The Translator Diaries: Alison Hughes

The Translator Diaries is a series that looks at how current freelance translators made it into the career. In this second set of interviews, we will learn what makes them so passionate about translation, how they established themselves, and what obstacles they have overcome to succeed as a translator.


Alison Hughes (@AHcreattrans) is a French to English translator specialising in marketing and creative texts. Since she started as a freelancer in 1997, she has gained considerable experience translating documents for travel companies, train companies, art galleries, advertising agencies and art publications, having started out in the wine and spirits industry.

Alison Hughes

At what point did you know you wanted to become a translator, Alison?

I came into translation completely by accident as the result of a series of events which I have described in more detail below.

I started with an MA in French and German from Glasgow University (a general language degree rather than a postgraduate Master’s). I lived in France for 3 years and spent 13 years in the wine and spirits industry (in-house translation and general business experience). I have been an MITI since 2001.

How did you make the transition to freelance translation?

While studying languages I took a year out as a language assistant in a small village in Germany (Spangenberg) and, through contacts there, went on to work as a waitress in Disentis, Switzerland, for the summer. One Sunday lunch I served the MD of Mumm Champagne who left his card, which I took as a souvenir. When I graduated in 1981 the UK was in recession so I wrote to the MD asking if he could offer me a job. Three months later I was working in the export department of Mumm Champagne in Reims.

After 3 years I felt like a change and secured a job as bilingual secretary for the Export Director of VAT 69 whisky in London. Guinness took over the small Distillers Ltd companies in 1987 and created a translation department at the new company, United Distillers plc. I applied and was offered a job (without an interview or tests, would you believe?). I worked there for two years, very much learning on the job.

In 1989 I married and moved back to Scotland where I took over from the translator at United Distillers Glasgow who was leaving to have twins. I took voluntary redundancy from United Distillers in 1997, when I was pregnant with my second son, and started my freelance business.

Did you make a conscious choice about whether or not to study for a Master’s or similar qualification in translation?

If I’m honest, I didn’t know there was such a thing. I think times have changed since I managed to “wing” my way into translation and qualifications probably do matter more today. Not having a formal translation qualification did mean that becoming a member of ITI (Associate and then full membership in 2001) was vital for agencies to take me seriously. I passed the French to English exam and do remember getting very little German or Spanish work due to lack of formal translation qualifications.

Having said that, when I embarked on my freelance career, I found the “life” and “business” experience I had gathered along the way to be absolutely invaluable.

How easy or difficult did you find it to get work?

I went straight from employment into hospital for 6 weeks before coming out with a new baby and the idea I was going to set up a freelance business right away. Of course a major reality-check was in order.

It probably took me two years to get regular work. I wrote to whisky companies and agencies and attended business courses and events locally in the intervening period, to keep my ‘business’ mind engaged. However my business really got off the ground through contacts I had made at United Distillers. All it took was a contact with a translation agency and a contract to translate a guidebook.

What major problems did you face and overcome? 

Technology was (and still can be) a struggle. I had been trained on all sorts of packages in-house but I no longer had the company’s technical support department at my beck and call.

Has it all been worth it?

Yes it has. Aside from a mid-life wobble when I explored other business ideas, I’ve found my niche with creative texts and hope to build on this in the future.

Any final thoughts?

I’m a firm believer that translators can never have too much experience and need to engage with as many people as they can through every possible channel. This is easier now with social media but face-to-face contact is also important. And of course the ITI offers an increasing number of opportunities for engagement and involvement through networks and CPD events.

I also believe that opportunities can present themselves in the most unexpected places. I volunteered for the Milngavie Book and Arts Festival from its very first year (2008) and was asked to project manage it in 2011. Although this didn’t lead directly to any work, it was an invaluable insight into how potential clients in the arts and media think and work.

Next week, in the last instalment of the series, Claire Agius (@ClaireAgius) talks about how her in-house experience proved valuable in setting up her successful translation business and how certain qualities can replace the need for a postgraduate qualification.