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In love with translating: alumna Anna became a literary translator

A permanent job or start your own company? After her studies in English Language and Culture and History, Anna Visser (28) was faced with this exact choice and chose the latter. She started working as a freelance translator. How did this go and how did her studies benefit her?

Job: Owner of Vertaalbureau Anna Visser. Studies: BA English Language and Culture & MA History (American history), Vertalersvakschool Amsterdam

Has starting your own company always been your goal?

“I kind of just slid into it. During my English Language and Culture study programme, I found literature the most interesting part, and decided to enroll in the Vertalersvakschool (school for professional translators) in Amsterdam after my studies, where I learned how to translate literature.

“When I was done with that, I applied to a translation company as a junior translator. I didn’t get the job, but I did get an assignment. With that first assignment, I registered with the Chamber of Commerce. Then I received the next assignment, then the next, and so it began.”

How do you like freelancing?

“I really enjoy being able to choose how I’ll organise my day. If I get stuck, I can just go do some sports for an hour. I also like to be able to choose my own assignments. Being a translator - especially a self-employed translator - is a lonely profession. I sometimes miss having colleagues. That’s why, next to my translation work, I also work in a restaurant, simply because I like having colleagues.”

Anna Visser: 'Find out how you can distinguish yourself from others'

What kind of assignments do you usually work on?

“My assignments are very varied. I recently translated a book by Walter Tevis, The Hustler, into Dutch. But I have also translated texts for the website of a brand of butter and a Leiden city map for a young international audience. I am always searching for untranslated pieces of literature, as it is my goal to eventually only translate literature.”

What are the challenges as a freelancer?

“As a freelancer, you are responsible for your own assignments and income. I had to learn a lot in a very short while, from the search for an accountant to creating advertisements. And, every once in awhile, assignments can be scarce. On the one hand, I want to be selective with the assignments I choose, and on the other, I need to ‘keep food on the table’ to use a Dutch expression. You can’t be too picky. Overall, I’m happy with how things are going and I now have enough interesting assignments coming in.”

How did your study time help you in your work?

“Without my English studies, I would certainly never have become a translator, and as a literary translator, I benefited greatly from my literature courses in English. Writing essays also helped me a lot when learning to write. I also owe a great deal to my year on the board of the cultural student society Prometheus. It was there that I learned how to be more assertive: amazingly enough, just by approaching people.”

Do you have any tips for students who want to become freelance translators?

“Find out how you can stand out from the crowd. Look at what makes you unique as an entrepreneur and find a speciality that suits you. There are many English translators, so distinguishing yourself is crucial. You also need to consider: only translating poetry may be fun, but perhaps not realistic if you want to earn a living  from it. So, perhaps it’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket but rather to do the occasional commercial job so you can continue following your passion.”

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