How I earn a little money translating Russian

with 2 Comments

Continuing our discussion on working as a Russian-to-English translator

You already know that learning Russian is fun, but it’s even better (I think!) when you’re getting paid, acquiring lots of new vocab, and facing actual deadlines to read texts in Russian. Plus, you don’t need a perfect command of your second language to get into the field since many translators translate into their native language rather than into a second language. Other bonuses: you’re training yourself to pay attention to tiny nuances in the language, you fall down unexpected research holes, you can get exposed to a wide range of writing styles, and you’re sometimes one of the first to hear about current trends and new businesses within the CIS.

On the other hand, there’s this:

 

Disclaimer: I’m a casual translator, not a Mega-Ultra-Professional Translator. I’m not on ProZ, I don’t have an official Services Offered website, and I don’t make a living at it. Getting involved with translation work was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It’s something fun I do to earn a little extra money + continue improving my Russian skills.

But speaking of people who translate professionally, I recommend following the Slavic Languages Division of the American Translators Association and Thoughts on Translation. The first link will help you in working with Russian. The second will help you deal with marketing, rates, and organization. Also, bonus points for reading this Russian translator’s blog.

How I kind of got started (but not really)

Several random opportunities came along in university, but none of them really worked out.

For instance, this was Attempt #1: an old Russian man who lived next to my in-laws wrote a massively long book about his life. He offered me and my husband $500 to translate the whole thing into English. We sat down together and started the work. By page 3, we’d changed our minds. :p

Attempt #2: Later, we somehow got involved with a translation for a researcher at the university. Let’s call this particular research paper Sea Ice From A to Z. Have you ever heard that old line about how Finnish has something like 40 different words for snow? That’s nothing compared to the categories of sea ice this researcher was describing… and using terms from yet another language, like этчыгэлчын’ын and пэтыгел. It was both fascinating and overwhelming. I can’t even remember if we were able to translate some of it or not; I just recall staring at the document in terror while we visited my husband’s parents one weekend.

 At this point, my Russian was still pretty terrible. I did take a class on translation basics (in Spanish->English) but had years to go before my Russian would be good enough to really consider translating.

And then came the final nail in the coffin. Before going to Russia for the first time, I had to get a document translated in Seattle. I found a translator in the phone book and went to his house to drop off the document. He was the real deal- a room full of dictionaries and technical books… and it looked soooooooo boring. So boring! I remember standing in his living room and thinking there was no way I ever wanted to be a translator.

How I really got started

While living in Ukraine years later (with significantly better Russian skills), I posted my resume on several Ukrainian job sites, like rabota.ua. A local translation agency contacted me, and I did a little work for them. Those were definitely some of the most unpleasant assignments ever. The first task: 50 pages of notes from an oil company meeting that I’m pretty sure were just getting translated as a formality, never to see the light of day again. The next task was 50 pages of scientific testing on the ignition propensity of cigarettes at a factory in Central Asia. Ughhhh. After that, I stopped working for that particular agency, never wanting to translate anything again!

But within a few months, a woman emailed me out of the blue. She represented a mystery shopping company that served the CIS. That work lasted about 1.5 years. It turned out to be pretty interesting, far more interesting than the cigarette documents. The only catch was that the payment method was limited, so payment went into an online Ukrainian banking scheme and the only way we could spend the money was on sushi delivery from a local restaurant. (It was good sushi, though!) When we left Ukraine, the sushi payment scheme ended.

In spring 2016, I created an upwork.com profile on a whim, listing RU-ENG translation as one of my fields. I can’t remember if Company Cool contacted me or if I contacted them, but it led to a translation “test” so that the company could see my work. The test involved translating dialogue for a video game. The company then invited me to sign on with them as a freelancer. However, it was about 6 months before I actually did any translation work for them. I had another job and several trips that summer, so I was always unavailable when they offered assignments.

Finally, in fall 2016, I started translating on a semi-regular basis. It’s enjoyable translation work: apps, marketing reports, game design notes, in-game dialog, cryptocurrency stuff, and more apps. It’s not always material I’m super-knowledgeable about, so some projects require a lot of additional research. If it’s too far from my comfort zone, though, I have to turn the assignment down.

Sometimes the task is a proofreading assignment, which can be fun. One assignment that stands out from last year- proofreading a 50-page translation of a hospital website. It taught me several strange new phrases like удаление инородных тел из прямой кишки, rectal foreign object removal. 😉 Other fun recent tasks: changing a text from British English to American English and checking game screenshots to make sure they look “American” enough.

I also want to mention a downside to this work: there’s very little feedback in my current situation. It often feels like I send my work off into the void and never hear anything about its quality. Was it good? What could I have done better? I think I’m becoming a better translator over time thanks to the sheer volume of work done, but I should also seek out some way to get concrete feedback and measurement.

So, in short: if you’re interested in translation, I think you can find casual opportunities in the field by…

    1. getting your name in front of an agency or several agencies (try Upwork or applying directly to agencies)
    2. being ready to work at any moment
    3. being very clear on what your skills are
    4. consistently doing great work
    5. developing a good relationship with the project managers

What to think about if you look for translation work with an agency

  • What’s your speed? How many words can you comfortably translate in an average workday?
  • What topics / fields are you most excited about translating? Do you have experience with special terminology? (ie, legal, medical, gaming, etc)
  • What topics / fields do you absolutely not want to work with? What would bore you to tears or be over your head?
  • How much time / brainpower / energy do you have available? Will this just be a side gig or do you want it to be your main job?
  • Will you only translate RU -> ENG or do you feel like living dangerously (ENG -> RU)?
  • How will you deal with a slow month or an overwhelming month?
  • How do you feel about having an unpredictable workload? How will you make sure you’re not neglecting other parts of your life?
  • Do you want to improve your translation skills through work experience or through formal education?
  • Will you use CAT tools? (I love memoQ!) What resources will you use when you encounter something you don’t know how to translate?
  • Do you have the time zone difference calculated? Most of my tasks are due in MSK- Moscow Standard Time- or CET- Central European Time. Because of where I am and where the agency is, we only have a small window of time to communicate. They usually email me between 11 PM and 8 AM my time, meaning I check email right before bed and first thing in the morning.
  • What’s your rate? Is it negotiable? Here’s a chart you might find useful: average rates charged for translations.

Resources

 

If you’ve learned enough Russian to consider the translation field, you’ve already done a ton of work with curiosity as your pay. Good job! Now, perhaps you can continue to refine and expand your skills while getting paid actual money. What do you think? Are you interested in translation?

2 Responses

  1. Brett
    | Reply

    Fantastic post!

    While my level of Russian is probably lagging behind yours, I reckon I have enough to dab a toe in. Perhaps doing some small tasks for free would be a great way to “cut my teeth”.

    I think technical documents would bore me to death. AirTasker is a job app that often has translating tasks available – though usually they’re in fields such as mechanical engineering etc.

    Honestly, I think doing anything out of necessity forces you to learn much more quickly and effectively. So translation would definitely be a great way to up the tempo of my learning.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      I totally agree with you, Brett! Necessity is often the mother of learning. 😉 Thanks for mentioning AirTasker, by the way. I’d never heard of it before… looks cool! Do you have to be in Australia to qualify for the remote jobs?

      You could also sign up to do some volunteer translation work with Kiva.org, although you might have to spend some time on the waitlist before an opportunity opens up. Here’s more info about it:

      We are looking for native or near-native English speakers who have extensive experience in one (or more) of Kiva’s translation languages. Kiva strongly prefers applicants who have translation experience. However, applicants who do not have translation experience but who have a high skill level in the translated language and extensive experience living or working abroad may also be considered.

      * Native or near-native English speakers
      * High-level proficiency in a foreign language
      * Translation experience or studies strongly preferred
      * Detail-oriented
      * Able to commit at least 2 hours per week (i.e. about 20 loans per month) for a minimum of 6 months, though one year is preferable
      * Responsive to email
      * Comfortable with new technology

      Here’s the link to their volunteer translator page-
      https://www.kiva.org/work-with-us/reviewers/translationprogram

      Keep me posted on your plans!

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