Interview with a Translator

Interview with a Translator

Otmar Lichtenwörther is a key translator for Toppan Digital Language, recently translating his 1000th job for the company. We began working together in 2008 and since then Otmar has translated over 1 million words into German with us, specialising in the translation of Academic and Creative marketing texts. Otmar is a native Austrian, currently living in Graz with his wife and three children.

How did you get started in translation?
Hm, long story … I never wanted to become a translator when I was a bit younger. I eventually graduated in English and American Language and Literature Studies at our local university but also attended a few semesters/courses of German Language and Literature Studies, Philosophy, History, French Language and Literature Studies etc. But studying was more about personal interests, intellectual challenge, literature, art … and …fun …no career thing involved, except, at some stage in the mid to late 1990s perhaps a scholarly career in the field of literary criticism…If I had aimed at a career I would have picked some engineering discipline or at least Business Administration or something like that …I was mainly, well, myself …rock musician, books and cinema lover, lover of life  … and private English, French & German tutor to make a living during the 90s and the first three years of the new millennium.

You said translation was originally a sideline – can you tell us more about your background, and your main area of expertise?
Yes, exactly, although my first actual professional translation experience dates back to the mid-90s I had never thought it possible to make a living as a translator. In 1996 I translated an entire 300+ pages book from German into English ….for a ridiculously small fee, looking back. I also did a couple of smaller translation jobs at acceptable rates for local clients in the art and cultural sector. But it was more or less student pocket money and in 1997 all the people that provided me with occasional little jobs went to Berlin ….these were pre-high speed Internet days …and then I didn’t translate for money for years. I went on teaching, which was frustrating, almost broke up my studies for good (with 95% of the necessary exams passed but still no diploma thesis) but eventually managed to write the necessary paper, which turned out a really massive piece in the end. My university mentor back then told me he would have accepted this “monster” as a doctoral thesis.

So, in 2002 I was a 30+ academic with no job and a mess of a CV for the employment market: no so called professional experience, just quite some life experience as a longstanding freelancer in the truest meaning of the word (teaching, music, some occasional jobs, some translation jobs for little money.

This situation lasted for almost two years …lots of applications for jobs, some interviews, all of them a disaster. But in Feb 2004, the then brand new Kunsthaus Graz, one of the major venues for contemporary art in Central Europe, needed a translation of an essay written by a quite famous NYC art curator for an exhibition catalogue. It was a few thousand words of art criticism dealing with a contemporary German photographer. They needed the translation within 48 hours because the text had already been translated by a translation agency but the German translation was rejected in New York. So they had a problem.

It happened that an old friend of my wife was the German proofreader for the Kunsthaus Graz publications. At the time he did not really know me, nor did he know my translation work. He only knew that I also did translations once in a while and that I had translated four lines of Pidgin English written by a Croatian painter for him a few month before for free, or, a pint, as I suggested when he asked me for a fee, plus “call me when you have something interesting”. And, surprise, surprise, he called, and then the Kunsthaus people called …and the rest is history!
This NYC art essay last minute job was a challenge but all turned out well and lots of other Kunsthaus & art related translation jobs followed. Within two months I knew that I had to turn it into something official. In summer of 2004 I founded textkultur – Mag. O. Lichtenwörther, a translation agency in accordance with Austrian law, and turned into a fully official freelancer, (very) small entrepreneur /business and tax payer.

With time, and word of mouth, other clients, big and small – and always direct – followed; museums, galleries, art associations, curators, visual artists, art magazines, event promoters etc., and, with rare exceptions, I remained within the fields of arts and culture.

I always tried to think outside the box, and had to, because this market has always had its ups and downs …painful downs sometimes, at least before 2006. So, as a ‘translation agency’, member of the Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce and other such organisations, I started to have a closer look at the translation market, on a local and on a global level. I joined in 2006, soon became a paying member but quickly became disgusted by what a cattle market the global translation business was (or at least appeared to me, the newcomer), agency rates were (and still are) ridiculous for the most part …plus, of course, I never received replies to my ‘outlandish’ quotes etc.

Within a few months I came to the conclusion that I would have to either rely on my existing arts & culture niche works or else go looking for a regular job again. I couldn’t imagine working for a global player LSP, no way…this may sound odd after more than 1,000 jobs for your company! But that’s the truth – even when I had already entered my details into the TM database of translators …and clicked for jobs on the board when I received an alert …which was not too frequent too … and never clicked fast enough. Yet most of times I didn’t care. I had (and still have) my direct clients from the art circus. There were the ups & downs…but basically business was more or less good enough to support my family and me  …three kids, mortgage, wife only part time working…

Suddenly within weeks, I was working for Toppan Digital Language almost every day, with only little breaks or at least workload reductions when I was simply too busy in my original niche. Early/mid 2008 was the beginning of “Phase 2” …the thin red line between working (and making money; both my former direct-clients-only approach and the agency-work-approach would be enough in the end of the month (would feed us, pay the bills) but only a combination of the two is what I would call – a bit – interesting in €s and cents) and …… burn out. Ok, I ‘m always trying to keep the burn out at bay but I think I have to take care. Money isn’t everything …and especially LSPs/ agencies, even if I love them, like TM (still my only “love” in agency land, by the way) make it quite hard for us translators to earn really good money. But that’s how the system works…I don’t really blame them …but agencies should never lose sight of the people out there, the thousands of excellent, or not so good (there are many out there too – like in any profession), freelance professionals all around the globe.

Anyway, Toppan Digital Language is not so bad in this respect, might even serve as a model, although, as I said, I have no intimate knowledge of your competitors.

Where do you work from – what can you see from your desk?
I used to work at home until late in 2009. But with an 85m2 apartment and three kids it was obvious that this wasn’t going to last. My oldest kid, Gloria (9yrs), took over “The Office” shortly before Christmas. I rented a small apartment (45m2) less than 1,000m away from home (5 minutes walking distance), with a large balcony and a view on my older kids’ elementary school, and trees, and the green Plabutsch mountain. A dream come true, plus the office is four times larger than my former office space at home. There’s still a fully functional work laptop in the living room but I’m trying to work as little as possible at home – which is sometimes impossible …but I’m working much less long/late hours than last year although business is even better in 2010.

What tools do you use to help you translate/research?
Tools? Until not so long ago (12 -18 months max) the MS Office suite, a browser (99% Mozilla’s Firefox), the usual hardware and a stable high speed Internet connection were more or less everything I needed for the job. And this still holds true for most of my ‘more sophisticated’ work, where Trados and MemoQ are still absolutely useless …at least for me, at my present level of CAT’ tool experience. Of course, I own both now; they make much of the everyday corporate work really less frustrating … I really LOVE the jobs where ‘Pre-Translate’ does 80%+ of the job …these jobs are really a compensation for the relatively low agency rates! And agency jobs are more or less the only jobs were CAT tools make sense. In general, I can say that these tools are still relatively new to me and I definitely cannot make use of all of their benefits, at least not at the moment. And I hate reading manuals too – being more of the learning by doing type.

Which translation job are you most proud of and why?
I don’t know. I’ve been involved in almost 50 book publications meanwhile as a translator or proofreader (see e.g. or check the textkultur facebook page for more up-to-date information) and they all make me happy and a bit proud. So do web pages in whose translation I was somehow involved. But all the corporate work has its merits too – yes, you are quite anonymous and “part of a team/ a wider context” but I personally find the big names of some of the end clients I translate marketing stuff into German quite alluring …there’s also some kind of gratification involved (yet I don’t mention these on my textkultur website….although I’d love too. And, you can bet, the curious fact that I’m – a person who is quite critical of translation agencies and the translation business as such – the only individual translator who has done 1,000+ jobs for Toppan Digital Language (and no. 2 or 3 of all – including small agencies with more than one translator) makes me proud too…but also makes me think.

What was the worst job you were ever asked to do?
As a busy translator you get loads of really sh*t job requests. Real luxury is being able to turn them all down, at least the really BAD ones. I can think of many but I’ll give you only one:
In spring 2009 (or was it 2008) an American publishing house contacted me and asked me if I’d be willing to translate a book on the avant-garde(s) of the early 20th century written in English by a curator of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, which was then proofread in the United States. Sounded interesting, big volume, a tight deadline, but manageable. The fee was several thousand dollars – 50% to be paid upon receipt of the German translation, 50% upon publication of the German version. So far, so good.
After a few requests I got an excerpt of the English text, which wasn’t that bad but full of factual and language flaws, at least for a proofread text ready for publication …but that was by far not the worst aspect of this job request. In order to get a better picture of the effort and the money involved I asked for a relatively precise word count and calculated this figure against the fee offered. The result was unbelievable: about 50% of what Toppan Digital Language pays. I just told them to get lost as friendly & politely as possible. This is just one example of many.

Do you think it is important to keep up to date with trends in the business?
Of course it’s important to keep up to date with the technology, with the demands of the people that pay you for your services; with the “market” etc. But this doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your critical stance. Many trends aren’t really promising, the business seems to be ruled and dominated by technocrats and hyper-low pricing in combination with ultra-quick turnaround seems to be an essential element of the “trend”.
Precarious times we’re living in (somehow perverted that I doubled or even tripled textkultur’s turnover in recent years…the CRISIS has spared me so far…but one never knows what the future brings). Take machine translation, a hyped issue in the industry today. Yes, I’d be willing to edit machine-translated rubbish (if this is the future of the business) BUT ONLY for acceptable per hour fees, not for peanuts.

What is the best thing about being a freelance translator?
The best thing about freelancing, no matter in which field, is being your own boss. In my year of alternative service in lieu of military service – 1998, the year I turned 30 – I worked as office staff in the headquarters of a big local NGO. This was the year when I realized that it would be more than tough to fit into any form of regular employment situation. I just hated the people there …and vice versa. So, in a way, it was only logical that I founded my own business 6 years later. And I’m MORE THAN GRATEFUL that it has been successful so far.

Of course, you are not a 100% independent …this would be a delusion … but take e.g. my relationship with Toppan Digital Language and all the Project Managers there: I cannot always say no to urgent requests (at least I think so) but basically everybody shows at least a minimum of understanding in times when I’m simply off the calendar for agency work …and gets back to me when these periods are over. Don’t know if this continues to be the case – so I always try to keep my off-the-calendar periods as short as humanly possible.

What is the worst thing about being a freelance translator?
You never know what the future has in store for you. But this is something that does not only go for freelancers /self-employed people…it’s true for all of us. And even if you are a billionaire, there’s always the bus…or cancer… the simple fact of getting older …entropy in its manifold forms…everything that haunts the human condition as such. Ok, this was the generalized answer.
More specific: I have a very small business, I’m a one man show, so to speak. Ok, my wife is also my part-time employee (and she is a graduate translator of Turkish and English, by the way), but this is only for tax/business reasons, the second workplace in my office is only very, very rarely in use…you know, we have three kids, and she has another part-time job too, in a friend’s copywriting/proofreading/and also a little bit translation agency (the one who ‘blindly’ recommended me once … see above, Kunsthaus story).
BUT: the state, the tax authorities, social insurance, health insurance treat me /us freelancers/small businesses like big entrepreneurs as soon as our income is a bit above the poverty line, no joke.

As a translator you have to understand at least two cultures well. Do you have any interesting experience of where those cultures clash/think of things differently and can you give us any examples?
I don’t know if I understand two cultures well, nor I know if I really have to. But seriously: we’re living in a weird mix of many cultures/realities now, out in the street, and online. Off- and online this does not only apply to the world’s big cities, the classic melting pots of the Western civilization such as NYC, Paris or London …but also to much smaller cities in Central Europe such as Graz, the city where I live, and even for much smaller towns and rural areas to a certain extent.

For more information on Otmar visit the textkultur website –

Written by Matt Train
Matt Train
Matt Train is Operations Director at TranslateMedia - responsible for working with clients and system integration partners to advise, plan, and deliver multilingual digital content for international brands and content publishers.

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