The Translator Diaries: Marta Stelmaszak

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.


Marta Stelmaszak (@mstelmaszak) is a Polish – English translator and interpreter working in law, IT, marketing, and business. She is a member of the Management Committee of the Interpreting Division at the Chartered Institute of Linguists and a Co-head of the UK Chapter of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters. She has been voted a Top 17 Twitterer and Top 20 Facebook Fan Page in Language Lovers 2012 contest and she runs the Business School for Translators. Marta is also a qualified business mentor and an affiliate of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Marta Stelmaszak

Having become one of the most established translators on Twitter, take us back to the point you knew you wanted to become a translator, Marta.

Translation has been my career of choice since I was old enough to have serious thoughts about my future. In the beginning, I wanted to translate books and poetry in my spare time, but then I grew to realise commercial translation can indeed bring enough money to become my sole occupation. There’s something about communication that has always attracted me. And translation is the most intricate form of communication: it allows different cultures to communicate with each other.

What relevant qualifications and experience do you have?

At the moment, I have some 6 years of experience in translation and interpreting, plus some projects in transcreation and copywriting. I also worked at a translation agency for a few months, but it really wasn’t my thing. I have a BA degree in translation, Diploma in Public Service Interpreting, and countless hours of CPD; my CPD booklet is extremely thick! I’m also currently doing my PgDip in Forensic Linguistics, which is somehow related to translation, since I specialise in legal texts.

How did you make the transition to becoming a freelance translator?

I started translating before I went to university, because there was a high demand of translation services at that time and place. I was mostly translating and interpreting for individuals. When I started my degree, I applied to a handful of agencies and one of them has been providing me with work ever since. So when I graduated, it wasn’t that difficult – I just became available full-time.

With your BA in translation, I don’t suppose you saw the need to go for a postgraduate degree in the same discipline. But do you think a postgraduate qualification is necessary to be a translator?

I don’t think a specific translation-related qualification is necessary to be a good translator or to work as a translator. Some people are just born with it. However, such a qualification is definitely an advantage. Especially in this more and more competitive environment, having something to back up one’s talent can be a difference between being a translator and being a successful translator.

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

We all started somewhere, from this moment of zero experience. The important thing is to be open to possibilities and see every event as a chance to gain some experience. I started with almost nothing, but I seized every opportunity to use my skills. My portfolio was growing rapidly, and I also received a number of recommendations. In the first stage of my career, I worked hard on marketing and sales. Doing marketing courses and meeting with translation buyers definitely helps. But I can’t say I found it hard getting work. I found it challenging and motivating! If you’re good, reliable, and committed, people will hire you.

What major problems did you face and overcome? 

The major problem I was faced with, and I know aspiring translators feel the same, is confidence. It’s very hard to validate one’s translation skills, and also everyone else seems to be more experienced. The way I dealt with the lack of confidence was to stop comparing myself to other translators and to start seeing them as colleagues, not competitors. I’m still surprised how much help and support I’ve received when I was starting out. Finding a mentor is a great idea as well.

 How demanding do you find translation agencies in terms of translator requirements?

I think agencies tend to be more flexible when they want to work with a particular translator. I understand that for certain admin or quality standards reasons agencies need to fulfil a number of steps before working with a translator, and I don’t mind signing an NDA and filling in a form. I don’t mind doing a test piece either, but I always use my common sense.

Has it all been worth it?

I don’t think there’s anything more powerful and motivating than being responsible for your own business. The amount of business knowledge and skills you get as you go is a benefit in itself, plus you really feel you take responsibility for your life. It’s been “worth” it not only in the monetary sense, but also in terms of personal development.

Next week, Eva Hussain (@Eva_Polaron), former deputy chair of the Australian Institute of Interpreting and Translating, tells us how she started from scratch and built up her company that now has 9 staff and 300 suppliers.