One of the reasons I like learning languages is that it opens up more opportunities for me to work in the translation industry.
Translation is the practice of converting text from a source language into another language. As opposed to interpretation, which deals with spoken language, translation deals mostly with written texts; at the very least, the product will be in written form.
5 Steps to Becoming a Translator
1. Learn a Language.
For the vast, vast majority of people, I recommend translating into your native language. So if you’re a native English speaker and want to become a Japanese translator, I’d focus on becoming a Japanese-to-English translator rather than an English-to-Japanese translator. (There are people who pull off both, so if you feel like you can do so as well, don’t let me talk you out of it.)
How good do you have to be in your second language? Well, if you take my recommendation in the previous paragraph, then you don’t necessarily have to have native-level skills skills in your second language.
At the very least, though, I’d say that you have to have a level 3 / C1 proficiency in reading, with listening skills in that range as well. You don’t have to be as good with writing and speaking, but I wouldn’t ignore those skills completely either.
It doesn’t really matter how you learn the language. You can learn it at an institute, at a university, or even on your own.
2. Learn Translation.
So, you speak two languages. You can be a translator, right?
Not necessarily. Translation is a craft in and of itself, distinct from speaking or knowing a second language. When you learn a second language, you’re simply learning it and aren’t expected to communicate it back into your first language. In fact, the goal is to someday remove your first language’s interference altogether.
But with translation, you’re always dealing with two languages rather than just one. You have to choose the right words to convey meaning, tone, rhetorical purpose, and even voice–all while producing a professional document mostly free of grammatical or typographical errors.
Pick up a book on general translation theory. More importantly, practice actually translating. There’s no substitute for just sitting down and doing it.
3. Get Proof of Your Skills.
“Hi, I’m Ron. I translate good. Can I get a job, dude?”
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. If you expect to get anywhere, you’ll have to show proof of your abilities to employers and clients. There are a few different options for this:
- An MFL university degree – Having a bachelor’s degree or some kind of university diploma in your foreign language is usually enough to get your foot in the door. It’s not proof of translation-specific skills, but many employers recognize that if you graduated with a degree in a language, you’ll be able to pick up the other skills.
- A translation degree – Some universities offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in translation studies. These zero in on the actual skills of translation, and some expect you to come in already having very high level global language skills. The American Translators Association (ATA) provides a list of translation and interpretation programs around the world.
- A certification – Speaking of the ATA, they are the gold standard for certification in the US. (Their certification test’s pass rate is also about 20%–yikes!) Other countries have their own certification processes, which may include legal requirements, so check your local laws.
Some translators have all three of those–a foreign language degree, an MA in translation studies, and a certification. With that training, they’re definitely going to be great translators.
Honestly, though? You don’t need everything to get working. What’s important is that you’re able to give objective, valid proof of your abilities. The ATA’s certification process, for example, offers alternatives for career changers who didn’t come up the traditional translator’s pipeline.
4. Get a Job.
You have two options: Working for an employer or going freelance.
If you work for an employer, you get the benefit of mentoring and steady work. You don’t have to worry about business or marketing and can just do your work every day. Employers being as they are will tend to hire people with the most education and experience. (Imagine that.) So if you don’t have a traditional translator’s background, these jobs might be tricky to get.
If you freelance, you get the benefit of picking where, when, and how often you work. A big part of your job will be spent marketing yourself and hunting, though, and work may be infrequent in the beginning. Here are three places to find work: Proz, Translator’s Cafe, and Elance.
5. Get Better
Once you get your first job or your first couple freelance gigs, keep improving.
Learn your language more. Learn more about translation. Get a specialization, if that interests you. The ATA offers continuing education courses, so take advantage of those.
Also, develop a portfolio of your work. Most clients will have confidentiality agreements, so you won’t be able to show those off. But if you do pro-Bono work for a nonprofit or university, you should be able to keep your samples.
Translation is a great industry. If you love languages, it’s definitely something to look into.