Translator’s Home Office

Home is where your pillow is, and for a freelance translator, it’s also where the desk with its attendant office equipment and dictionaries is. But what office equipment is right for a translator? Should you buy that Thinking Machines II system, good for sequencing the genome of a wholly mammoth, but perhaps overkill for a translator? Is MAT software a wise investment? And what can you do to ease the financial burden of all this equipment, not to mention the mammoth, should you go ahead and engineer one?

A Home By Any Other Name

We all think we know what a home office is. So I’ll start by saying what it isn’t. It is not you working at a laptop sitting on your kitchen table with a few dictionaries piled on the chair next to you. It is not you out on the sundeck, notepad and material surrounding your chaise longue. It is not the dining room table, nor the living room or den doubling as a work space. A home office is a space in your home reserved exclusively for your business.

The primary requirement for a home office is that you are running a business from within it. In other words, if you are an employee of one company working from home, you are not entitled to a Business Use of Home deduction on your income taxes (there may be, however, other deductions for you, such as Unreimbursed Business Expenses; consult a tax professional for details). Your business has to be open and available to all who want it, and you have to conduct at least some of your business from your home office.

To summarize, a home office is a necessity for any free-lance translator. Your home office should be a quiet place, with no distractions other than those necessary for business, such as a phone and fax machine.

Home Office Deductions

You can legitimately take numerous deductions for the business use of your home. Not only a percentage of the rent or mortgage payment based on the size of your office (you work out what percentage of your home is used as an office), but the same percentage can be deducted from all your utility bills, including telephone, gas, electric, and water. Moreover, a business telephone line, or long distance business phone calls made on your personal telephone line, are deductible. Any and all furniture purchased for the office is deductible. Equipment, such as software and hardware, is deductible (but be careful on this one, the IRS is watching computer hardware and software very closely). And all supplies, including paper, pens & pencils, stamps, envelopes, fax paper, printer toner or ink, paper clips and staples, etc. are deductible too.

The IRS asks only two things when you make these deductions. One: they be legitimate home office needs (no deducting your cat’s supper dish or your favorite computer game just because it’s in your office); and two: you keep meticulous records, including receipts. The latter is only important if you are audited, but considering how many self- employed people are audited every year, and I personally know many translators who have been audited, keep the receipts. You can deduct the cost of the containers they are in as well as the space they use in your apartment.

So if the IRS lets you deduct a percentage of the space in your apartment as a home office, then the logical thing to do is make your entire apartment or house a home office, right? Wrong. Then, you say, the logical thing to do is make the largest part of your home the office (say the living room or ball room). Not quite. Remember, it is a percentage, and the IRS computers get very suspicious of claims of 100%. Moreover, your home office percentage is checked against your profession (which you fill out in the beginning of the Schedule C) and translators, who maintain no inventory, do not meet clients on site, and require no fancy equipment, are not expected to use 600 square feet for one person. You are welcome to gamble with the ratio, but from what I understand, anything above 30% or about 200 square feet or so, the size of an average room in an apartment or normal house, is likely to get your return flagged for an audit.

Also, although it is extremely unlikely that an IRS auditor will ever visit your home office to verify your claims about it, you may be expected to produce floor plans or other similar documentation of your home office during an audit, as well as proof that you have the equipment, furniture, or other business assets you claim to have. If you are being reasonable about your business assets and your home office, this shouldn’t arise. If you are trying to take advantage of the system, you are likely to be audited, and you will also likely fail any attempt to justify extravagance.

And for those of you who are keeping track, the mammoth is not tax-deductible.

Optimum Office

What to put in your home office? This is not meant to be a lesson on interior decorating, a subject which anyone who knows me will state I am uniquely unqualified to discuss. Suffice it to say that you should have a large, comfortable desk, a very comfortable chair, and anything else you use to store resources and equipment. Buying antiques for your home office is not unacceptable, just suspicious. Remember that your business expenses have to seem reasonable, and should not exceed your income unless your income is very low.

The only comment I’ll make about furnishings has to do with comfort and the that new-found demon, repetitive stress injury (RSI). Spend a few hundred dollars on a high quality chair for your desk, one which provides good lumbar support and lets you set the height of the chair, the angle of the back of the chair and even the height of the arms. I know more than one translator whose career was ended by tendonitis, CTS (carpal tunnel syndrome), or some other insidious condition. A good chair and desk won’t necessarily prevent such injuries, but they certainly can help.

Ergonomic issues are also important when selecting hardware such as a keyboard, monitor, and mouse or trackball. I’ll mention these in the sections on each of these devices, but remember that how the device feels to your hands or eyes is the most important consideration. Always try typing on a keyboard, using a mouse, or looking at a monitor before you buy, or make your purchase from a retailer with an unconditional money-back guarantee.

Computer Hardware

I know very few translators who are not using computers to do their business. It seems that translations hewn in stone or written on papyrus are no longer acceptable. In fact, agencies won’t even consider working with you unless you have a reasonably current computer system, including a good printer and fax/modem.

A great deal is written about hardware in magazines such as PC Magazine, PC Computing, MacWorld, and so on. Most newcomers and a lot of more experienced people find this bewildering array of chips, CPUs, printers, etc. dumbfounding, so if you are confused, take comfort in the fact that you are in good company. I’ll try to keep this explanation simple, succinct, yet thorough. Because translators’ needs are particular and vary depending on what languages they work with, as well as what ancillary services, such as desktop publishing, they offer, I will start by going through the basic components of a good home office system, then go into detail regarding specific hardware and software technologies that you should find useful to make informed decisions about equipment purchases.


Until recently, if you wanted a cheap computer, you bought a PC. If you wanted a computer which was easy to use or needed to run Japanese or Chinese (or other languages which used something other than the Roman alphabet), you bought a Mac. Neither of these conditions holds at present, though PCs are still a little cheaper and Macs are still easier to use and better at certain foreign languages. Regardless of which platform you choose, however, certain considerations will hold.

First: what software do you want to use? Which applications will you be running on your computer? Software should determine hardware. Figure out which applications you want to use, and then figure out what the best system to do that is. You’ll waste less time and money making computer decisions this way.

Second: what do you think you’ll be doing down the road? Put another way: it’s better to spend a little more now than have to buy something completely new in six or twelve months. Remember that translators have to maintain their systems and upgrade constantly in order to produce the file formats being used by businesses around the country and to take advantage of any time-saving technologies (if you don’t, your competition will; and you can’t survive if you are less efficient than your competition).

Keep in mind also the following rules about computer systems: no hard drive is too large, you can never have too much RAM, and your CPU will never be fast enough.

One comment about laptops. Although I appreciate the convenience of having a small, portable system, there are three reasons why laptops might not be the best choice for a translator. One: screen size and quality. Unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money, your screen will likely be a bit small and limited in terms of resolution (dots or pixels displayed per inch) and color depth (number of colors displayed onscreen), neither of which may seem important until you start working with applications that involve lots of windows or graphics files. Two: connectivity. A translator needs to be able to print, send and receive faxes and modem transmissions, and use other peripherals (if you need them). Laptops make all of this more difficult, though in many cases it’s not much of a problem (Apple PowerBooks are still the best for connectivity; try using a PCMCIA fax/modem card and you’ll see what I mean). Three: the keyboard. This is a matter of working style, but I like using the large, 108-key ergonomic keyboard with a big fat trackball. I like the convenience of a numeric keypad and the function keys and have never been very impressed with the trackballs, trackpads, or pointing things in laptops. You may be different. Nevertheless, if you’re thinking of getting a laptop, rent or use someone else’s for a while and see how you like it before you spend a lot of money.

All this said, it should be noted that I’ve had a number of laptops over the years. I started with a friend’s Macintosh PowerBook 170 in 1993, enjoying that system thoroughly for almost six months. Then I used a PowerBook 2300c for a while, as well as a Compaq PC notebook. I now have a Sony Viao laptop which I’m quite pleased with, as well as a desktop Macintosh system. The two combined provide all the computing power and flexibility I need for my business. Ultimately you may find having two systems useful, or you may be comfortable with only one. To start with though, I recommend a desktop system if only because of greater bang for the buck, and more convenience and flexibility in upgrading the system.

There is never a good or bad time to buy a computer. No matter how hard you try, a faster, more powerful machine will be available within months. I suggest you purchase a solid mid-range machine that has been on the market for a couple of months. This avoids the often initially high price of some machines and the occasional bug that exists in new equipment. Stick to mainstream vendors so that you can be confident that you’ll have support for your equipment even a few years into the future, and to make selling the equipment, should you choose to do so, easier when the time comes to upgrade.

Recommendations: Check recent issues of PC Magazine for reviews of Windows-based Intel (or AMD) machines; check recent issues of MacWorld for reviews of MacOS-based systems.


The average computer includes an average monitor, which adds up to a below average situation. You will be looking at your monitor all day long, sometimes even well into the evening. Your monitor is where you will see everything you do so having one which matches your working style is important. Monitors come in all shapes and varieties, but there are two elements which ultimately are most important. First, the picture quality, and second, the resolution.

It goes without saying that a monitor which looks good is best. Since you’ll be working in front of it all day long, having a monitor with sharp focus, clear convergence, and crisp colors is important. I strongly recommend that you take the time to look at any monitor you’re going to buy. Go to a computer store, find a system connected to the monitor you want, and use it. Test it out with the most demanding visual applications, namely games. Games make an excellent way to test a computer’s capabilities. Often, games are more processor-intensive and require better graphics capabilities than business applications. So after you use a word processor for a few minutes, play a game. You’ll see the whole screen in action, and find out just how fast the computer really is.

Resolution is the other important factor. Although the size of the screen directly affects the amount of information which you can see at once, resolution has the same effect. A 21-inch monitor with a maximum resolution of 1,024 by 868 dots will not show as much information as the same monitor with a maximum resolution of 1200 by 1024. The same holds for 14-, 15-, and 17-inch monitors. Although the monitor itself has a maximum resolution it can display, this resolution can only be achieved if the graphics card in your computer (and virtually all computers these days come with a graphics card) can provide that resolution. In other words, if your 21-inch monitor’s maximum resolution is 1200 by 1024 and your computer’s graphics card only outputs at a maximum of 1024 by 768, the latter resolution is the maximum for your system. And even if your graphics card can display very high resolutions, you may pay for this in terms of display speed or color depth.

Which brings us to the issue of color depth (the number of colors your monitor can display at once). Currently, most business applications and operating systems use 8-bit color (256 colors on screen at once). However, graphics applications, many games, and some design applications (3D and CAD/CAM) use 24-bit color (16.7 million colors at once). If your work includes these applications, you’ll need to have support for the extra colors. Most mainstream computer systems, Mac or PC, come with a graphics card that will be sufficient for basic translation needs. If however you get involved in working on DTP projects, graphics, or other visually-demanding tasks, you may need to add more VRAM (Video RAM) to your graphics card, or even upgrade the card itself.

Finally, there is the question of CRT versus LCD or flat-panel displays. I prefer the latter, if only because they take up far less space on a desk, use less energy, and have no screen glare. Images are generally not quite as bright or sharp on an LCD display, unless you spend a lot of money for a display such as the ones Silicon Graphics produces. Even an inexpensive LCD panel will run almost $1000, whereas a good 15-inch monitor can be had for under $400 in most cases. Pick which you prefer based on your budget and of course what you see. Ultimately how you feel about your monitor’s display characteristics is the most important factor in choosing your monitor, so take the time to look at the monitors you are considering carefully.

Recommendations: Sony, NEC, or ViewSonic products, though there are other fine choices. Other good monitors (particularly in the large sizes) come from Mitsubishi, Nanoscan, and Apple (which uses Trinitron tubes).

Mice and Trackballs

The mouse your computer comes with might not be the best mouse you can have. Long ago, I found that attaching a three-button mouse to my Mac made my life a lot easier, in that I could not only click and drag, but also use the other buttons to save files and close windows. Very convenient, especially for the graphics and layout work I do.

Then I discovered trackballs and found I preferred them to mice. My favorite trackball was a monstrous 3D trackball the size of a softball which rode on a slender but sturdy nub and had a separate strip of ten buttons above it. This was the hookup for a Silicon Graphics VR system I tried out at the TED3 trade show in 1992. It was a great way to work, and after that, current trackballs seem limited. I am however very happy with my Kensington TurboBall.

Even if you like your mouse, odds are that it will die before the rest of the system does. Replace it with a good mouse, one which feels comfortable in your hand, can be moved precisely around the screen, and comes with good software to operate it. The current (spring, 2000) hot mouse is the Microsoft IntelliMouse, an optical mouse that has no moving parts to get clogged with dust or gunk, and with good software for browsing the Web or navigating large documents. Like all optical mice and trackballs (and many mice and trackballs are optical these days), the IntelliMouse still needs to be cleaned from time to time, when the optical pickups themselves become dirty. But cleaning the IntelliMouse, or for that matter a TurboBall like the one I have, is quick and easy. So try out mice and trackballs, see which you prefer for your hands.

Recommendations: Kensington or Logitech products; Microsoft’s IntelliMouse.


A printer is essential for a translator, but a laser printer might not be. Some translators to manage with inkjet printers, though some agencies refuse to work with translators who don’t use laser printers. There are three reasons that a laser printer is a good investment.

One: it prints faster than any inkjet and, if it has its own RAM, you can get back to work immediately and not wait for the printer to spit out the entire document. Remember, a laser printer is essentially a dedicated computer which has a CPU and on-board memory so it can take over the entire task of printing once it has the file. With few exceptions, an inkjet has to rely on your computer’s CPU to get the job of printing done, so don’t expect much from your computer while printing. If you regularly print large documents (I print hundreds of pages per week, sometimes thousands), a laser printer effectively pays for itself in time saved.

Two: print quality is higher, especially if you have a PostScript printer. This can be particularly important if you are formatting documents or doing desktop publishing along with translation. Moreover, if there are graphics involved in your work, a PostScript laser printer which can handle gray scale output is all but essential.

Three: it impresses clients. Having good equipment is one way you can show you are a serious, dedicated professional who is committed to being a translator. Of course, you could lie and say you have one, but most people can readily recognize the difference between laser output and inkjet printing.

Recommendations: most low-end laser printers and the inkjet (color and black and white) printers from Hewlett Packard and Apple are great. Texas Instruments produces nice laser printers too.


You almost certainly will get a fax/modem with your computer. They remain the most important peripheral to have because of the Internet, and are fast becoming so integral to computing that only certain laptops seem to lack them. And fax/modems are the computer peripheral (or component, if you prefer) that will most likely undergo the greatest change in the next few years as DSL, ISDN, and cable modems become available, offering speeds ten to twenty times greater than the 56 kbps we now use.

A computer fax offers the following advantages: you can preset when and where you send your faxes, allowing you to send them when telephone rates are low and send one fax to many people; you can fax a document (translation, terminology list, or invoice) directly from your word processor, without printing; and, the fax quality is higher, making reading hand-written documents or character-based languages much easier (Mind you, this higher quality is not available with all fax/modems: look for one that supports gray-scale faxes. You’ll also need a good printer to see the difference in your hard copies).

There are two disadvantages two a computer fax. One (and by far the biggest) is that you can’t fax anything that isn’t in the computer. If, for instance, an agency sends you by U.S. mail a contract to sign, you won’t be able to fax it from your computer unless you first scan the document into your computer (see the section on scanners). The other disadvantage is that your fax won’t work unless your computer is on, except of course if you have one of the rather fancy ones which activates your computer when a fax comes in.

A modem is essential to doing business as a free-lance translator. Most major agencies and many smaller ones want translators to send their work via modem, speeding up the delivery process and saving the agency from having to input the translation.

A modem requires communications software in order to make it function. There are numerous packages available, but most are either too clunky or too powerful for the average user’s needs. My personal favorites on the Macintosh are Z-term, VersaTerm, and Microphone. I’m not so sure about PC modem software, but there must be something good.

Recommendations: Fax/modem technology itself is quite robust and standardized at this point (and you will get one for free when you buy your computer). Focus on the software. For Mac users, Global Village, which now makes a stand-alone version of its GlobalFax software, is a superior product, though FaxSTF is in my opinion more reliable and flexible at this point in time. For e-mail and web browsing, your choices are basically Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator, both of which are fine products (and the debate regarding the relative advantages or disadvantages of each will not be addressed here; I use both, and given the various compatibility issues, you will likely use both, too).

CD/DVD Drives

A CD/DVD drive is so essential that it is no longer considered a peripheral. A new desktop computer without one is almost unimaginable, and laptops eschew them only to reduce size and weight, usually opting to have the drive as a peripheral device.

These drives come in a few different varieties. There are the venerable CD-ROM drives, which only read CD-ROM discs, the newer DVD-ROM drives, which read CDs and DVDs (including movies), CD-RW drives, which read and write CD discs (the writing typically referred to as burning), and DVD-RAM drives, which read and write DVDs.

A typical CD holds roughly 650 MB of data after formatting; a typical DVD roughly 2.6 GB of data per side (or layer). Since most software applications now come on CD (sometimes on more than one), a CD-ROM drive is indispensable. Some multimedia and entertainment titles are available only on DVD discs (including, of course, DVD movies), so a DVD-ROM drive might be useful now, and certainly will be in the future, as more and more material comes out on DVD discs.

Recommendations: You will get a CD-ROM drive with virtually any computer you buy these days, and you will get a DVD-ROM drive with most higher-end systems. If you can afford the DVD-ROM (which reads CD-ROMs, remember), you might as well get it, because DVD-ROM is soon to be the next data storage standard for computers. DVD-RAM drives are still evolving, but by the end of this year will be widely available at moderate prices. In terms of manufacturers, Que, HP, and Sony all garner good reviews, though each has also had problems. Check reviews in current magazines for recommendations among the current crop of drives.

Scanners (and OCR)

A scanner is essentially a copy machine which takes a picture of a piece of paper and then reproduces that picture as a file on your computer. Scanners can be categorized by how they handle color and resolution. Which scanner is best depends on what it will be used for.

I will skip the lengthy and confusing discussion about single versus triple pass color scanning, resolution interpolation, and so on, because most translators don’t use scanners to work with art in full color and at high resolution. Instead, translators use scanners to scan text into a computer, thus saving them the time of retyping a document, or to prepare a document for faxing, if they do not have a stand-alone fax machine and rely solely on a computer fax.

Successfully scanning text has more to do with the software than the hardware. Most basic scanners ($100 and up) are more than adequate for scanning text accurately and for scanning art at lower resolutions. OmniPage Pro from Caere remains the industry leader for scanning. I’ve been using this software for 10 years now and am very pleased with the OCR processing speed, control over custom dictionaries and input language, and accuracy. If you plan to scan a lot of text, you may want to invest in a scanner with a sheet-feeder tray,

Scanners: Hewlett Packard ScanJet series, Umax, MicroTek, and LaCie products.
OCR software: OmniPage.
When buying a scanner, look for a bundle which includes the OCR software you want. You can save a lot of money by buying such bundles.

Other Peripherals

Other peripherals include so many things that to describe them all would take many articles. The one which I think is useful to translators is a secondary hard drive or a removable drive. Why, you ask, if you have one hard drive, do you need another one? For one major reason and one minor one.

The major reason is as a way to back-up data easily and efficiently. Instead of popping in floppy disks regularly and keeping a large collection of them strewn around your office for your cat to use as toys, you simply copy the latest version of your work to the other drive, and viola, back-up. This is especially useful when your file is over 1.4 MB, the maximum capacity of a floppy.

The minor reason is only important if one of your drives fails. Eventually, this will happen to everyone. The disk will crash, the OS files on it will be corrupted, the disk will be exposed to a virus or worm, and so on. Instead of panicking and worrying about how you’ll get your work done, you calmly use the other drive, get everything finished, and then deal with the damaged one.

A removable drive serves the same purpose but has one added advantage: you have virtually unlimited storage at a very low cost per megabyte. After you buy the drive (generally expensive), all you have to do is buy disks for it, and pop them in and out like floppies. This is especially useful for archiving your data, something with you must do, in case you are ever sued by a client (unlikely, but it does happen), audited by the IRS (you can prove you’ve done what you claim to have done very easily), or are simply asked to redo something six months down the road. For instance, I translated a chip specifications document one December, then translated the revision the following February. Having all of the original translation made doing the revision much easier, and of course, it impresses clients.

Computer Software

Software is much more important than hardware. In fact, what software you’re going to use should determine what computer you buy; not the other way around. If you love Windows, then you’ll buy a PC. If you’re going to do a lot of desktop publishing or multimedia design work, you’ll probably buy a Mac. If you’re using Japanese of Chinese a lot, you’ll get a Mac. If you need to use MAT software, you’ll have to have a PC. And there is nothing wrong with having two or more computers.

For as confusing as hardware choices are, software can be worse. Many translators are not taking full advantage of the power and convenience their computers offer, so I’ll try to point out what all these kinds of software are good for, and how you might use them to improve your business. “A Computer is not a Typewriter” as the title of a useful book says, and I hope that this will help you get the most out of your investment.

First, a few general rules about buying software. One, don’t rely exclusively on the reviews you read in magazines. They are written by underpaid, overworked computer geeks who are given five software applications and asked to figure them out, and then evaluate them and write an article in one week for about $800. Just like a rush translation job, you can’t expect high quality, in-depth advice from a source like that.

Use reviews to find out what’s out there and how much it costs. Then talk to people who use the software. Try out the software in a store. And when you buy it, do so from a place which has a good exchange policy or money-back guarantee (unless you know you want the package). After a week of using the software, if you don’t like it, return it and get something else.

Two: don’t buy the biggest, most expensive, most powerful, feature-laden package available. Instead, find some modest package and get started with that. You’ll save time, money and frustration. When your ready, you can buy (or for a fraction of the cost, trade up to) the more powerful package. Remember, you’ll be buying software regularly over the years, upgrading your existing packages, and constantly learning how to do new and better things.

Three: read the manuals (RTM for short, though some people, in a fit of frustration will say RTFM, or its word equivalent). I spend some of my free time helping people learn how to use computers. The major difference between those that are good with computers and those that are not is that the former group reads the manuals. I’m not saying you should read every page of all the manuals which come with a sophisticated package, but at least read the introductory sections and the other relevant parts, working through any on-line tutorials along the way. Then use the manuals the way you do a dictionary, looking up what you need to know as necessary. Also, you can buy or check out of a library numerous third-party books about all the major software packages available. Those books often provide clearer, more concise explanations and examples of how to use the software.

Operating Systems

All computers come with an operating system, though you might prefer to install a different one yourself. Currently, Windows 2000 and Mac OS 9 are the dominant operating systems on the market, though Windows NT is popular as well, and Linux and other flavors of Unix are making headway on PCs.

Some PC users are still using Windows 95 or 98, and some even prefer Windows NT, claiming that it is a more stable and robust environment (I’m in that group myself). Linux is a sound OS, but lacks mainstream application support, though Corel’s WordPerfect suite has now been tweaked to run under Linux. Remember though, you are buying an OS to run the applications you need to produce the material your clients want, so while Linux is tempting for a variety of sound reasons, it may not be a practical choice.

When all is said and done, the operating system is very important, although the less you think about it, the less you notice it, and the less time you have to spend learning how to use it, the better. Like a good translator or interpreter, the best operating system is the one you almost never have to think about.

Before you buy a new computer, think about which operating system you’d prefer. Go to a computer store or a friend’s place and use their PC or Mac and see which you like more. I’m not going to say one is better than the other, each has strengths and weaknesses. But given that everything you do on your computer will be related to the operating system, give it some thought.

There are a couple of other factors to consider when choosing an operating system. The most important for translators is language. All of us need to use at least two languages on our computers. Some of us might need more. Depending on which languages you need specifically, you might choose one operating system over another. This issue is particularly relevant for translators working with double-byte languages such as Chinese and Japanese. Under Windows, you either have to purchase the localized version of the operating system (for instance, Windows 98-J) or install the language modules that come with Windows 2000, which includes a full implementation of what is known as Unicode to address language issues. While Unicode works, it does not yet work well, and support from vendors of other major software packages is still in the future in most cases.

Full language support has been available on the Macintosh through WorldScript since the introduction of System 7.1 in the early ’90s. As of Mac OS 9, you merely install the language module(s) you need (they are all on the OS 9 disc), and then as long as the software you are using is WorldScript aware, you can use the various fonts and other features you may want. Unfortunately, some applications, such as MS Word, are not particularly WorldScript aware, so you may still need a special foreign-language word processor like Nisus or a localized version of your software, such as PageMaker-J. In general, however, the Mac is a more stable and evolved platform for languages written using a system other than the Roman alphabet.

For Roman alphabet-based languages, you don’t have to worry about this issue except when getting spell-checkers and the like. Most good word processing software has a customization feature which lets you set which language you will use, thus setting the parameters for find and replace, search, and sort functions. Similarly, many databases support this feature now. And you can find spell-check files, as well as other foreign-language resources, on the web sites of many software vendors. As for other language-specific issues involving the so-called Asian languages, they are treated in depth in the article on that subject.

Word Processing

This requires a mention only because we all use word processing software to get translations done. The translation industry has shifted from its long-standing commitment to WordPerfect to Microsoft Word (current versions: Word 2000 on the PC and Word 98 on the Macintosh; files from one are fully compatible with the other). Regardless of what you may think of Word, particularly the Office Assistant (an animated agent of dubious value that stems from Microsoft Bob), it is the standard now, and most translation agencies expect translators to have a current version.

Do take the time to learn the more advanced features of your word processor, whether it is MS Word or WordPerfect. Being able to create elegant tables quickly, handle special characters, set up basic layout (including margins, headers and footers, tables of contents, indices, and so forth) is something that will distinguish you from other, less-capable translators and gain you more work in the long run. Also worth knowing are the many keyboard shortcuts, useful not only for cutting and pasting (I assume you know those), but also for adding formatting like superscripts and subscripts, as well as navigating your document.

Also learn how to customize your word processor’s menus and toolbars. Creating buttons or keyboard commands for the tasks you frequently perform can save lots of wear and tear on your hands in the long run, not to mention increase productivity. You can further enhance your word processing environment, particularly in MS Word, by learning how to create macros. You don’t need to master VBA (Visual Basic for Applications; the version of Microsoft Visual Basic now built into the core software applications in Microsoft Office); just learn to record and play back macros. There are a number of good third-party books that you can learn all of these things from in short order; trust me, it’s worth the investment of an afternoon or two to develop these skills.

There are plenty of other word processors on the market, but they should all be considered as supplementary or complementary to Microsoft Word. I still use WordPerfect, as well as Nisus and even the word processing features in FrameMaker from time to time, but my clients, with rare exception, want translations in Word, and so will yours.

Desktop Publishing

I’ll mention this briefly because translators who have their own clients may have to provide desktop publishing services along with translation. DTP is not to be entered into lightly; just because you can use a word processor doesn’t mean you’ll jump right into PageMaker or Quark. The skills take time to learn and a great deal of experience to master. If, however, you are into DTP or have to provide those services, you’ll need a DTP package. There are really only three to consider: PageMaker, QuarkXPress, and FrameMaker (all are available on the Mac and PC).

Do keep in mind that desktop publishing requires more than just the above software. You’ll also need more memory in your system as well as a printer capable of handling PostScript output so that you can check the details of your DTP efforts. You may also need more fonts and a larger monitor, depending on the type of work you’re doing. DTP has become a great secondary service for translators to offer, particularly those who can type in a language like Korean or Hindi and have the hardware and software to do so.

Accounting & Finance

I’ve been doing my accounts on my computer, including my taxes, since 1993, and think it’s wonderful. It’s quick, easy, and painless, as well as much more efficient and powerful than doing it all by hand. Moreover, accounting packages are dirt cheap these days, often included for free when you purchase a computer, and ultimately can save you time and money. If no accounting package meets your needs, you can always create your own in an spreadsheet or database application.

When you run your own business, keeping accurate books is very important, if not to you, then to the IRS. You can use an accounting program not only to keep track of your cash flow, but also income, business expenses, and taxes. You can even import the business records in the accounting program to tax preparation software, expediting the painful process of doing taxes at the year end.

Recommendations: Quicken, QuickBooks, or Managing Your Money. Quicken is cheaper and easier to use, but Managing Your Money offers true double entry bookkeeping, and other powerful financial features. QuickBooks is a full-fledged small business accounting solution, which is probably overkill for translators, but is still worth considering because it can handle anything that will ever come up in your business. All are excellent in my opinion. TurboTax (called MacinTax on the Macintosh) and TaxCut are both excellent tax preparation programs.


Most people hear the word database and think of terabytes of data being held on a mainframe or web server and accessed from numerous terminals or clients throughout a company, if not the entire world. But a database is just a collection of data organized with certain unifying principles. Your phone book is a database. A library card catalog is a database. And your client lists should be kept in a database.

Databases are neither expensive nor difficult to use, if you buy the right one. Many include ready-to-use templates which let you build your own databases very quickly. And the so-called PIM (personal information manager) is really just a specialized database with a calendar and other functions built in.

Databases let you store lots of data, such as the names, addresses, and phone numbers of your clients, as well as other information including when you last spoke with them, what work they give, how much they pay you, etc. You can sort your list of clients by name or by when you last contacted them. You can keep track of how much you’ve made from them over one year, two years, or five years. You can update information. And you can create letters, envelopes, and mailing labels from within the database (a PIM makes this very easy) to prepare mailings to clients.

Why bother with all this? you ask

Simple. You have to keep track of your clients because they are unlikely to do it for you. It’s part of a freelance translator’s job to send résumés, cover letters, and other polite reminders to agencies so that they hire you, and not someone else. A database makes all of this easy and straight-forward, though you do have to put the information in there yourself.

Recommendations: if you want a full-fledged easy-to-use database program: on PCs, MS Access (which comes with some versions of MS Office) or FileMaker Pro; on the Mac, FileMaker Pro. There are also many PIMs and other similar products which are simpler, cheaper and less powerful. I used NowContact for years but recently switched to Consultant. Also worth considering, though overkill in my opinion, is Act! from Symantec.


I mention these only in passing because a simple accounting program is generally more useful than a full-fledged spreadsheet package, not to mention far cheaper. However, spreadsheets can be used like a database, and they are also good for invoicing and keeping records which an accounting program may or may not accommodate. They can also handle terminology lists efficiently, and help in project planning and tracking.

Moreover, spreadsheets can be used for keeping track of business transactions such as invoices and accounts payable, as well as anything else involving numbers. I use Excel to keep invoicing records, lists of all my business expenses for a particular year, for my retirement package, and for financial planning. The best way to obtain a spreadsheet application is as a part of an application suite like IBM’s Lotus SmartSuite, Microsoft’s Office, or Corel’s WordPerfect Suite, and often such an application suite will come with your computer.

Also worth mentioning is that some translation projects are done in a spreadsheet, typically Excel. I have translated ISO 9000 compliance forms and similar documents in Excel, creating the layout as well as doing the translation. So you may find a spreadsheet application is as valuable as a word processor.

Recommendations: Lotus or Excel on the PC; Excel on the Mac.

Voice Input

More and more people are developing problems with their hands, wrists, and arms, all lumped into that seemingly innocuous but in reality very painful category called Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), of which Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is the best known though hardly the most common. The only way to avoid injury in the long run seems to be to type less. Hence, voice input.

Does it work? Yes, within limits. For email, daily business communications, and some translation work, voice input packages like IBM’s Via Voice and Dragon System’s Naturally Speaking products will work quite well. Assuming, that is, you have sufficient hardware. To wit, Naturally Speaking allows me to input by voice roughly 500 words per hour with an 80% accuracy rate, give or take. It should be noted though that my Sony laptop doesn’t have the best sound card (an important consideration for voice input), and isn’t particularly fast or overstuffed with RAM. Via Voice, which I use on a fast Mac, works quite well, but also within limits. And both packages have their quirks, as well as some features that look suspiciously like bugs or design limitations.

In sum, voice input is here, it works, and it will reduce your typing load, though hardly eliminate it. Versions that work for other languages are here or on their way, so all of us will be able to work a little longer, a little harder, and with less risk of debilitating injury. I strongly recommend you get either Naturally Speaking or Via Voice. Check recent reviews in computer magazines to choose the package that is right for you.

Miscellaneous Applications

In order to keep down the size of this article, I lump all other general software applications into this category. Here I include apps like PowerPoint, which is used for translation from time to time, HTML editors, used when translating web pages, software development tools like Microsoft VisualStudio, MetroWerks CodeWarrior, or Sun’s Java Development Kit (JDK for short), used when working on localization projects from within the software code, and other document preparation tools such as RoboHelp, etc. If you decide to start using any of these tools, be advised that the learning curves, particularly if you are getting involved in object-oriented programming, can be steep. On the other hand, the effort will be rewarded insofar as you will be among the few translators who has and can use such tools.


Reference material on computers remains a varied software category. Some material, such as the Oxford English Dictionary or Termium, might be worth the price to the right person, while much of it remains more entertaining than useful, especially in light of the development of on-line reference resources.

Most electronic dictionaries on CD-ROM are simply not comprehensive enough for translation, though this is changing. Termium for French remains a valuable and reliable resource, and there are similar CD-ROM reference discs coming out for all major languages. Depending on the type of work you do, on-line reference material such as SAM (Scientific American Medicine; a quarterly publication of the latest medical research) could even prove useful. Most translators seem to find such resources superfluous, however.

The only problem with relying on the Internet for answers to your reference needs is the Internet itself. Finding information on the Web can take considerable time and effort, ISP connections are often slow, Web sites are sometimes unavailable, and responses from discussion groups frequently unforthcoming or confusing. So if you use the Web as a reference resource, give yourself some extra time to find what you need.

Recommendations: None in particular. The list of potentially useful language-oriented CD-ROMs is extensive, and what you might find useful is difficult to say. As for potentially useful Web sites, that list is also long and hard to comment on. All that said, the separate URL List includes many sites that have proved useful to me repeatedly.

MT & MAT Software

Machine translation is a subject very dear to my heart, as I am a technical translator who works on operating systems manuals, hardware documentation, design and specifications manuals, and software manuals. Currently, there is no equivalent to the Babble Fish in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy or the universal translator on Star Trek, but MT and MAT software are important enough to bear mentioning in this article.

It is important to understand the difference between MT and MAT. The former does all the work for you (theoretically anyway), taking a source text and rendering it into the target language. You will still have to do a lot of clean-up work and damage control afterwards and even check the parts the program flags for meaning. MAT software helps you to translate by providing one or more of the following services: on-line dictionaries, glossaries, and terminology banks, reference resources, storage of terms and phrases you are constantly using in the translation, version control using earlier editions of the document, etc.

PC Translator: I’ve never seen the program in action nor have I had a chance to examine sample texts given to it. I assume that it works reasonably well for menial translation tasks which have little in the way of idiom, style, or content.

Power Translator: Versatile in that it has numerous terminological dictionaries and a very clever translation engine (won the 1993 Discover Magazine New Technology Award). It handles general material which is grammatically correct, punctuated properly, and idiomatically neutral quickly, though it doesn’t do much with style or nuance. Even at its best, you’d still want an editor or translator to give the translation a “once over” to avoid any meaning errors or differences in nuance as well as to polish the style. At its worst, I’m told the result is best described as word salad.

Logos: A translation system dedicated to handling Japanese and English. I have a demo version which works reasonably well, in that it provides special options to accommodate language issues present in Japanese but absent in English. However, the same caveats that applied to Power Translator apply here, but to a greater extent because of the nature of Japanese writing. It’s generally very diffuse and follows a logical structure quite different from English, therefore requiring a lot of creative writing and reorganization on the part of the translator.

Machine Assisted Translation: Déjà-vu and Trados are excellent implementations of old ideas, though if you are clever with your word processor and use the “clipboard” efficiently, you can produce a similar effect for yourself. They become particularly valuable when you are working with a client that has already built up a library of translation memories, or when you are collaborating with other translators on a project being managed in one of these applications. Given that my main language is Japanese, I haven’t used either of these packages much, but I see great potential in them, and I hope that their manufacturers find a way to lower the price point to attract more translators. I also hope to see Mac and Linux versions of all their products in the near future.


Games have a number of legitimate and useful purposes for a translator. One, games are a great way to break up the work day, to relax and have fun for a little while in your office. They also give you something to do as you sit at your desk awaiting a fax or phone call that is supposed to arrive in five minutes but could well take over an hour. Unlike a traditional business environment, the freelance translator works alone at home. You can’t leave your desk, walk to the lounge or water cooler, and relax with your colleagues. You also can’t get on the phone and chat it up with other translators, unless they happen to be taking a break at the same time. So you’ll end up taking a lot of your breaks alone. Besides all the traditional forms of relaxation, including eating, watching TV, or doing a brief stretching routine to loosen the neck, shoulders, and arms, you can also play a quick game of this or that as a way to get your mind of the translation you’re doing, and have fun using your computer.

Two, games are a great way to test a computer, new or used. Nothing taxes a computer system like the recent release of some flight simulator, 3D shooter, or other visually impressive game (Minesweeper and Solitaire don’t count here). You could spend days using MS Word before you detected a problem with your hard disk, sound card, or CD-ROM drive; with a game, it’d take all of ten minutes.

Three, games are a vital part of the translation profession. Roughly one-fifth of my workload per year comes from translating games. To no small degree games have driven the rise in computer capacity during the past decade. And games are in part what has drawn so many households into buying a computer (the Web being the other major factor). So why not be ready to make money? Play some games from time to time so that you are familiar with the language and content of a potentially very lucrative market.

Enough said. No particular recommendations; just get something you like.

Advice for Buying Used Equipment

Bargains abound for used computer equipment. You can find them in newspapers, at universities and colleges, at inventory sales and going- out-of-business sales, and through BBSes. However, be careful because when you buy something used you might inherit the previous owner’s problems.

Tips for buying used equipment: Don’t buy used hard drives or modems. The new ones are so cheap that it’s not worthwhile. Be careful when buying a used printer, unless you know the owner. Depending on how hard a printer has been worked, you might get one with little life left in it.

As for CPUs, there are a few simple things you can do when checking out a used one to avoid getting a lemon. First, make sure you test out the computer by using it the way you plan to. Don’t let the seller simply do a demonstration for you. Sit down in front of it and work for fifteen or thirty minutes.

You should run the following tests. Turn on and shut down the computer a few times, making sure that it boots properly. If the computer is a Mac, you should here a crisp middle C when it boots. If you hear any other noise, don’t buy the machine. Format a floppy disk or two. Open and save files to the hard disk and a floppy disk, making sure that the save operation is successful. Copy files to and from a floppy disk. Check the keyboard carefully to make sure there are no dead or sticky keys. Check the monitor carefully to make sure the display is crisp and clear and that there are no dead pixels. Test the mouse, making sure that it tracks properly and responds to clicks. And, have the computer make some sounds, be it through a game or a regular program, to make sure that the sound functions are working normally.

You should also consider getting a diagnostic program and use that to test the computer’s functions. The program will figure out what kind of machine it is and then check its performance against industry standards. It will also run numerous other tests on the RAM, the various ROMs as well as PROM and EPROMs, the various BIOSes and other hardware functions. If the machine passes all these tests, then you’ll be safe enough buying it. To test Macs, I use a program TechTool Pro (sorry, I don’t have any recommendations for PC testing programs).

Don’t buy used software unless you know it’s what you want and you get all the manuals, registration forms, and other documentation. You should have the person who is selling the software write a letter to the manufacturer informing them of the transfer of ownership, but some software companies won’t recognize this and refuse to support software purchased from a previous owner.

Whenever you buy something used, create an invoice and make sure you and the seller both get signed copies. The invoice should include your name and address, the seller’s name and address, the date, a description of the purchase and the price. You may also want to add a clause that states you can return the equipment within a certain number of days should it prove defective.

I’ve bought and sold plenty of equipment, everything from a TRS- 80 through the current crop of Macs and PCs. It’s not hard. If your patient and careful, you can save yourself some money and get a good system.

The Whole Is Greater Than Its Parts

So, you have all this advice about computer hardware, and you’re asking yourself, should I bother to take it to heart and use it? My answer is, of course, yes, otherwise I wouldn’t have written it. The reason is that a computer system is more than the sum of its parts. It’s how you get work done. If the system lets you work fast and efficiently, helps you avoid problems and handle emergencies, and is comfortable, then work becomes easier.

Although a good computer is no guarantee of financial success, it is interesting to note that most of the really successful freelancer (in any field) have good systems and know how to take advantage of them. Naturally, using your system to the fullest has a lot to do with hardware, so I hope you’ll take advantage of the ideas offered here. I also recommend that dedicated users check out the following Web sites (among others) regularly for information and tips on getting the most from their systems: For Macs, go to Macintouch ( It has lots of late-breaking technical and product information, along with links to most of the Mac e-publishing world, including MacWorld, MacCentral, and MacTech. For PCs, go to the PCGuide ( It has loads of technical and product information for Windows machines, as well as product discussions and reviews, guides for assembling, maintaining and troubleshooting your system, and lots of links. Also worth checking from time to time for information on PCs is PC Magazine (, which is useful not only for the product reviews, but also for the technical articles and discussions about emerging technologies.

There is, obviously, a lot to learn and to continue learning. Whether you work in-house or freelance, you are sure to come across software and hardware issues you can’t resolve. You need to know how to do these things, however; and if you work in localization or some other area of high-tech translation, you also need to learn about the technologies you are working with. To that end, you should be reading computer magazines and manuals, but you will also have to ask engineers or other geeks for help. Do so by all means, but never let a geek get a hold of your keyboard or mouse. The geek will work so quickly that you won’t learn anything by watching, unless you have a keystroke capture utility installed. Force this geek to tell you what to do and let you actually do it. You will learn a lot more a lot faster that way, someday perhaps even joining the ranks of geekdom yourself.

I hope your adventures into computing aren’t too cumbersome or frustrating. If you discover a wonderful piece of hardware or software, please let me know about it. If you disagree with what I’ve said about some hardware, software, or system in this article, do tell. I hope to keep these articles current, and I do so in part through contributions from readers.



About indonesianurbanfamily

We are a young, Indonesian urban family who are exposed to many things in our lives. This is what we see, hear, think, feel and desire.
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