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David Tracey

Interviewed by Catherine Richards

September 2016 | Profiles

Q: Who are you, what do you do and how long have you done it?

My name is David Tracey. I was born in England, but grew up in Sydney (Australia), where I studied biological sciences and then completed a doctorate in neuroscience near San Francisco. After this I carried out postdoctoral research in Munich and Paris and then returned to Australia, where I worked for many years as a medical academic involved in teaching, research and administration. After retiring as an emeritus professor, I returned to Europe with my wife Silke; I started working as a medical translator and editor of English texts in London in 2008. We now live with our two children in Bern, Switzerland. Silke is a German-trained doctor who worked for some years in London. When not counselling clients in her practice or teaching medicine and medical English to students, she supports my work with her bilingual background and also proofreads many of my translations.

Q: As a medical translator, what exactly do you do?

I translate all kinds of medical texts from German to English and also edit and proofread medical and technical texts in English. The work involves not only translation as such, but also good word processing and formatting skills. I should make it clear that I’m a translator, not an interpreter – in other words I work with written texts, not speech.

Q: How did you become a medical translator?

I became a medical translator by chance. We were living with our young children in London, where I was teaching part-time while Silke undertook a postgraduate degree at London Business School. I saw an advertisement from a small translation agency looking for translators with university qualifications. I started to work freelance with them, but also registered with an online platform for translators and agencies in the hope of getting more work. I didn’t have much success at first, and so I decided to sit for the examination offered by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) in the UK for a Diploma in Translation. I took an online course to prepare for the exam and sat in on lectures in the German department at University College London, where I was teaching anatomy and physiology. The diploma proved to be useful, and I gradually got more work from translation agencies. However, I have since acquired some direct clients and have enough work to keep me busy.

Q: What is your professional background?

I worked as an academic in the medical faculties of various universities in Australia, the US, Germany and the UK, and this medical background is obviously useful for medical translation. But language skills are more important, and I owe a debt to my high school teacher in Sydney who contributed to my skills in writing English, as well as to my colleagues while I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Munich; they agreed to speak German with me while their English was still much better than my German. I later gained a lot of experience in writing, editing, proofreading and publishing technical texts in English with grant applications, papers for scientific journals, book chapters and so on.

Q: What qualifications, if any, are needed to become a medical translator?

No formal qualification is required to become a medical translator. But you must be able to demonstrate good skills in at least two languages – that goes without saying. A university degree in languages and membership of a respectable association of translators such as the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) in the UK are also useful.

Q: What skills are needed to be a medical translator (over and above language skills)

Good computer skills are increasingly important. Most translators now use computer-assisted translation tools that incorporate machine translation. You still need excellent language skills, but the tools allow you to work more quickly and consistently. You also need to have an eye for detail (even detail that may appear trivial) and you must be a bit of a perfectionist. And you may have to put up with being somewhat isolated. If you work as a freelance translator, you will often be working by yourself, perhaps at home, without cheerful colleagues to distract you.

Q: What language pairs are particularly useful in your region?

There are four official languages in Switzerland, the most important being German and French. So German/French and vice versa are important for interpreters. But as a translator, your location is less important – you can translate in your language pair anywhere, as long as you have a good Internet connection. However, it sometimes helps to live in the same region as your clients.

Q: What are some of the challenges associated with medical translation?

An obvious challenge is the specialised terminology. A related challenge is the overload of specialised abbreviations – particularly in medical reports, which doctors dictate in a hurry to their secretaries, adding inaccuracy to obscurity. Confidentiality is an issue in the medical field as well as in other areas. I often read comments suggesting that errors in medical translation can have lethal consequences. But I think one needs to strive for accuracy in any area of technical translation, and most of the medical translations I do deal more with administrative matters than with existential issues.

Q: What are the hours?

I am a full-time freelance translator. As such I have the advantage (and disadvantage!) that to a considerable extent I can translate whenever (and wherever) I like. But it sometimes helps to be in a time zone near that of your clients.

Q: What about the money?

The money is a major issue for freelancers, not so much if you are employed. But as a freelancer, you are facing global competition from freelancers all over the world. As a result, rates can range from less than 5 eurocents to more than 40 eurocents per word, depending on your location, your language pair and who you are working for. My advice to would-be translators is not to give up your day job until you’re established.

Q: Where could interested people go for more information?

If you are interested in working as a translator, you could contact one of the universities that teaches translation, e.g. City University, London, or a translators’ association in your country (e.g. the ITI or the CIOL in the UK). Or you can send me an email if you wish.

Q: Any advice for people wanting to break into the field?

Make sure you have the relevant qualifications and skills, and don’t give up your day job until you’re established!

Q: Anything else you think is useful to know?

There are a number of portals on the Internet that connect translators and agencies, the biggest and best of which is You can offer your services on these portals, many of which have useful features such as lists of average rates for translators and the opportunity to ask colleagues for advice on how to translate difficult terms.