- Bachelor's degree
- Foreign Language Studies
Table of Contents
Being fluent in a second language is far from the only qualification required to become a translator. The art of translation calls for more than fluency. It demands extrinsic knowledge of both the source language (the language in which the original document is written) and the target language (the language to which the original document is being translated). Most people have only an intrinsic understanding of their mother tongue. They cannot explain how it is structured and how it works. While native familiarity with any language is without question invaluable, the best translators also have extrinsic, structural knowledge of both the source and target languages in which they work. In other words, they know those languages inside and out, from grammar to syntax; from formal dialogue to casual conversation; and from common to esoteric terms about a variety of topics.
For this very reason, most aspiring translators earn a Bachelor’s degree. While many choose a Bachelor’s of Translation, others may elect to complete a degree in a discipline related to the subject area in which they will be translating. A translation student wishing to work in the banking industry, for instance, may pursue a finance degree; someone interested in providing translation services in the healthcare sector may obtain a biology degree. Following this educational track provides students with a knowledge base in their specific field of translation. A double major or major/minor in translation and a second language or the intended field of translation expertise is another option for prospective translators.
Alternatively, students in this field who do not complete a university undergraduate degree may learn the profession of translation through non-university training programs, conferences, and/or miscellaneous courses. Some employers, however, may seek candidates with university-level credentials.
Regardless of the education path they choose, it is important to note that aspiring translators need abilities in four areas. They must possess:
expert knowledge of their source and target languages
understanding of the mechanics and processes of translation
familiarity with the subject matter to be translated
sophisticated writing skills
Employment opportunities in this field range from full-time and part-time jobs with translation services firms to contract and freelance options. With experience, translators may procure prestigious assignments, earn editorial responsibilities, and seek industry certification.
Almost invariably, those who hire translators look for individuals who are completely comfortable in at least two different word-worlds and who understand the norms of the cultures of those worlds.
How long does it take to become a Translator?
The time required to become a translator is dependent on the educational track selected. Most aspiring translators choose to earn a four-year Bachelor’s degree. The length of study for those who opt to learn translation through non-university training programs or coursework can vary widely, likely from as little as six months to as much as two years. These timeframes presume that students already have a level of proficiency in both the source and target languages in which they aspire to work.
Steps to becoming a Translator
Taking the appropriate steps to become a translator can actually begin very early in life. Most translators have either grown up speaking their second language or lived in an area where it is spoken. This is not a formal requirement, but it certainly helps in achieving the proficiency level needed for the job. The career calls for a love of different cultures and a keen interest in the dynamics of bridging the linguistic gaps between them.
1 High School
There are several ways to prepare early for a career in translation:
Read extensively in your second language(s)
Pay attention to the news in your second language(s)
Develop your writing, research, analysis, and public speaking skills
Try translating short texts from one language to another
Enroll in advanced foreign language classes
Pay attention in all of your classes; this will help you develop a large vocabulary in a wide variety of topics
Become computer savvy
If possible, spend time in the country or countries of your second language(s); there is no better way to gain an appreciation for the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and regional terms of a language
2 Bachelor’s Degree
Job seekers with an undergraduate degree typically have the upper hand when competing for positions in translation. Many universities offer Bachelor’s programs in both general translation and in specialized translation from one specific language to another.
Bachelor's students in these programs are expected to gain mastery of both the written and oral components of a foreign language, and to apply that knowledge to translation. Typically, students may also choose a second foreign language to learn during the course of their Bachelor's degree education. Courses in translation degree programs commonly include:
Translation and media
Depending on their particular interests and career aspirations, students may choose to earn a translation degree or a Bachelor’s in a second language or in the discipline in which they wish to provide translation services (for example: IT, economics, engineering). At educational institutions which allow it, students may complete a double or dual major and thereby further increase their marketability.
3 Voluntary Certification
There are no licensing requirements for translators. Voluntary certification, however, serves to verify skills and provide employers with proof of competency.
The American Translators’ Association (www.atanet.org) administers certification for many common languages. Translators can earn the Association’s Certified Translator (CT) designation by meeting specific education and work experience requirements, becoming a member of the ATA, and passing its certification examination.
The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the International Medical Interpreters Association offer certifications as well. Some states have their own accreditation programs for translators and interpreters.
4 Voluntary Testing
Taking language proficiency tests is another way that translators build their resumes and demonstrate to potential employers and clients that they are indeed fluent in their specific language. Among the most recognized tests is the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) administered by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (www.dliflc.edu).
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (www.actfl.org) also offers many proficiency tests. Several tests offered by other countries can be found online, as well.
5 Marketing & Experience
Most translators are contractors; not employees. Market yourself, gain experience, and build a portfolio by:
-volunteering services to community and non-profit organizations; campus events; sporting events that have international participants, such as marathons
-networking with fellow translators; seasoned professionals may need to outsource some of their work
-entering into an internship or apprenticeship with a translation services firm
-considering direct mail marketing to translation agencies, asking to perform a test translation
-starting a website or blog
-having a niche; concentrating on a specific industry or subject matter (for example: mechanical engineering)
-translating ‘to’ your native language; this is much easier than translating to a second language, especially in the early stages of your career
-developing fluency in more than two languages
6 Ongoing Learning
As you gain experience and seniority, consider expanding your field of expertise; but be careful not to expand too far. For instance, if you specialize in translating medical reports on pregnancy, labor, and delivery, start learning the terminology of pediatric care. Slowly widen your expanse of knowledge and the scope of your work to related areas.
Should I become a Translator?
The answer to this question resides in the answers to several other questions:
Am I proficient or can I become proficient in at least two languages?
If you struggle to learn a foreign language, translation is probably not the right career for you.
Am I familiar with or willing to become familiar with a particular subject area or subject areas in which I would like to work as a translator?
Translators should never translate material they do not comprehend. In addition to your linguistic abilities, you should learn the vocabulary and basic principles of a niche business sector or sectors and focus your work there. Keep in mind that it is impossible to master every subject area.
Do I possess or am I able to develop high-level writing skills?
If you have a hard time understanding grammar rules or struggle to write a comprehensible sentence, becoming a translator is not the career path for you.
Am I comfortable working with computers and learning new software?
Translators are keyboard warriors and may use CAT or computer-assisted translation software.
Am I capable of establishing and operating my own freelance translation business?
Freelancing is not uncommon in the translation industry. The ability to set up and run your own business can open doors to additional opportunities.
While replying ‘yes’ to the above questions is a solid indicator that translation may be a career fit for you, it is wise to investigate further and ask yourself if you possess some of the character traits typical of translators.
Because there are so many cracks through which meaning can slip, a translator must be absolutely meticulous. Every word needs to be translated in the most accurate and meaningful way that the target language allows. The translator needs to constantly process information to select the best option. In translation, obsessive-compulsive does not have to describe your personality, but it should describe your attitude. Translating requires intense concentration for long periods of time and attention the tiniest of details. If you are a ‘don’t sweat the details’ person about your work; if you skimp on research; if close is good enough for you, this is not the career choice for you.
To translate means to deal in the borrowed, never the owned. Everything that you are handling belongs to someone else; it is someone else’s work. This truth carries multiple ethical implications. The act of translation necessitates an extreme degree of respect. It demands that you surrender any impulses of ‘he/she should have.’ You must fight off any thoughts of ‘making it better’ than the original. The greatest artists are visible in their work. The greatest translators are invisible in theirs. You must not insert your own ego. You must not change what is in front of you, even lightly. You do not have the right to do so. If you are not prepared to live with the moral responsibility that translating entails, you should not be a translator.
What are Translators like?
Based on our pool of users, translators tend to be predominately artistic people. At first glance, the characterization of translators as ‘artistic’ may appear peculiar. In fact, it is unequivocally precise. In the words of Edward Sapir (1884 – 1939), a Prussian-American anthropologist and linguist, ‘No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.’ By its nature, therefore, translation is an art that demands a delicate balance of social realties and the best translators are artists with the talent to achieve this balance.
Translators by Strongest Interest Archetype
Based on sample of 2015 CareerExplorer users
Are Translators happy?
Translators rank among the least happy careers. Overall they rank in the 43rd percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.
While we have no scientific evidence to explain this below-average happiness quotient among translators, it may be connected to the career’s extremely detail oriented nature and to the substantial ethical responsibilities it places on its practitioners.
Translator Career Satisfaction by Dimension
Percentile among all careers
Education History of Translators
The most common degree held by Translators is Foreign Language Studies. 23% of Translators had a degree in Foreign Language Studies before becoming Translators. That is over 17 times the average across all careers. English Literature graduates are the second most common among Translators, representing 16% of Translators in the CareerExplorer user base, which is 3.4 times the average.
Translator Education History
This table shows which degrees people earn before becoming a Translator, compared to how often those degrees are obtained by people who earn at least one post secondary degree.
Translator Education Levels
|High school diploma||21%|
How to Become a Translator
- Bachelor's degree
- Foreign Language Studies
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