Headshot of Dr Ian Giles

Carving a career in translation

Our third blog in our PhD Horizons series, throughout June, continues with an excellent contribution from Dr Ian Giles. He lives in Leith, Edinburgh and is a commercial and literary translator of the Scandinavian languages. Ian is the current Chair of the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association (SELTA), a frequent contributor to Swedish Book Review and Treasurer of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies (SSNS).

Ian graduated with a PhD in Scandinavian Studies in 2018. His PhD focused on who published and read translated Scandinavian fiction in the UK during the 20th and early 21st centuries, and the roles of the various agents involved in this process continue to engage him. Here, he describes his work, reflects on using his PhD skills and experience and offers some key tips for current research students:

I am a self-employed translator of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish into English.

This was an area in which I already had experience, as I had supported myself between previous degrees in this way. My bread and butter work then was “commercial” translation – anything from annual reports to aquaculture marketing.

After I submitted my PhD early in 2018, I considered continuing in academia and applied for various opportunities but I never really expected to remain in the sector after my doctorate. My (beloved) field of Scandinavian Studies is a small one and openings are a rarity and I was reluctant to move, having put down roots in Edinburgh. With my applications to remain an academic falling flat, my long standing side hustle was plan B, at least until something else came along. (Hasn’t yet!)

I was eager to move beyond “commercial” translation and into literary and creative translation (i.e. books). I now have some twenty publications under my belt, and also work extensively on “sample translations” of Scandinavian literature (which are used in the literary rights market to sell titles to foreign territories). In many respects, the two forms of translation (commercial and literary) are alike: I spend a lot of time reading, typing furiously, looking up terms, doing wider research and being absolutely certain that the word I’m looking for is right on the tip of my tongue. (This will sound familiar to anyone doing a PhD, especially in the humanities.) Other aspects of my working day will be familiar to anyone who has been their own boss: I badger customers to pay bills, manage my own suppliers, do my accounts, etc.

While in the midst of the PhD itself, I didn’t really think about what it might give me (other than sleepless nights and a title), but since becoming a fully-fledged translator I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve brought to my work from my “apprenticeship” as a PhD student. In practical terms, I’m comfortable working with large and complex documents, a range of software, writing (both the words bit and the typing lots bit) and managing large projects. Experience giving conference papers during the PhD means I feel confident writing and speaking publicly about my work now. Where the PhD has really paid dividends has been my ability to cast myself as an expert. My research explored the sociological reasons behind the reception of Scandinavian books in the UK, which means that I hit the ground running in the books industry, with a strong working knowledge of an unusual niche in the business. I have added value for my customers by providing anglophone publishers with expertise on the Scandinavian publishing scene, and assisted Scandinavians as their resident Brit-whisperer. This kind of work is varied, exciting and requires a high degree of mental acuity and flexibility. Luckily for me I have already grappled with a PhD, ensuring I’m well prepared! The PhD has made it easier to sell my services, and has allowed me to do more interesting and varied work.

While I did not give my future much thought mid-PhD (I was too busy failing to understand Bourdieu’s field theory), what advice would I offer myself (or you, dear reader, as you wend your way towards completion) with the benefit of hindsight?

1. What else do you do, and where do your interests lie? How might the skills you’re acquiring in the PhD be useful in those areas? Actually think about this!

2. Don’t be afraid to sweat the assets of your PhD and pick the bits that will make you a bright prospect elsewhere. Experts exist outside academia, and you can be one of them! And don’t be shy about wielding your creds. Being a Dr won’t always open doors, but don’t underestimate the positive power that it and the Edinburgh brand have in the wider world.

3. Practise being organised now. Make plans, stick to deadlines, know how to fix things when they go wrong. Talk to your colleagues about these nuts and bolts too. It’ll make your PhD better, and it’s great practice for working life.

4. The people around you now – be they supervisors, admin staff, fellow researchers or students – they may be future customers, suppliers, colleagues, etc. Cultivate these connections – even if it doesn’t work out, at least you’ll have friends!

5. Don’t baulk at freelance life – it removes some of the culture shock when you leave your PhD life behind, and that flexibility means you’re available to meet your new friends for coffee or lunch (cf. point 4).

As well as a PhD in Scandinavian Studies, Ian gained an MSc in Translation Studies (2012) and an MA Hons in Scandinavian Studies (2011) from the University of Edinburgh. You can find out more about his career and work here: GilesTranslation – Scandinavian-English translation by Ian Giles

Thanks Ian.

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