In our younger years, our dreams of what we’ll do when we grow up can vary wildly. Firefighter? Astronaut? Sports star? Or perhaps increasingly these days, the most common aspiration is merely to be famous…
Now picture a young Bart Roelands growing up in the southern region of the Netherlands, not far from Eindhoven, feasting on TV series featuring famous lawyers such as Perry Mason or Matlock, and planning to follow in their footsteps, valiantly convincing judges with the sheer force of their arguments. Or alternatively reading One Hercule Poirot novel after another (in English, if you please), being transfixed by David Suchet’s definitive onscreen performances, and harbouring hopes of one day being a great detective.
Today, as a successful EN>NL translator, Bart has moved on those dreams, although given that there’s more than a touch of the detail-oriented lawyer and the mystery-solving sleuth about our profession, his early hopes were perhaps not so misplaced after all…
The Netherlands is of course one of those rare countries where just about everyone has a good command of at least one, and often two foreign languages. Perhaps because of the country’s diminutive size, its lack of global reach, or the simple fact that few people from other countries speak any Dutch at all, its citizens have always been comfortable with the need to master other languages for inbound tourism, travel and trade. Add to that the fact that the country’s entertainment industry always expressed a strong preference for subtitling over dubbing, and you have generations of young Dutch growing up hearing hour after hour of English each time they turned on their TV. This was of course true for Bart too, and he took to languages with ease during his secondary schooling, studying not only English but also German and French. An achievement that came about despite the fact that Bart was yet another “language alien” in a family where no great linguistic curiosity reigned – his father was a bookkeeper and his mother a kindergarten teacher.
Having finished school, Bart was another of those who took some time to work out what he wanted. His interest in legal matters drove him at first to begin a degree in Dutch Law, but he abandoned that after a year, switching to a more practical path studying International Business and Languages, with a strong marketing component. Why the change? It wasn’t at first easy to figure out exactly where his true passions lie – something he no doubt shares with many translators.
That academic path led first of all to a career in business as a product manager in consumer electronics. (Don’t forget that Eindhoven is the home of the giant multinational Philips). Bart spent around a decade in three companies in the sector, dealing with suppliers from East Asia, steadily working his way up the ranks, and conducting most of his working life in English – including a 6-month stay in Northampton, in England. (He still remembers the impressive size of the beer glasses raised on a regular basis by his English colleagues!) But when his final employer, which had started out as a family concern, was taken over by an investment company, the atmosphere changed, and dissatisfaction began to raise its head.
It was around this time, in 2010, that the idea of freelance translation popped into Bart’s mind. He did some initial research, including via a Dutch Facebook group, learned about both translation and setting up in business, and joined ProZ.com, setting up a profile early on in his career. Although that led to a string of job offers, he looks back on those initial 2.5 years as something of a roller coaster – the feast-and-famine cycle familiar to so many of us, but perhaps made a little sharper in his case by the fact that he and his wife had a toddler in tow.
Still, they were helped by the fact they had sensibly created a savings buffer, and also that they were in this together, because Bart’s wife is herself a translator. Born in Hong Kong, Mimi Chan translates into Cantonese and Mandarin, using the traditional Chinese characters that are still used back home. The range of languages they could offer thus gave them a head start in terms of setting out to find local businesses to work with. These days, over a decade after setting up, around 55% of the couple’s clientele are in fact direct clients, some of whom have multilingual demands. This has catapulted Bart into the occasional role of project manager, and a very promising collaboration with two other translators into a sort of mini-consortium has also enabled his business to branch into transcreation and even copywriting.
He attributes much of that business success to a proactive role to seeking out clients – not remaining passively behind a desk, but getting involved in business gatherings and networking, although the latter has of course been constrained by the pandemic. Perhaps being rooted in a local region helps in that respect – unlike some translators who find themselves living in far-flung lands, or at the very least away from where they were born, Bart has spent his entire life locally, apart from those 6 months in the UK.
Bart comes to ProZ.com’s Facebook group for answers to occasional questions, but is driven primarily by a sense of helping to serve newer members of the profession, providing frequent answers to the kind of questions he himself had earlier in his career. Recognising that life as a beginner is not always easy, he’s always happy to help out. Other translators, he says, are not competitors – it’s far better for all of us if we stand together.
Despite having chosen the famous grumpy old Muppets Waldorf and Statler as his Facebook profile pic, nothing could in fact be further from the truth when it comes to Bart’s own character – the kind of generous and willing contributor that helps build and sustain communities like these.
Face to Face is a feature series highlighting active voices in the ProZ.com Facebook community.
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