How to Become a Translator

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.

According to the US government, translators can expect to make $45,000 a year on average, and some freelancers report making over twice that.

By Thamizhpparithi Maari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Thamizhpparithi Maari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

After high school, I went to a couple different language institutes for two years to study Modern Standard Arabic. I then worked as a translator for about five years after that. If you want to try your hand at getting paid to work with language all day, here’s how you can do it.

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.

Wrapping Up

Translation is a great industry. If you love languages, it’s definitely something to look into.

Good luck!


  • Roman Shinkarenko

    Where do you fall on the literality-to-spiriit spectrum? I perefr to leave all the small details in; my brother, however, prefers to show the broad meaning of the sentence.

    • Ron G.

      I personally prefer to stay as close as possible to the source text unless I can justify veering from it. It reminds me of editing, which I do during my current job. I’m not trying to change the writer’s words out of personal preference, but if something’s not working, I make the adjustment.

  • Bryan

    Are certain languages more in demand to be transferred into English than others?

    • Ron G.

      Yes, definitely. German, Japanese, and French seem to be in demand. Also, there’s a lot of demand for Spanish but also a large supply of Spanish to English translators, so competition is high. (There may be others I’m not aware of, and the list changes.)

      If you work for the government or a large corporation, it’s not as big an issue because they’ll find you work. Usually.

  • Noor K

    Any advice for someone that’s planning on studying foreign languages in college?

    • Ron G.

      Hmm…that would make a good blog post. Any kind of advice you’re looking for in particular? Getting in, doing well, etc.?

      • Noor K

        Some general advice would be helpful

        • Ron G.

          Okay, this definitely should be a blog post. I’ll work on it and see if I can get some other people to add their voices to it. Give me a few. :)

    • Ron G.
      • Noor K

        Thank you so much! Now I have an idea of what to expect.

  • Shana Thompson

    We have a few college students translating our website into different languages just to get their names out to future employers. I’m not saying this is the type of work for everyone, but generally speaking, start-ups need the help and their sites can be a platform for you to show your work. Wish I would have known that as a clueless high school/college language learner; I would have reached out to companies at accelerators, asked to translate and waited for their ‘accelerated’ business growth to take my name out over the web. :)

    • Ron G.

      Great tip! I know some people get uneasy about working for free, but I think doing a project or two is a very reasonable commitment for what you get in return.

  • Denverb

    So I read your article about f the dlab prep, it was a great read again btw. I’m taking t in less then 60 hours at 0600 and really only have my backing of 5 years of latin(ending mid way through the ap Vergil course… I couldn’t make the cut haha) and some Spanish I picked up while at work and from friends. My cousin also taught English for 9 years in the southern islands of Japan so he has taught me a small amount of verbal skills. I’ve mostly been teaching myself the past month or so kanji hiragana and katakana with this app called “dr. Moku”
    Given that aswell as my passion and experience for traveling, I am still not all too certain if I’ll be able to make a career/ MOS out of it. The opportunity is on the table and the score I get in two days might shed some light but what I’m really trying to do is be a Japanese or Korean linguist with my USMCR unit which I know will require taking and passing the DLPT as one of the many steps.
    Do you think this is doable for an 18 year old like me?
    Have you heard of similar situations?

    • Denverb

      I think I ran out of characters or my iPad glitches but I wanted to ( fix spelling typos and ) go on about the “Dr. Moku” app. As a Japanese learner, I truly recommend it! even though the full versions of each alphabet are $5 or so dollars amounting to so hint like $30 dollars for the entire app, it is well worth it if say.
      Also I went on about my advantages towards being a translator but there are like 2 major factors that I did not include that go as a disadvantage for me. Ask if need be

    • Ron G.

      Hey, nice to meet you! I think your 5 years of Latin is great prep for the DLAB, and for a career as a military linguist too. 18 years old? That’s no issue at all. I started basic Arabic at 18, and half of DLI (or more?) is under 20. Considering your background, your passion, and your obvious intelligence, I think you could be very successful in this job field.

      I’ve been out for a long time, so things might have changed, but Japanese linguist wasn’t available when I was there. A few officers took Japanese because they were going to take liaison positions in Japan, but it wasn’t available for enlisted personnel (in any service). Again, things might’ve changed.

      Korean is definitely available, though. Good luck on the DLAB! Please let me know how it goes for you.

      • Denverb

        I’ll have to ask and confirm with my recruiter today about enlisted Japanese linguists. All I know is I would rather be in the orient then in the Middle East, Asian culture and language and location is a bit more appealing. Do u remember if Russian was a possiblity?
        I’ll let you know how the dlab goes and what resources helped the best.
        How much time / dedication do u think is need for each of the three languages mentioned ?

        • Ron G.

          Russian is definitely a possibility. It tapered off after the Cold War was over, but has picked back up since then. DLI trains students according to the needs of the military, and those needs are constantly shifting depending on whatever is going on in the world.

          Back in the Stone Age when I was in, it was 63 weeks for CAT IV languages (Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Japanese), 47 weeks for CAT III languages (Persian Farsi, Russian), and 26 for CAT I languages (Spanish, French). I think that’s changed a little, but should be in that ballpark.

          7 to 8 hours a day of school plus 2 hours of homework, 5 days a week. Tests every two to three weeks. Pretty intense stuff. Kind of fun in its own way. 😉

          • Denverb

            Dang long road ahead of me, on top of drill weekends and nursing course in college…