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Outside of Academia: Helge Gunther, Scientific Translation


Helge Gunther emigrated from the UK to the US for a two-year postdoc at Yale School of Medicine shortly after earning a PhD. Gunther continued her research at Yale for nine years, working on DNA repair in irradiated lactic acid bacteria,

In her spare time away from the bench, Gunther took on contract assignments for Chemical Abstracts, translating German text into English. It was after a maternity leave from Yale that Gunther decided to turn her side project into her profession, and began to work full time as a freelance scientific translator.

"I thought my technical and scientific background was [in demand] for conveying home-language publications into English," Gunther says of her decision to go full time.

Of course, her transition wasn't as simple as putting more hours toward translations — as with any freelance or contract gig, establishing a solid client base is an essential, and difficult, first step. For Gunther, becoming a member of the American Translators Association was a great help.

"I participated in conferences and found out what are the expectations and leads in areas where my skills might be useful," Gunther says. The association, she adds, was a great resource "to make contact with people who have worked in the field to get leads and recommendations."

Even with ATA's assistance, Gunther says starting up was difficult. "You have to put out a lot of contacts, keep an eye on the various literatures," she says. "It was not easy. It took me about five years before I was at a level where I was comfortable with the [workflow and] income … and felt it was a sustainable effort." Overall, she says, translation "is an exciting field, but not the best paying — particularly when you're starting out."

Gunther estimates that for every 100 client inquiries, a reasonably active translator might successfully obtain one contract. "Many, if not most, beginning translators start out contacting and working with language service providers — agencies, bureaus — before they succeed to build their own clientele," she says. "Once you get established and get a reputation, of course it becomes easier."

Translators also face their share of challenges, not least of which is collecting payment from problem clients. "I've had my share of non-payments or having to struggle very hard to get the payments. That is a continuing problem for all translators," Gunther says. "The principle is you start working, and then drop off those people you are not satisfied with or have problems with."

While technological advances — not least of which are advanced word processors and Internet databases — have improved per-word output, translators face certain technical challenges that no computer program can solve alone. Because each language has its own idiosyncrasies, "in particular in the medical field, you have to use the right terminology," Gunther says. "There are subtleties one has to be aware of in the general grouping of a language. Each [translation] needs to be tailored to the destination."

Gunther's "scientific background helps me to interpret what people mean," she says. And that's why many scientific translators break into the field after spending some time in research themselves, Gunther adds. "We have a lot of people who have worked in the field and then either on retirement, or layoff or so on, then switch into translation," she says.

Flexible hours, she says, is another perk of the job. "A lot of people in the profession are people who have other commitments one way or another and set the evenings aside to work … part time. They do have the flexibility, and for that reason it's quite attractive," she says, adding "I have the privilege of working after midnight."

Gunther advises young scientists looking to break into translation to "read, read, read — keep up with whatever is current in the field." Aside from that, she adds, "networking, networking, networking — it's very important."

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