Silvia Xalabardé, STIBC President and CTTIC Board of Examiners Co-Chair

Interviewed by Angela Fairbank, CTTIC board member-at-large, December 17, 2022.

(c) Silvia Xalabardé

Translator, Terminologist, Interpreter – which among these three professions do you identify with? And in which languages?

I have been a translator for many years and I recently started working as a legal interpreter as well. For translation, I work in English, Spanish, Italian and German, but when it comes to interpreting, I prefer to stick to my strongest languages, and only ever take work in English and Spanish.

Please provide a brief synopsis of your education – including language education – and background related to how you came to be a Translator/Interpreter/Terminologist, such as immersion in foreign countries and culture, university education, mentorship/menteeship, internship, etc.

I am originally from the Basque Country in northern Spain but moved to the UK as a teenager, so finished high school and went to university there. That early experience of complete immersion was mostly just luck, but in the end it turned out to be an amazing starting point for my career in translation.

My original plan was to become a clinical researcher in psychology and/or neurology, so I graduated with a degree in psychology and later a master’s degree in psychology and neuroscience.  In the end, however, my personal circumstances made it difficult for me to devote myself to an academic career because I had young children and we always seemed to be moving around the world for my husband’s work. So that is how I started translating. I thought it perfect because it was a flexible job that I could do from anywhere. 

Then, as the years went by, I got more and more into it. I learned Italian because I thought it such a beautiful and musical language; it was also close enough to Spanish to be quite tantalizing. Later, I lived in Berlin for a couple of years and took the opportunity to add another language to my translation repertoire. I studied like a maniac and somehow managed to pass the German Goethe C2 proficiency exam. Later I passed the certification exam in the German>English combination. Finally, once I was well established as a translator, I decided to do a master’s degree in translation just to make sure I was covering all the bases (and because I wanted to weigh in on those endless discussions about whether or not real translators needed to have an education in translation 😊).

How long have you been working in your chosen profession? Do you tend to specialize and, if so, in which domains?

I have been working in translation for about twelve years now and it seems like a lifetime! In terms of the types of documents I translate,  I have an extremely eclectic clientele: I work on everything from scientific papers to court documents, literary fiction and non-fiction, marketing materials, and most things in between. I find it tends to go in phases; lately, I seem to be doing a lot of legal work, both in terms of interpreting and translation.

Are you currently working in-house or as a freelancer? If you have had experience in both types of employment, which do you prefer?

Early in my translation career, I started working for Lush Cosmetics as an in-house translator, and I must admit, it was a lot of fun being at the Vancouver head office alongside designers, copyrighters, managers, etc. What’s more, they had amazing staff sales! Later, when I moved back to Europe for a few years, I was able to stay on as a salaried full-time freelancer, and I have been with them all this time. I enjoy being a freelancer, especially the flexibility and autonomy that comes with being my own boss, and I have been able to build a successful and varied career that would have been impossible otherwise.

Where do you currently exercise your profession?

At my desk mostly, but also at the courthouse library while I wait to be called in for interpreting; via Zoom; while waiting for my daughter at piano lessons; on airplanes; in coffee shops; in Mexico if I can get away with it… everywhere and anywhere! As I mentioned earlier, I truly love the flexibility a career in translation offers. 

Are you certified in your profession? If so, by which certification organization(s) and for how long have you been certified now? If you are certified, once you became certified, did you notice your income increase slightly, moderately or substantially?

Yes. I was first certified as an English to Spanish and Spanish to English translator about ten years ago. During the last three years, I have also passed the translation certification exams for Italian to English and German to English and was certified as a court and medical interpreter between English and Spanish.

These certifications have made a huge difference to my life, especially in terms of income. The day after I received my results for my first certification exam, someone found me on the association directory and contacted me for what turned out to be my first official translation. These directories have provided a steady stream of work for me ever since. Every combination I have has brought in new clients, and it becomes a positive feedback loop: many customers turn out to be repeat customers, or they tell their friends. And if it is a business and you do a good job, it is likely they will keep calling you again and again. 

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

Probably the biggest turning point in my translation career, apart from certification, was when I was first hired by Lush Cosmetics. It was a competitive process and they gave me a very difficult test requiring a great deal of creativity and writing confidence. When I was hired, it was huge for me because it provided me with interesting work and a stable income. Getting started as a legal interpreter was also quite a milestone – it’s a nice change of pace and provides more of a human element, which I like. Finally, I am very proud to be translating “Stolen Time,” a book that is in the process of being made into a movie and tells the true story of an amazing woman who was wrongly convicted and her inspiring resilience during her many years on death row.

Have there been any particular challenges in your profession that you would like to share with our readers?

By far the biggest challenge was getting started. I still remember how I used to send out hopeful resumes to translation agencies and it was like sending them straight into a black hole. I never heard back from anyone. Then, one day, I’d had enough, so I went to a company where I was teaching Spanish and said, “Give me any translation work you have and I´ll do it for free.” It worked because I received very good references, and I was able to add that experience to my resume. Everything went much more smoothly after that.

What advice do you have for colleagues who are just starting – or thinking of starting – in the profession today?

Volunteer! There are many organizations that are permanently on the lookout for volunteer translators, so I would start there. As I mentioned earlier, getting started is often the most difficult part. You can also contact a certified translator in your language combination and see if they need some help or are happy to be a mentor and introduce you to some potential clients.

An entrepreneurial spirit/approach is also a plus if you are going to be freelancing. I am always hustling and looking for ways to improve my processes, as well as seeking out new clients and job opportunities. Having said that, however, it is also very important to take good care of the customers you already have. Connections and word of mouth are likely to be the biggest drivers for your business, so make sure your clients are happy and nurture any relationships you establish.

This is your second year as STIBC’s President in a 2-year term. How did you make your decision to become not only a board member but its President? What challenges do you find STIBC has specifically that other sister associations under the CTTIC umbrella may not have? What successes has your board had so far under your presidency that you’d like to share?

I was vice-president the year before, so when elections came around and our former president left for Europe, I felt it made sense for me to step up. Our board has been extremely active in the past few years. In terms of successes, I would say our new digital seal has been a high point. We have also been working very hard to support our associate members and prepare them for the certification exam. This preparation includes an extended series of workshops and a self-study group coming up in early 2023. Very recently, we also had a big win: we sent a letter to Legal Aid BC asking them to increase their hourly rates for interpreters, and incredibly, they doubled them!

Up until our last AGM in November 2022, you were also a board member-at-large of CTTIC. How did you make your decision to become part of CTTIC?

I honestly knew very little about CTTIC before I joined the board. I joined because I wanted to become involved in the certification exam process and help make CTTIC more visible. I also had a dream of starting a Canada-wide newsletter for translators and interpreters, something that could be on the cards in the near future as long as enough people are willing to get involved.

And now you have just been elected Co-chair of the Examination Board for CTTIC! Congratulations! What do you hope to achieve as co-chair and going forward as a team with regard to the certification exams?

My hope as co-chair of the Board of Examiners is to help make CTTIC exams as fair, objective, and reliable as they can possibly be, while maintaining our very high standards for certification. This is not an easy task because translation inevitably involves a subjective component that is not so easy to quantify or standardize.

For now, I am hoping to run a couple of focus groups and gather some fresh ideas from candidates, markers, and certified members. I have also been looking at processes the American Translators Association (ATA) uses. Despite our two organizations being quite different, I feel we may be able to learn from each other. Consequently, I am hoping to create a connection with ATA and start sharing resources and expertise.

I understand STIBC (with some help!) has come up with a new electronic seal for certified translators. Can you tell us about this in broad strokes? When will it be made available to all STIBC members? Has there been interest among sister associations under the CTTIC umbrella to adopt it as well? What does it change for certified documents and certified translators in general?

The idea for a seal came from our members, many of whom were looking to move toward a digital stamp or signature. I think we can all see the writing on the wall for the classic ink stamps and signatures. Many clients and government agencies are adopting, or at least exploring, the use of exclusively online solutions for document certification, which makes sense because the process is much more secure, not to mention more convenient, for us. We looked around the marketplace and were unable to find a solution that fit our needs or was at the right price point, so we developed our own internally. We are happy to report that the final product is now available to all certified STIBC translators, at no extra cost!

As a result, these certified translations are verifiable online by any third party (i.e. clients, government agencies, courts of law, etc.), which should be a big selling point for institutions who rely on these documents to make important decisions. At the 2022 CTTIC AGM in Halifax, we presented the stamp to our sister organizations and there was definite interest. I hope that one day soon it will become the standard for the entire country and that our electronic signatures will be recognized by all the major institutions we work with nationwide.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I would like to encourage all certified members to become involved with CTTIC and get in touch if they feel they can help us make CTTIC even better. There are always opportunities to contribute, for example, by joining an existing committee, creating a new one, or sharing useful content with us. The Board of Examiners is urgently looking for volunteers, especially those with expertise in teaching and testing. And, as I mentioned earlier, we are considering creating a Canada-wide translation and interpreting newsletter, so if you feel you can help with that, please get in touch!