate business telephone line and fax line. We had a telephone, but no fax machine. So the fax number listed was—literally—just a number.
Since we live in downtown Toronto, finding a fax machine nearby was pretty easy. Soon, we were the proud owners of a $120 fax machine with thermal paper, connected to the dedicated fax line.
That first client did send me the job that day. We both agreed on $20 for the page—a rate on the low side, but a king’s ransom to someone eager to start. And that was all I earned in my first year of operation as a certified translator. The following year was “busier” and I made $60, or triple the amount of the first year. The future was beginning to look wunderbar.

After delivering a job, I relax.
I had majored in German at university and was very lucky to have had a Frau Professor from Berlin who possessed the rare gift for teaching languages and had an infectious enthusiasm. In her class, the more frustrated I became with an impossibly long German sentence—notorious for having the verb somewhere on the last page—the greater was her glee in teaching me. She taught me how to parse sentences and break them down into morsels easier to understand. To this day, I use the same technique when translating patents—a field I specialize in. My Frau Professor also made me aware of the dangers of using a dictionary. One day, she asked me to write an essay about air pollution. I wanted to say that the air was polluted because some cars didn’t have mufflers. Not knowing the term for mufflers, I turned to my small Collins dictionary and found “Schals”. So I wrote—“Die Luft ist verschmutzt, weil die Autos keine Schals tragen”. Translation? “The air is polluted because the cars aren’t wearing any scarves.” My professor couldn’t stop laughing as she imagined cars running around with scarves tied to their hoods.
After university, I lived in Germany for two years, then worked for a number of German companies like Quelle, where I translated telex orders, and Nixdorf, where I translated software manuals. Working at these offices also taught me how to read German handwriting. Along with understanding abbreviations that Germans are very fond of using, the ability to read German script has been an invaluable skill because many drug protocols I translate have instructions scribbled in German.
While getting my feet wet in the profession, I accepted just about any kind of translation work for as long as I was comfortable with the subject matter. Except perhaps this one job that landed on my table. It was a 500-page book project, which the author wanted to have translated ASAP. I skimmed through the first few pages and they seemed quite straightforward. So I agreed. The author had also given me a brief summary, telling me that it was an engaging novel about three people. It turned out to be a novel about three people engaging with each other in all kinds of seemingly impossible positions. I stopped abruptly, returned the book, and simply gave him whatever pages I had finished translating. And yes, I learned my lesson.
I have also had my share of unusual consecutive interpreting jobs, but none more unusual, tragic, and drama-filled than the time I interpreted for a young man in his early 20s who was dying of skin cancer. He and his family had been traveling and staying at the Hilton when he suddenly collapsed and they took him to hospital. The hotel’s GM, who was German, called me and asked if I could interpret for them at the hospital. It became a three-week assignment, and during that time, I practically lived in that hospital room, interpreting for the family, doctors, and nurses. I was aware that the family, so far away from home, saw me not just as their interpreter but as their social worker as well. One night during his hospital stay, the young man urgently needed an operation after the cancer metastasized to his intestines. I helped the family fill out forms for surgery, after which the doctors asked me to “come along to the operating room” so I could subsequently tell the family about the medical procedure. Before I knew it, I was dressed in scrubs, witnessing surgery first-hand.
The young man had expressed a desire to return to Germany so he could see his fiancée, who was also expecting their first child. Working almost round-the-clock, I helped arrange for him to fly back to Germany aboard Lufthansa, in the company of a medical doctor. Two days after his surgery, I accompanied his family and the doctor in an ambulance to the airport. I was given security clearance to board the aircraft as well, even though I was not flying. Come departure time, I said my goodbyes. This assignment had not just been work, but a rare moment to be involved, whether I liked it or not, in the tapestry of a family’s tragedy. Up to that point, I had maintained a professional appearance and image and had kept my emotions in check. But I cast all that aside when I hugged the dying man’s mother and we both cried in each others’ arms. A month later, I received a letter from the mother, telling me that her son had, upon arrival at Frankfurt airport, been whisked straight to hospital by ambulance. He and his fiancée got married by his bedside. Two days after, he died, and a week later, his daughter was born.
I have now been working over 20 years as a full-time translator and have naturally developed “favourites”—among them documents relating to life sciences, software programs, contracts and agreements. I also enjoy my little niche—translating technical patents. Many of my colleagues consider these utterly dull. I, however, thrive in the language of “patentese”, in the precision and accuracy it involves, and in the exhaustive research it demands (most patents cite previous patents, which make up my bedtime reading). And patents don’t just “relate to an inventive step” (which is how a patent usually starts), but to the inventive use of words as well. I will go to extraordinary lengths to find the meaning of a term or to understand it. There was once such an elusive word in a patent I was translating. I couldn’t find clues in any of my specialized dictionaries, a Google search did not turn up anything, and none of my usual “go-to” colleagues could help. So I searched for the name of the company that owned the patent, called the company in Germany, asked to speak to someone in that department, found out the name of the inventor, searched for the inventor’s telephone number, and called the inventor at home. Needless to say, he was surprised with the call and my sleuthing, and rewarded me with a precise explanation of the technical jargon he had “invented”.
Some translations require quick turnaround while others can be mentally taxing and time-consuming. I therefore very much appreciate working with companies that allow me sufficient time for difficult text. I like the luxury of finishing a job a day before the deadline so I have time to close the file and not think about it, then give it one final read the next day when my mind is fresh. This also allows me to go back to any sentences or phrases that I’ve highlighted for a little more polishing.
I go to Germany once a year in order to keep up with my language skills. And to drink Weizenbier.
To keep up with developments in the language industry, I get involved with ATIO, my association in Ontario, where I served as board member for six years. I also go to the annual conventions of the ATA. It is an incredible place to network and I have obtained more jobs at this convention than at any other venue. It is here, too, that I get to spend time with colleagues who have become good friends.
Being self-employed has allowed me to indulge in my other passions during my spare time (read: in between deadlines). I jump on my bike whenever weather permits. Contrary to what a cycling buddy from California says, Canada does thaw out in the summer and there are actual moments when polar bears do not roam the streets freely. It is during these times that I find nothing more exhilarating than to cycle for miles and miles. I also love to travel to far-flung places and will find any excuse to do so. So far, I’ve found seven excuses this year. It isn’t that I travel often—it’s just that I travel harder than anyone else.
And I work just as hard at my chosen profession, striving to provide a translation crafted with the utmost care and accuracy. After delivering a job, I relax. That is, until another job comes along via e-mail. Or via that old, trusty fax machine with thermal paper.

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