PNAS: George Farrants, Freelance Translator

i-547cc1148ac7b33d198445c2f6f77c8c-farrants.jpg(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of George Farrants, a freelance translator (and occasional marathon runner, as seen in the picture). The goal is to provide some additional information for science students thinking about their fiuture careers, describing options beyond the assumed default Ph.D.--post-doc--academic-job track.)

1) What is your non-academic job?

I work as a freelance translator from Swedish and Norwegian into English. I try to specialise in scientific, medical and technical texts, but I accept texts from many other fields when they come along.

2) What is your science background?

B.Sc. in Physics from Imperial College, London University

Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Cambridge University (MRC Lab. of Molecular Biology)

3) What led you to this job?

I turned my hobby into my job!

After a number of postdocs and other positions in research, I realised that I would be happier working with my passion - language. I had reached the stage in my research career when I was expected to set up my own group, apply for research grants, take on my own Ph.D. students, that sort of thing. That didn't appeal to me, and I gradually phased out of research and into freelancing (after a brief interlude in the business world - commercialising scientific methods and consultancy). Somewhere along the way I had moved to Sweden, and I had also lived in Norway for 8 years, so I was pretty fluent in these two languages, and it was easy for me to turn to translating.

4) What's your work environment like?

I have an office at home. With a lot of bookshelves!

5) What do you do in a typical day?

Just about all of my time is spent at a computer. I receive texts electronically, and deliver the translations the same way. A lot of time is spent surfing the web, researching terminology, looking for specialised terms and finding out how to express things in the patois of a particular field. Even though there's a lot of reference material on the web, I still use printed material quite often - specialised dictionaries and glossaries, for example. Very occasionally, I will visit a customer, if the material is so confidential that it can't be sent by e-mail, and the customer is not set up for encrypted transmission.

6) How does your science background help you in your job?

I try to specialise in scientific, medical and technological texts, and in these cases it helps to have worked in a number of fields and to be familiar with the science. I do a lot of patents, and here it's a great advantage to have a technical and analytical way of thinking, being able to keep a complex description clear in my mind (one sentence in a patent can be longer than a page!). As a freelancer I take on many texts that are not explicitly scientific, and here it helps a lot to have had the training to break something down into its component parts (a business proposal, for example), see how they relate to each other, and be able to put them back together again in a different language.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

I wouldn't recommend becoming a freelancer directly after college. I suggest that most people will benefit working for some, indeed several, years in a research or scientific environment. There are then two possible approaches to getting a freelancer business going, both with advantages and disadvantages. 1) Advertise, send out flyers to companies in the field, cold-calling, etc. 2) Register with translation agencies, send them your CV and examples of your work.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?

The ability to break down a complex system, look at the bits, see how they relate to each other, and put them back together again.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?

In general, I would say that it's necessary to be very flexible. Most people now can expect to change their career during their life, possibly several times. There are many alternatives to the older rigid career structures, and it's important to be aware of this and take opportunities when they arise.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?

It varies widely from month to month, which is one of the disadvantages of freelancing. It's difficult to make comparisons, but I estimate that I'm making 20% more than a university researcher of similar age.

The industry is in transition, however, and I wonder how it will appear in five years, or ten years. Of course, that's true of any industry, but just translation may be undergoing particularly rapid change. Machine translation is finally starting to become useful, and is actually starting to take some jobs from us. Whether that will lead to a general trend of lower prices and harder competition remains to be seen.

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Thanks for starting this series. So often, when people go to graduate school, they think academia is the only possible track, and only discover other possibilities when they fail to get faculty jobs. If they'd decided maybe they didn't want faculty jobs in the first place, they wouldn't take it so hard and would contribute to the world in a different way.

I'm also a scientist turned freelance translator. I found that to balance a young family and career I wanted the flexibility of a freelance career. I work from French and Spanish into English, translating texts on chemistry, its IP and industrial applications.