Miriam Bernal Montoro: an unconventional translator and interpreter

Published on 17/07/2018

MÍriam has been working with AbroadLink for many years. This professional combines her love of languages with continuous improvement. This makes her the perfect role model for many young translators. But, let's stop talking about her and hear what she actually has to say!

1. To start, could you tell us a bit about how you came to be a translator and your education? How happened to become a professional translator?

Well, I think I've followed a pretty standard path in our profession, combining translation studies with teaching. I graduated in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Granada and I obtained a PGCE while I was working as a translator (at the time, the qualification could be achieved in a few months and it wasn't a Master's degree, as it is now). Several years later I studied a Master's degree in teaching Spanish as a foreign language at the University of Granada and I have recently obtained a Master's degree in medical and healthcare translation from University Jaume I. That is my formal training, but since I graduated in 2005 I have done a wide range of courses to further my education. Most recently I've taken a three-month course in legal translation to refresh the knowledge obtained during my degree.

With regards to why I initially entered this profession, it was basically a coincidence: I wasn't even aware of the existence of the Translation and Interpreting degree and I had always wanted to study English and Journalism. So, when a school friend told me about the degree and mentioned that she was going to Granada to take the admission exam for French, I though it would be the perfect combination between writing and languages. I travelled to Granada with her and that trip would ultimately mark my professional future.

Once I decided to study Translation and Interpreting, I chose my B, C1 and C2 languages for the most naive reasons that you can imagine, demonstrating my complete ignorance of concepts such as "employment market", "demand" and "market niche". I chose English so that I could one day interpret interviews for rock groups on Spanish radio stations such as Radio 3; German so that I could read Nietzsche without all of the translator's notes and Greek so that I could really appreciate the poems of Cavafy. As you can see, I was a dreamer through and through...

2. Well, that tends to be the case. Very few people have a real idea of the profession that awaits them... But, could you tell us how did you develop your fields of specialization? Was it random or your decision?

In translation, it is often said that you either pick your speciality or your speciality picks you, in my case, it was the latter. My education was always focused on the arts, but market demand, the texts that I mostly worked on and my work as a telephone interpreter for the public services, the majority of which entailed calls for hospitals and health centres, took me down the path of medical and healthcare translation. Furthermore, thanks to my work as a sworn translator and my continued collaboration with law firms in Spain and the United Kingdom, I've never lost contact with the field of legal translation, so they are my two main working areas at the moment That said, if you ask me which type of texts I most enjoy translating, I would say scientific articles and marketing texts with word plays or other similar linguistic challenges, as long as they don't have a really tight deadline of course.

Miriam Bernal Montoro: an unconventional translator and interpreter

3. You have worked as a staff translator for different companies. In your opinion, what are the greatest advantages and disadvantages of working as a freelance translator?

In reality, I know a lot of translators who, after working for a period of time at a translation agency, have taken the plunge into the world of freelance translating. I can name very few cases of people who have done the opposite, if any at all. And, in my opinion, the advantages of working as a freelance far outweigh the disadvantages: you can establish your own working hours to best fit your needs and personal circumstances, you can work remotely from anywhere, making it possible to combine work and leisure (although this can often be a real juggling act and may lead to situations such as translating at 4 o'clock in the morning on an airport floor, leaning against the only column with a power socket for miles around), you can reject jobs that are against your personal ethics (for example, I don't accept military projects or those from certain large companies), you can set your own rates depending on the client and the assignment (this is particularly true for direct clients, agencies are different) and, in general, you have greater control over your time and your work. Of course, freelance work also has its disadvantages: no holidays, a lack of protection in case of illness or loss of business, a ridiculous pension after years of paying a fortune to the Social Security and, in general, very few social benefits compared to salaried employees. Ideally, legislation should be changed to provide greater protection to freelancers and to make their rights and benefits equal to those of salaried employees. However, until that day arrives, freelancers have no choice but to employ foresight and self-management skills.

4. Translators need a wide range of different skills, does the same go for telephone interpreting? What do you get from it? 

I have been working as a telephone interpreter on a daily basis for eight years now for the Spanish public services, particularly in Andalusia, including a large number of services and institutions: emergencies, the police, the fire brigade, town halls, health centres, hospitals, mental health units, shelters and refuges and social services, to name but a few. For the past few years, the agency that I work for has won contracts with companies in the private sector, so I also interpret for insurance companies, private hospitals, banks, hotels and even for the Prado Museum. When a call comes through and I pick up the telephone, I never know if I will have to arrange a medical appointment, assist in a birth, explain what a hemicolectomy involves, send a plumber to repair a leak or initiate a household claim. This element of surprise gives you a real adrenaline rush that translation just doesn't give you, making day-to-day work unpredictable and exciting, without even moving from my desk. However, it also has its disadvantages, such as constant interruptions to my translation work and the need for certain qualities that develop over the years, such as keeping your nerve in life or death situations and the ability to compose yourself after taking highly emotional calls, such as attending to terminally ill patients or interviewing victims of gender-based violence.

Miriam Bernal Montoro: an unconventional translator and interpreter

5. How intense...! What is the most exciting part of your work?

In the case of interpreting, the most exciting part, without a doubt, is seeing how my work can help people who don't understand each other to communicate, resolving complex linguistic situations (often, cultural aspects are vitally important) and even bringing a child into the world or saving a life.

By comparison, in the case of translation I really enjoy the majority of texts, especially scientific texts, and I really value the learning opportunities and continuous training offered by this profession and, let's face it, the possibility of working in pyjamas and being cosy at home instead of having to commute to an office and get wet (I live in the UK, where there is a high possibility of rain on the way to work).

6. In your opinion, what are the main qualities that a freelance translator should have?

Besides the basic qualities also required by staff translators, such as a sound knowledge of their working languages and areas of expertise, in addition to being able to write fluidly and adapt to different registers, I think that freelance work requires a great deal of discipline, self-management, problem solving, a proactive attitude (how I hate that non-word), versatility, continuous training and, above all, the ability to reinvent yourself if the circumstances so require.

7. Adapt, specialise, reinvent... What advice would you give to a person who would like to work in your profession?

The translation and interpreting profession is really demanding and it's not often that translators become millionaires, so the first thing I would say to that person is to think twice about what they're getting themselves into... Joking aside, I would advise them to foster their curiosity because an encyclopaedic knowledge (or anecdotal knowledge, because translators tend to learn about all sorts of things that would make us the ideal contestants on quiz shows such as The Chase) can really come in handy on more than one occasion.

Miriam Bernal Montoro: an unconventional translator and interpreter

I would also tell them to forget about competing on price because there is always somebody who will do it cheaper than you. Besides which, establishing decent rates will not only enable you to live well, but it will also have an impact on all of your fellow translators by raising the profile of the profession. Finally, I would recommend focusing on one specialist area and taking advantage of all available opportunities, rather than covering too many different fields, because specialisation makes it possible to charge higher rates and it provides a great deal of satisfaction being able to work in a field that you enjoy and know well.

Elodie Anthian's picture
Elodie Anthian

Graduate in Hispanic Philology from the University of Toulouse (France) and Master in Translation and Cultural Intermediation (EN-ES>FR) from the University of Salamanca.

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