Careers in Translation: Alex North ’13

Alexandra North graduated summa cum laude from Dickinson in 2013 with a double major in Russian and Women’s and Gender Studies and a minor in English. During the fall semester of her junior year, she studied abroad on the Dickinson-in-Moscow program. Alex holds an M.A. in Translation Studies and lives and works in Mannheim, Germany, where she is the Search Engine Optimization Project Manager at effective GmbH, a digital marketing agency with offices in Germany and China.

Alex answered some questions for our blog about her career path since graduation, as well as offered some advice for students considering a career in translation.  

Can you describe your job?

I am the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Project Manager at effective GmbH, a digital marketing agency based in Mannheim, Germany and Shanghai, China. We manage international communications for industrial companies, mostly manufacturers of the kinds of heavy duty equipment or specialty materials used in factories. In my role, I focus on creating multilingual website content that will rank well in internet search engines. I also do freelance SEO and German to English translation on the side.

What does your average work week look like?

In my average work week, I toggle between writing and translating content, acting as project manager for larger translation projects, and performing SEO analysis.

In creating content, I research which keywords are googled where in the world, and either write or translate texts for our clients with the goal of helping them show up in search engines more often in their target markets. This requires researching complicated topics like supply chains, industrial engineering, and manufacturing processes so that the texts are accurate and informative.

When clients need web content translated into many languages, I assemble a team of translators and coordinate the project. I love these projects because I get to work with such a diverse team, and it usually means that I get to translate the texts in tandem with others.

The consulting dimension of my role has to do with helping clients understand how their website is performing in search engines, how they are doing relative their competitors, and what they can do to generate more visitors from search engines.

Otherwise, I am the de facto “professional English speaker” at my agency and for our clients. With English being the lingua franca of the business world, I get pinged several times a week by clients and colleagues who need a native speaker to read over a text before it is published.

What did your path look like after graduation?

My first job after graduating was waiting tables in a Russian bar and restaurant in my hometown of Austin, Texas. I was the only American on staff and got to speak Russian all day with my coworkers, who came from all over the former USSR. That was definitely a unique experience and my Russian had never been better!

When it came time to transition to a more professional role, I spent a few years working in various internet start-ups in Austin where I was able to put my talent for writing to work. This was eventually how I got steered in the direction of search engine optimization. But I was itching to go abroad and speak foreign languages again, and I knew my Russian wasn’t getting any better hanging out in Texas. So I started looking into M.A. programs in translation abroad. I eventually set my sights on Germany, in no small part because of the free university tuition.

After making up my mind, I spent a year saving money, taking German classes at my local community college, and finding an SEO role that I could work remotely. Then I packed up my life into two suitcases and headed to Heidelberg, Germany. I spent my first year in Germany taking German classes five days a week, traveling, and working nomadically. I passed the necessary language exam that year and got accepted into the Uni Heidelberg’s M.A. program in Translation Studies. I ended up writing my Master’s Thesis about the intersection of SEO and translation – which pretty much sums up my professional life these days!

How has your study of Russian at Dickinson informed where you are today?

Studying Russian at Dickinson and abroad made my world so much bigger. Russian was my first foreign language, and it opened my eyes to the breadth of cultural and linguistic difference in the world. It was my first glimpse into how foreign languages can open doors to people, places, art, and information that I never would have encountered otherwise. My time at Dickinson showed me that I thrive in international settings, and it made me pretty fearless about picking up and moving to a country I had never been to before and where I didn’t really speak the language. Plus, Russian is really hard and it made learning German feel like a piece of cake in comparison!

What skills and dispositions make a person an asset as a translator?

Even more than foreign language competence, translators need to have excellent research and writing chops. Most translators do not have the luxury of working with source texts that are universally engaging or even well-written. Especially when working with technical texts, it requires diving into highly specialized topics in order to develop the depth of understanding necessary to write as if you were an expert in the field. Working as a translator, I have had to research topics as wide-ranging as music production with MIDI controllers to the different mechanisms for mixing thousand liter batches of bulk powders.

Technical savviness is also increasingly important for translators. The ability to navigate various software programs, cloud platforms, and terminology databases is a huge plus. And because the bulk of texts that get translated these days are published online, basic knowledge of HTML, SEO, and web publishing are skills that will serve you well.

What would you say to students considering whether a career in translation is right for them?

The best advice I can give you is to go abroad! Your skills in your native language will be in much higher demand in a foreign country than at home. Plus, learning a foreign language to the level required for professional translation requires immersion, something that is best achieved on the ground in your target country.

My second piece of advice would be to supplement your foreign language competence with other skills. Specializing in a technical topic can take you very far as a translator, as it can win over the trust of tough clients. But specializing isn’t limited to subject matter expertise; for me personally, my background in SEO has been what sets me apart.

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