Career Makeover: From Perpetual Postdoc to Biomedical Translator


Scientific translation is like puzzling through a detective story. You have to dig really deep into your resource material to find out the right terms and to understand what you are translating. It is very stimulating.

After spending 25 years in several research labs, I am finally doing work that suits me best. I am a scientific translator in private practice, working from German into English and vice versa. I work in the biomedical field, translating patients? medical records, medical textbooks, biotechnology patents, grant applications, and scientific articles. I work from home in an office that I have set up just the way I like, and I can walk my dog or go into the garden whenever I need a break. I am working as much as I want to, on exactly the kind of work I love.

My own story begins in Germany, where I was born and raised. I studied sciences in the university town of Giessen, north of Frankfurt/Main. I have a very broad natural science background. I took courses in botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, geology, anthropology, genetics, virology, and cell biology. I earned my Ph.D. (Dr. rer. nat.) in 1972 and won an award for the best doctoral thesis in biology. My future, in my specialty of cell and developmental biology, looked promising. I worked as a research associate on the genetic basis of cancer until 1980, when I came to Canada to help build a cancer research lab.

Unfortunately, things didn?t work out as expected, and I found myself again looking for work. Being more interested in research rather than teaching and administration, all that was available to me were short-term contracts as a research associate or postdoctoral fellow. Here in Canada people tell you that graduate students and postdocs are cheap labour. And I was a postdoc for 25 years!

While I was working as a research associate at the University of Guelph in the early 1990s, colleagues first asked me to translate some German scientific papers into English for them. Then I realized that I really liked doing this. It is still close to science, I can still learn a lot, and it is intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

I started earning a bit of money doing translations in my spare time. I soon realized that I could change my career and become a scientific translator. When my last research contract ended in 1996, I thought, "This is the time to jump." I have good writing skills in both languages, and I enjoy working on a text to make it right both in terms of content and comprehension.

What I didn?t know about was business, because as a scientist I lived in the proverbial ivory tower. I didn?t even know anyone in business. So, I took a 2-week course on how to start your own business. At the end of the course, I had to choose a business name that would stick with me for a long time to come. I decided to market myself under my name, Ursula Vielkind, Ph.D., followed by an explanation of what I do: German/English Translations in Biological Sciences.

My next step was to join professional associations in my field, such as the American Translators Association, the American Medical Writers Association, and the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (ATIO). Apart from networking at big conferences and local meetings, these groups offer professional development seminars, group health insurance, and, last but not least, professional liability insurance. I also belong to the Editors? Association of Canada and the Halton-Peel Communications Association, both of which focus on communication skills and hold regular meetings in the Toronto area, where I live.

For the next 2 years I did almost nothing but networking to learn as much as I could about my new field. I had very little work because no one knew that I was available. I started using my retirement savings to pay for business expenses, because it took 2 years before I broke even. But I sent my CV to translation agencies, scientists, and book publishers, and jobs slowly started to come my way.

Now my marketing strategy is to have a short profile in each of the print and online directories of the associations I belong to. I also registered with several online databases for translation services, and I subscribed to several translator e-mail lists where I ask for, or provide, help with terminology or information on payment practices of translation agencies. By doing so, my e-mail signature goes out to translators and agencies around the world, complete with my contact details.

I have recently received my certification from ATIO for both my language combinations. In addition, ATIO recognized my specialization in biosciences. This is very important and has been my long-term goal. Now people can see that, as well as being an experienced scientist, I am also a competent translator in both language directions. The latter cannot be taken for granted, as most translators work only into their mother tongues.

The annual income for independent translators in North America can range anywhere from US$20,000 to US$80,000. I am already working all the hours I want to, but my income might increase due to the higher rates I can charge now that I?ve gained professional certification and recognition.

There are some personality traits that suit this type of work: attention to detail, language skills, persistence, and flexibility. I am a perfectionist and curious by nature. Translators, like scientists, are problem solvers. They want to find out every little detail. You stumble over one word, and while you look for the right translation you find all kinds of other interesting information.

Of course, my research experience helps with scientific translations. As a good scientist with a fairly wide background, you should be able to take on almost any challenge, because you have been trained to deal with things that you don?t know.

The best advice I can give someone starting a new career is that you must believe in yourself and know where your strengths and weaknesses are. Then ignore the doubts that other people may have and follow your gut feeling. Do what you feel is right for you. The best translators and scientists do their work because they love it, not for the money. But with that attitude, they are successful.

Ursula Vielkind welcomes comments at

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