Specialisation Panel on International Development

On Tuesday 27 February 2024, the ITI French Network held its first specialisation panel focussing on International Development. Celine Garbutt reports on her experience.

The ITI French Network specialisation panel on international development was opened by moderator Holly-Anne Whyte, an MITI French and Spanish into English translator specialising in human rights, sustainable development and social sciences.

Joining Holly-Anne on the panel were:

  • Sabine Citron MITI, who has worked for over 30 years as a translator from English and German into French and whose main areas of interest are public health and women’s issues.
  • Anne de Freyman FITI, with similarly long experience, working from English into French in international development, especially gender issues, education and economic development.
  • Hayley Carter-Smith MITI, representing the new generation of translators, joined the profession five years ago and translates from French, Spanish and Portuguese into English for NGOs and other clients in the fields of health, food security and conservation.

What kind of training do I need to work in international development?

None of the panellists had followed any specific training programmes; experience accumulated over time was, however, key to their success. Moderator Holly mentioned that doing a Master’s in International Law had been valuable both in terms of the knowledge gained and improved credibility with clients.

Anne underscored the value of working alongside non-linguist experts and the importance of investing in lifelong learning. She noted that a short course on statistics for translators run by Magistrad in Canada had been particularly useful for her work in this field.

Sabine echoed Anne: she mentioned the invaluable experience she gained working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and reiterated the importance of honing core linguistic skills. She regularly attends workshops, such as ‘On traduit à…’.

Hayley gained her experience working in the sector as a philanthropy consultant and fundraiser before going back to university to study translation ten years after completing a degree in modern languages. Hayley mentioned a couple of useful courses (included at the end of this article).

The panellists concurred that working in this field requires lifelong learning through regular topic-specific training, reading and listening, as well as ongoing language ‘maintenance’. Holly-Anne reinforced this message, remarking that international development is not the ‘generalist’ subject that some think.

How did you start your career in this sector?

All three panellists began by finding work through agencies. Once they became more established, they moved to working with direct clients as well.

Another path to work is volunteering. When the NGO Hayley had been volunteering with received funding for communications, she was offered paid translation work. Although the pay was low, she gained valuable experience.

Anne has added clients to her portfolio by answering calls for tenders, which she said should not be considered ‘out of reach’ for freelancers. Even if no work arrives for a few years, when it does, it can become a stable source of income. Today Anne primarily translates reports for the OECD, for Chatham House and some NGOs such as International Alert. She finds it rewarding whenever a report she translated is quoted in Le Monde.

Tell us about the changes you have witnessed since you began working in this sector.

All three speakers agreed that the current climate is challenging for newcomers. Sabine lamented some agencies’ increasing dependence on automated translation and lack of focus on quality, while Hayley and Anne highlighted the growing tendency of agencies to set unreasonable deadlines. Hayley noted the pressures on NGO budgets.

All three panellists were sanguine about standing their ground on price, particularly in response to the low rates offered by some agencies. While agencies often try to cut costs, they might ultimately accept your rates. The panellists agreed that it was harmful individually and collectively to accept low fees. Nevertheless, they agreed that being able to turn down work was a ‘luxury’ they could afford, Sabine because she also has editorial skills and translates books, Anne because she has a sufficient portfolio of clients, and Hayley because she works part-time as a fundraising consultant.

How do you price your work?

All three speakers charge per word for most (but not all) projects. In France, prices are sometimes set according to the number of characters or per line.

In the case of large projects with trusted clients or for projects with editorial input, the panellists negotiate hourly rates, or quote a ‘package fee’ based on topic, volume, time needed for research and source text specificities (e.g. quality of the language or formatting requirements).

A key takeaway on this point was that we should not assume that charities don’t have the budget to pay good rates. Hayley recommended checking an organisation’s funding position via the Charity Commission and advised that many large NGOs have healthy communications budgets, which would cover translation costs.

What can you tell us about the challenges of working in the international development sector?

Given the breadth of subjects covered, translators in international development might need to tackle challenging terminology, such as local plant names, and country-specific content, such as education systems. Another nut to crack might be ‘educating’ a client, for example, about the importance of using inclusive language.

However, all our speakers agreed that the toughest part of working in the international development sector is translating traumatic content. Topics such as violence against women, torture and female genital mutilation take their toll on the translator and should not be taken on lightly. Hayley added that it is important to have a support network to cope with the emotional burden which can accompany this kind of content.

What about the future of translation in international development?

Sabine recognised that in the current climate it is easy to feel pessimistic about the future; however, it is important to focus on the opportunities ahead.

Anne concurred, adding that she was now where she had hoped to be when she began over 30 years ago. Having established her reputation as a translator, she was now reaping the benefits. She recommended that those joining the profession should develop their translation skills and subject knowledge, answering calls for tenders, getting onto the rosters of international organisations, and being diligent.

Hayley, who is still relatively new on the freelance market, is hoping to grow the share of translation in her work mix, recognising that to get more work, she has to market herself. Hayley is confident that the work is out there.

The panel was followed by questions from participants and a fifteen-minute networking discussion in breakout rooms.

Useful links and references:

Future Learn

Open University

International Association of Conference Translators

Magistrad (for good quality translation training)

X(Twitter)/LinkedIn accounts of international organisations and NGOs to watch for tenders.

Celine Garbutt is a conference interpreter and translator with a strong interest in education. She is currently a student at the University of Exeter as part of the ESRC South-West Doctoral Training Programme. Her proposed research is on language education and translation.