Sometimes when we look at translators who have achieved a notable level of success, we imagine that it must have been plain sailing, or that they just “got lucky” somewhere along the way. We forget the years of hard work, the risks taken, sacrifices made, the wrong choices and the lessons learned. The story of Martina Russo’s career is a case in point. She may well be CEO of a company today, with a finance officer and an entire admin team, but she’s worked hard to get there, and done several other challenging jobs as part of that journey.
Like many translators, Martina shone at languages at school, back in her native Milan. She actually began by studying French as a child, but the teacher was so horrible that she and many of her classmates were put off the language for life. When she switched to an English stream she found her feet and soon headed for the top of the class. And then during her rebellious teenage years, she discovered another benefit to mastering English – it meant she hardly had to do any studying and could sail through exams with minimal effort. Very handy for any teenager whose mind is usually on other things. That facility has never deserted her, and she’s now also fluent in Spanish and German, and manages to pick up bits of many of the languages spoken in the countries she visits on her constant travels – but still not much French! Teachers have a lot to answer for, it seems.
Languages were the obvious option when it came to university studies, so Martina opted to do a degree in translation, communications and interpreting. But there was a hitch. Private university in a city like Milan comes at a hefty price, and Martina found herself obliged to go out and seek extra work in order to pay the fees, pretty much from the start. Her first job was at the airport, on the check-in desk, but that wasn’t all. Office and bar work made up the rest… but not without a certain stress. It’s not easy working all hours and even so, only barely making ends meet, all in order to pay for studies that demand you be bright, awake and present. The tension came to a head when she was 21, and she talked to the Principal about dropping out and moving abroad to German-speaking Switzerland, on condition that she could return to take the exams at the appointed time. The request was approved. Her main focus was on the practical exams in German, Italian and English, and as it turned out, she got top results, while also just managing to pass the culture and history exams that formed part of the curriculum. Literature was a stumbling block though, and she returned to take that exam a year later, following an epic three-month study session in a remote Alpine house rented by her family. Graduation, when it finally came, was less a highpoint of her life than a mighty relief.
In fact, however, Martina’s career as a translator had started way before those final exams, responding to an offer from an online joblist. As is often the way with first projects which we take on in our perhaps naïve enthusiasm, this one turned into a bit of a nightmare – translating an entire book on finance, and from Italian into English! What’s more, the rate was very low, at €300 all in. Still, for someone working for €3 an hour in a bar back then around 2010, that seemed like a lot of money. Better news arrived in the shape of a passenger who she got talking to at the check-in desk. As luck would have it, he turned out to be from a company dealing in subtitles for audiovisual translations, and he handed over his business card. Martina followed up, and found herself a regular client, with interesting work, relaxed deadlines, and decent pay.
Throughout this time Martina was still studying, and holding down that extra work, but by 2013, she’d gained enough confidence and experience to abandon the jobs in bars, restaurants, offices and the airline altogether, and devote her energies entirely to translation. It was a bold move, given that she still had only the one client, bringing in around €1,000 a month, but one that paid off.
Working for one client is not the most relaxing way to operate though, and while on a trip to Cambodia, surrounded by backpackers, Martina received another promising break – an email from an agency looking for translators able to focus on the Swiss market, in the telecoms and marketing sector. Over time, that turned into a specialization, drawing particularly on knowledge of Swiss German picked up in Zurich, and of Swiss Italian, which differs in many ways from the variety spoken in Italy, in fields as diverse as medical, legal and financial, not to mention details of punctuation. With so much experience of living in the north of Italy, and in the Alps, Martina was well placed to meet that challenge, and at one point 80% of her clients were Swiss.
As is clear by now, another theme that runs throughout Martina’s life is travel. When I spoke to her, she was in Greece, but she’s also spent long months in Portugal and Spain, plus her time in Zurich, and long stints in both Southeast Asia and Latin America. She prefers the term “remote worker” to the rather over-used “digital nomad”, but clearly runs her business while on the move, settling into new places easily, often seeking out remote rural spots rather than city life. Which plays nicely into the second big theme – adventure sports. An accomplished skier ever since her early childhood and snowboarder since her early years, Martina has added a variety of other sports to her list since, but primarily rock climbing. Along with her equally enthusiastic partner, her peregrinations are largely decided by the best seasons to practise these sports at the best spots across Europe.
The travel experience, linguistic versatility and interest in outdoor sports have all played a part in taking Martina to where she is now . It was when she herself was looking for climbing shoes on an outdoor brand’s website in 2018 that she noticed the generally poor quality of the translations and began to orient her business in that direction. In preparation for a trade show in Germany, she spent days building a targeted website and reached out to other translators at the same time, in an attempt to form a collective.
The website has become a lot more sophisticated since then and is now an impressive reflection of her boutique agency with two brands, one specialising in sports translation and the other in SaaS localisation the sizeable team of translators working for some of the biggest outdoor brands – along with continuing localisation work for Martina’s earlier freelance clients. Things initially took a panic-inducing dip during the pandemic, but then exploded back into life, and the work keeps pouring in.
Even though she has less time as a CEO to post on social media, Martina spent a couple of years posting regularly once things began to click into place for her. She was keen to share what she’d learned, although very keen to point out this was certainly not from a position of superiority in any way. And now that she’s in a position to recruit others (you’ll have seen her adverts in this group), she maintains that translators need to learn to tailor their message to specific ads. Don’t list irrelevant stuff, make your responses personalised, listen to what is being asked of you. Otherwise your application is simply liable to end up in trash, leaving you wondering what went wrong, or angry and frustrated. Marketing, she says, is not your enemy. You have a personal brand, whether you accept the term or not, so learn to be authentic within it, and aware of the message you are sending out. It’s just the way things are with human interaction, and unlikely to change until the day we’re interacting with robots.
So it’s been quite a long journey from those early days of working in a bar – in ways that are both professional and personal. As a teenager, Martina was an introvert – the person at the corner of the table of friends, who never said a word. But those years at the airline and in the hospitality trade helped her to open up, to the point where today she’s happy to chat away for hours, pick up the phone to her clients on a regular basis, and class herself as a “fake extrovert”. Not to mention the webinars she’s conducted on LinkedIn and for ProZ, even though she says she was initially terrified.
Proof perhaps, that nothing in our lives is as set in stone as we sometimes think...
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