How Volunteering Taught Me The Art of Academic Translation

Words of Wisdom From an Academic Translator

How Volunteering Taught Me The Art of Academic Translation

After providing academic editing services in Israel for twenty years, I began to consider expanding into the field of academic translation from Hebrew into my native English. In the course of editing articles and books for Israeli researchers, I occasionally did minor translating such as questionnaire items or quotes from interviews, but I didn’t feel confident enough to advertise myself as an academic translator.


I decided to start by volunteering. I contacted organizations whose work I support and offered to do Hebrew-to-English translating. Many of them took me up on it. In my spare time, I translated material for websites, newsletters, reports, and grant requests.  In this way, without the pressures and expectations inherent in paid jobs, I was able to practice and hone my translating skills. Gradually, I became more accurate and more efficient.  I experimented with phrasing. I practiced polishing texts so they were true to the original yet sounded like they were written by a native speaker. 

There were side benefits as well. I felt positive about helping organizations I supported, and I learned about a wide range of subjects: Sudanese refugees, water purification technologies, Muslim holidays, sea turtles. (I will share just one fascinating fact I learned: sea turtles excrete excess salt through their tear ducts, making it look like they are crying -- like the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland!)

Because I wasn’t charging, I wasn’t expected to be an expert or hold a master’s degree in the field, so I was given the opportunity to translate texts on subjects such as detecting lead in drinking water, court challenges to government policies, and wildlife protection programs. Once I translated an address by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin from a video recording -- a particular challenge since Rivlin, an intellectual, sprinkled his speech with quotes from Tchernichovsky and Nathan Alterman. Years later, when a researcher asked if I had experience translating from video, I was able to say yes.

A step towards my new career

Eventually, I felt I could legitimately add ‘Hebrew-English translator’ to my list of professional skills and take on paid jobs.

The volunteer hours paid off. I have since been hired to translate a number of academic articles written in Hebrew and my academic translations were published in English in highly regarded peer-reviewed journals. More recently, I delved into a yet another field, translating children’s picture books, which requires an even freer hand with the language. 

Some words of encouragement

I encourage any bilingual editors, whether you have experience generally in academic editing, or in more specialized fields within academic editing, who are considering a career in translating but don’t feel quite ready, to start by volunteering.  There are many worthy organizations that would be grateful for your help, and you will gain in the end, in terms of satisfaction, knowledge, and practical skills. My intention is not to encourage translators to allow employers to take advantage of them. It is important to carefully select the projects we agree to do on a volunteer basis and not to agree to work for substandard wages. However, I found that translating for free enabled me to learn the art of academic translation.


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