Stephen Schwanbeck is a native Californian but grew up in Oregon, in the Pacific Northwest. He moved to France in 1994 as a student and has resided there ever since. A member of the ATA and the SFT, he has been translating professionally for 15 years. In 2010, he left his day job and became a freelance translator. Although the work may be hard and the hours long, he loves it.
Hi, Stephen! Thanks so much for letting me pick your brain about how you chose your specialty field! I’m sure there are plenty of new translators out there that can benefit from hearing your story. Picking a specialization can be confusing.
Let’s start with a bit of background. You’re a technical translator—do you specialize in any particular subject matter? What sort of documents do you work on most often?
I specialize in nuclear safety and security, HVAC and pharmaceuticals. That said, being a technical translator, I work in a lot of other fields as well. I mostly translate reports, instruction manuals, brochures and protocols. I do get the occasional menu, though.
When did you first decide that this would be a good specialty for you? Did you have prior knowledge of the subject matter, or a related hobby or interest?
I didn’t really decide that any of these fields would make good specialties. The real reason is because of my clients. They sent me work and I realized that I found it interesting and I was able to do it. Before becoming a translator, I didn’t really have any prior knowledge in any of these fields. At school I was mostly interested in literature and history. I wasn’t at all technical minded.
How did you learn to work in this specialty field? What did you do to make sure that clients could trust your abilities with their technical documents?
I learn as I go. I do a lot of research on the Internet and I try to read as much as I can on each subject. That’s not to say that it makes good bedtime reading, but you need to keep up with developments and vocabulary. I’ve been translating for 15 years, so I have a fair amount of experience in a variety of fields and in translating. I always agree to do a short test translation so that new clients can see my style and how I work. For example, if I have a question or comment about something in the source document, I’ll flag it in a separate file and send it to the client.
What keeps you interested in working in this subset of translation? Why do you like to translate technical texts?
Well, I really enjoy the variety. Every day, or nearly every day, there is a new document in a different subject to be translated. One day it could be a document on nuclear safety and the next it could be a lab report or a menu. I like translating technical texts because the subjects are interesting and I usually learn something. I often joke that the things that I learn make good icebreakers or subjects for dinner conversation.
Where do you see yourself career-wise in the next 5-10 years? Do you think there is room to grow in this specialty field?
I think I’ll still be translating. I don’t know if I’ll still be a freelancer or if I’ll still be working by myself or maybe with an associate. Only time will tell. There definitely is room to grow in technical translation. There are so many subjects, technologies are constantly changing and there are so many new developments being made.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about technical translation, or translation in general?
Technical translation isn’t as hard, or as boring, as people may think. On the contrary, it can be quite interesting and sometimes even fun. Also, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert in the subject you’re translating. If the document is well written, you have a fair understanding of the subject and you have good writing skills, odds are you’ll turn out a good translation.
As for translation in general, it’s still highly misunderstood by the public in general and even by many translation clients. It’s up to us to correct that.