Like all students on the Masters in Translation and Professional Language Skills at the University of Bath, I was encouraged to undertake a work placement in the three-week Easter teaching break. While the majority of students sought experience in international organisations such as the United Nations or the European Union, I requested a placement closer to home and in the more commercial environment of a translation agency. The course director at Bath very helpfully arranged everything for me  — though drew the line at taking the initial translation test — and I began my short internship in the Bristol office of SMG UK Translations towards the end of March.

My principal aim with this placement was to gain some insight into the inner workings of a translation agency and some practical experience of the processes involved in the preparation of a commercial piece of translation, from the initial request by the client to the delivery of the finished product.  These are, needless to say, things that cannot be learnt from academic study alone. Of course, I hoped to be given translation work to do, but I also wanted to see and understand other key aspects of the agency’s work: the volume of work expected of translators, the kinds of texts translated, the process for selecting freelance translators, how projects are managed, how the agency is marketed etc. And, despite the relatively limited time available on a three week placement, I believe I have learnt much in my time here.

One of the most significant differences between academic translation assignments and those in the commercial sphere is the sheer volume of work that a translator is expected to complete in a day. While students on a masters course might be able to spend three days agonising over an impeccable translation of a text of 300 words, real-world expectations come as something of a shock. That same text is likely to be the commercial translator’s assignment for less than one hour of a working day. Decisions have to be made quickly and confidently; otherwise a working day can become extremely long.

It is also apparent from the work I have seen here that the types of text submitted by clients to translation agencies range from the relatively general to the highly specialised. Although most translation students should be reasonably comfortable with translating a short article on a new tourist attraction or a piece on current affairs, the majority would struggle (and probably panic) if presented with a technical manual for a new model of power generator. During my time here, I have helped to compile glossaries for translation projects of this kind, and it has been eye-opening to find that the majority of the English terms in these texts are just as incomprehensible as the foreign words. You cannot rely on a dictionary or an internet search to find the appropriate word in these circumstances; you really need a translator who is a specialist in the field as well as an expert in the relevant language combination.

I would thoroughly recommend an agency placement to anyone aspiring to work as a translator. Not only will you receive hands-on translation experience, but you will also gain some insight into the considerable amount of non-translation work that is required to make the agency a viable business.

Stephen Green

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