Language, Science, and Life: Doing Science Translation


I am--or was--a scientist. A native of Germany, I earned both of my degrees in Berlin, working on algal physiology and pesticide volatilization. While working on my Ph.D. dissertation, I realized that a career in research was not for me. It was not a matter of grades--I earned my Ph.D. summa cum laude. Nonscientific factors, including the hierarchical nature of German research institutions and the long hours demanded by a successful research career, seemed incompatible with my hopes for a family. There was also my inbred desire to be my own boss--giving me plenty of reasons to look for alternatives.

That was in 1997, and in Germany, the Internet just had become really accessible. Through it, I happened across a seasoned science translator (with a double Ph.D. in chemistry and physics, mind you), and encouraged by her, I decided to take a year to try my luck as a freelance science translator.

Now, I am a translator with a toddler and am expecting my second child, and I continue to grow my business. I found what I wanted: a meaningful career that lets me make use of both my interest and education in science and my love for the German and English languages, and that at the same time allows me to be with my kids almost as much as I want to be.

What does it take to get there? There are many ways to get into translation--you can earn a degree, or you can learn from experience. In order to be a good science translator, you need a solid background in general science, and hands-on research experience in the lab really helps, no matter what discipline. Translation is much harder than most people think. You must be fluent in your source language(s) to the degree that you will not misunderstand--or worse, misunderstand unknowingly--your source texts. You must also be a good writer in the various styles you may encounter in science--such as journal publications, user manuals, and patient information. Translation is not a skill that you learn in a year or two--it requires years and years of practice, and I was lucky enough to be able to acquire that on the side while training and working as a scientist.

Most science translators are freelancers, and that requires a third set of skills: You need to be able to run a business and market yourself. These days, with the rather slow economy, these skills are more important than ever. After 2 years in the business, I can rely on a steady flow of work that permits me the time I wish with my family. If I wanted to work full-time, I know I would have to do more marketing.

When I started out, I translated a lot of computer-related stuff--user manuals for software and hardware, software online help, and the like. My hands-on experience with various computer systems and my interest in databases and programming came in handy with this work. I have been able to move on to more interesting and often more challenging scientific texts, some even from areas of my immediate expertise.

Today, I translate a lot of medical materials--product information, user manuals, patient information, and clinical trial documentation--as well as more scientific items, such as research papers, abstracts, dissertations, and patents. My broad background in science and medicine (I come from a family of M.D.s and dentists) enables me to take on a large variety of different topics and, equally important, to recognize when a job isn't right for my skills and knowledge. Textbooks, dictionaries, and Web research are of great help to me as I make sense of subject areas in which I have no personal experience.

There is hardly a "typical" day for a science translator, an aspect of the business I like. One day, I may type away for hours on end, producing several thousand words of translation; on another, I will spend time doing background research on the Web or at a local library for information and terminology on a new topic. Some weeks my workload is heavy, requiring some evening and weekend hours; other weeks I find myself with afternoons free. Most of my work comes via e-mail and goes out that way--I have a number of clients whom I know only via the Internet.

When I first became a translator, I joined a number of professional associations and took an American Translators Association exam to become accredited. For newcomers, this kind of credential can be important, but with more experience, most of your business will come from referrals and references. The latter will show potential clients that you know what you are doing, and results count in this business--especially if you want to work in well-paying sectors. Translators whose language combinations are in demand (e.g., English-German, English-French) and who have solid specialized knowledge either in the sciences or in finance and law can earn a very good living. But those who deliver work of poor quality will find themselves out of work or badly paid very soon.

So, if you are considering a career in translation, be sure that you have the skills required to do it. The best way to find out is to find a mentor who is willing to look over some of your translations and give you honest feedback. Translation classes like those offered online by NYU?s School of Continuing and Professional Studies can give you an introduction to help you learn whether or not translation is for you.

In the long run, translation will offer less recognition and potential fame than research. But my work is meaningful and important to thousands of people. Moreover, I still deal with science and language on a daily basis, and I am my own boss, able to spend a lot of time with my family. To me that means having a perfect work-life balance and making good use of my scientific training.

Dr. Ulrike Walter is a freelance translator working in California, and she would welcome your comments and questions. Write to her at

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