PNAS: Matthew Schlecht, Freelance Translator

(This post is part of the new round of interviews of non-academic scientists, giving the responses of Matthew Schlecht, a chemist by training who runs his own technical translation service, Word Alchemy Translation. 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 am a free-lance technical translator working into English from Japanese, German, French, Spanish and occasionally Russian, in the areas of chemistry, medicine, biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, polymers, and agrochemistry. I also proofread/edit such translations done by others, and do some technical writing and editing.

2) What is your science background?

I obtained a BS in chemistry (Univ. Wisconsin), and an MS, MPhil, and PhD in organic chemistry (Columbia Univ), then did a 2-year post-doc in the same field (UC Berkeley) before starting my independent career.

3) What led you to this job?

I had been doing research in chemistry and the life sciences in academia, big industry and small industry for 20 years, but had gotten discouraged at the fate of many mid-career scientists in today’s business climate, which is that one is readily expendable.

4) What’s your work environment like?

I work from home (US-based, EST), in an additional bedroom converted into a home office. Most days I spend at home (my commute is ~20 feet!), with occasional trips to the library for technical resources, or to attend meetings (local, regional, and national professional groups). I occasionally bid on off-site work, but have only done this once (5 days in Heidelberg, Germany).

Nearly all communication is by email, and I have met fewer than 1% of my clients face to face.

5) What do you do in a typical day?

First thing in the morning, I go through the overnight email, which can come in from clients in Europe or East Asia in addition to the US. Then, I get to work.

I generally have most of my day already scheduled, but can occasionally work in small additional jobs. The bulk of my work (>90%) is translation, and so I spend most of a typical day translating, also doing term/phrase/background research as needed to better understand the subject matter on which I am currently working. In addition to actual translation, I also do error and quality checks on my work before I deliver it, and occasional simple DTP work: embedding graphics, overlaying text, formatting tables, etc.

During the day, when new project inquiries come in, I take some time to assess whether it would make sense for me to bid on the job. If not, I promptly send the client my regrets that I cannot work the job into my schedule and mention that I appreciate their keeping me in mind for future work. If the potential job is one that I would like to get, I prepare a quote and propose scheduling (delivery date), or in the absence of sufficient information to do so, let the client know what else I need to know before I can prepare a bid.

To keep my mind fresh, I take frequent breaks, about every 1-2 hours.

Being self-employed means I can schedule personal events or errands during the day, but then I generally make that up by working in the evening and/or on weekends. I generally put in a total of 8-10 hours per day of work. When I have just finished a large project or long series of projects, I generally take several days off.

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

I find that my knowledge and experience from having worked in research in chemistry and the life sciences for 20 years enables me to provide a client with the benefit of specialist expertise that few other translators can offer. A generalist translator will be at something of a loss to translate a patent, a manufacturing sheet, a clinical trial protocol, a drug information sheet, or a scholarly journal article within my areas of competency, and have the result still make sense (or not seem weird) to another specialist. I know this because I receive such translations done by generalists where my task is to “fix” the language and make it sound appropriate for the corresponding technical context.

At the same time, I decline to do work that is outside my areas of expertise, because I would be at a loss with the context in a strange subject area.

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

My advice for someone to follow this path would first be, while still in college, to develop language and writing skills in parallel with one’s scientific education. Then after graduation, take some years to gain experience in jobs directly involving science, to learn the field(s) from the inside. That way, one would have an insider’s knowledge of the field(s) together with serviceable language and communication skills, and be in a good position to start the new career as I did.

It took me a total of 18 months for this job to be fully self-supporting, to build a dependable clientele. I know some folks who have launched more quickly, with 9-12 months to the break-even point. So, if possible, “don’t quit your day job” until you’re up to speed, and it helps to have a supportive spouse or partner (with a “real” job, so you can get medical insurance!).

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

The skills from science that serve me best now are the ability to analyze and research a problem, to be able to brainstorm potential solutions, and then to question and test the results of the solutions developed to find what is really the best solution.

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

Along with the traditional courses of scientific study, I would advise any young science student to be sure to develop good writing/communication/speaking skills, and seriously to consider acquiring extensive facility with at least one language other than English.

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

In recent years, I have grossed $70-80k, and this is my 9th year in the business. Had I stayed in research, my salary would probably be twice that, but I can honestly say that I’m happier and more stress-free now than at any other time in my life, and have more flexibility for my personal life than at any other time.

If higher income were an important objective to me now, I could become a “mini-agency” and begin subcontracting out work to other translators. However, I have not chosen to pursue this in a serious way.

4 thoughts on “PNAS: Matthew Schlecht, Freelance Translator

  1. “Japanese, German, French, Spanish and occasionally Russian”

    How/where/when did you learn 5 extra languages? Wow.

    I do ESL technical/scientific editing for Japanese and Korean scientists.

  2. “How/where/when did you learn 5 extra languages?”
    I guess the simple answer is that I’ve had a whole lifetime. It’s still ongoing (or the disorder is not in remission 😉 ), as I’ve been trying to learn Chinese and now Korean. The key is not to stop trying. Plus, research shows that people who know and use several languages have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s! Keep those neurons active!
    I also do editing work such as you describe, and find it both challenging and rewarding.

  3. I had a similar career path to Matthew. The difference is that my industrial chemical career ended earlier, after I had my first child. I found that to balance my family and career I wanted the flexibility of a freelance career. I’m also a transalor, working from French and Spanish into English, translating texts on chemistry, its IP and industrial applications.

  4. Hey Matt– you were my TA for organic chemistry lab at Columbia 1975-76; I remember you well — a good teacher and really nice guy. I’m happy to see you have done so well for yourself! God bless!

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