The Translator Diaries: Catharine Cellier Smart

The Translator Diaries is a series that looks at how current freelance translators made it into the career. In this 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.


Catharine Cellier Smart (@Smart_Translate) is a British-born French to English freelance translator (and occasional interpreter) based in Réunion Island, an overseas department of France in the Indian Ocean, where she has lived for 18 years since 1990. Cath translated professionally part-time, in parallel with her job, from 1992 until 2008 before going full time.

Cath Cellier Smart

Cath, at what point did you know you wanted to become a translator?

When my husband’s job was posted to South Korea in 2008, I had to resign from my (non-language related) job in industry. Officially in South Korea I wasn’t allowed to work, and when we learnt we were coming back to Réunion after three years in Asia, I decided I wanted to translate full time. I enjoy helping people understand each other – communication is extremely important in our lives, and translation is part of that.

What relevant qualifications and experience do you have?

I have a BA (Hons) language degree from a British university, an MBA from a French university Business School (IAE), and a certificate of translation (via distance learning). I have about 20 years’ experience translating, of which 18 years are part time and 2 years full time.

Have you ever contemplated studying for a Master’s in translation?

I would dearly like to study for a post-grad in translation, but I would prefer to study for it in person rather than via distance learning. Réunion Island has a university, but there are no suitable translation-related courses, and I can’t just hop on the tube and go somewhere else. That’s one of the frustrations of living on a remote tropical island.

Do you think a postgraduate qualification is necessary or considerably advantageous?

I think there are some very good translators out there without formal translation qualifications. “A qualification does not a translator make”.

How much experience did you have when you went freelance, and how hard did you find it?

Getting work is not always easy; most of my specialisations are in highly competitive fields, and my unique specialisation of Réunion Island/Indian Ocean islands isn’t very much sought after. However, I find that when an agency really needs you, they don’t worry about the experience, qualifications and test translations. And don’t forget that agencies are not the only clients out there!

What major problems did you face and overcome? 

Making myself known, trying to stand out from the crowd, building up a clientèle. Fingers crossed, I’ve never had any payment problems so far.

Has it all been worth it?

Yes! There’s no doubt. Although maybe that’s the sort of question you need to ask yourself at the end of your career.

Next week, Lydia Smith (@smiffinch) explains how working as a Project Manager in a translation company put her in a good position to become a freelance translator and how she managed to remain successful whilst raising her children and during a recession.