Contrary to popular belief, translators are not just a better - and more expensive - version of Google Translate. They are in fact much more than that as they are highly specialised professionals who are not only fluent in two or more languages but also possess a high level of expertise in various fields.
1. Research the Profession
Translation is a highly misunderstood profession as most people believe that all it takes to be a great translator is to be fluent in two languages and have a great dictionary. That could not be further from the truth as fluency in foreign languages is simply the minimum it takes to become a translator.
The first step you should take towards pursuing this profession is to research and understand exactly what it entails and the skills that are required to become successful at it.
In a nutshell, translators are responsible for converting texts from the ‘source language’ to the target language’. This comes with a lot of complications as the final text needs to retain the same meaning, style and tone of voice of the original, something which is not always easy to do as linguistic terms don’t always have equivalents across languages. Translators need also need to pay attention to cultural issues as it can be easy for meaning to be missed in the target text.
It’s precisely because of these complications that translation, as a profession, is still in demand. In spite of the technological advances, it has been proven time and time again that we cannot rely on machine translation without the human element. Machines do not process data like the human brain, and can only understand text as strings of words; this results in work that is not equivalent to the source. As such, experts anticipate that translators will continue to have work for many decades to come and that this profession might never become fully automated.
As translation is a very demanding process, it’s important for people who pursue this profession to have a hunger for knowledge and be attentive to detail. Many translators believe that the only way to produce a great translation (i.e., one that does not feel like a poor copy of the source text) is for the translator to be genuinely interested in the subject matter.
Working as a translator means being in a constant problem-solving process. Each lexical item presented needs to be translated in the most accurate and meaningful way in the target language, and the translator needs to constantly process information to select the best solution.
It’s also important to note that transferring meaning from one language to the next requires independent thinking and as such, people in this profession need to be able to work on their own, and be confident in the results they produce.
Translators always work to tight deadlines and need to be quick so to be successful in this profession you need to be able to work at a fast pace. Also, note that you need to have creative skills and enjoy writing as translation is an incredibly creative process.
Salary ranges depending on the type of translation you do, as well as your level of expertise. Generally speaking, translators who specialise in technical texts, such as medical, legal etc. are more highly paid than non-specialised translators.
It’s common for people to enter this profession through translation agencies which on average pay £18,000 per year. After a few years and with enough experience on your back you should expect to make up to £30,000 a year, while senior translators can make up to £40,000 per year.
Translators often work as freelancers and have their own clients. Freelance rates vary depending on your languages (it’s acceptable to charge more for rarer languages) and how technical your area of expertise is. Charging between £75-£210 per 1,000 words is acceptable.
Working hours vary depending on whether you work for an agency or on your own. If you work for an agency you can expect traditional office hours, 9am to 5pm, with extra hours being required nearer to deadlines.
Working for yourself means having a relatively flexible schedule. But you will probably be required to work more evenings and weekends to meet deadlines and talk to clients.
2. Gain the Qualifications
To become a translator you’ll need a degree, while a postgraduate degree can significantly increase your employment potential. There are many universities in the UK that offer various Bachelor titles in translation and there are also many Master’s you can do with different specialisations. Remember that to have a successful career in translation you are also going to need to be fluent in at least two languages.
To get hired by most translation agencies, as well as get your own clients you are going to need a university degree in translation. Most universities offer specialised courses, e.g. a degree in German to English translation. You will also find that combined degrees in translation and interpreting are very popular, and they will allow you to get a background in interpreting, which although very demanding is also very interesting. There are also theoretical programmes you can pursue if you are interested in an academic career.
Postgraduate degrees tend to be more specialised and they can help you gain specific knowledge in an area of translation. So, if for example you’re interested in going into medical translation, you’ll find that a postgraduate degree in medical translation in your language pair can increase your employment opportunities and get you a leg over competition. Keep in mind that translators who specialise in medical, legal and technical texts are generally highly sought after.
It goes without saying that fluency in at least two languages is essential for this career path. The norm is generally for people to translate from their second language into their first, but you’ll find that you’ll generally be required to do it vice-versa as well. Fluency in more than two languages can also increase your career opportunities.
Keep in mind, that linguistic fluency is not sufficient as you’ll also need to understand the norms of each culture. Translators often need to work with marketing people to transcreate and localise campaigns so it’s important for your knowledge to go beyond language.
In the UK, translators are not legally required to become certified or register with a professional body. Note that most clients (as well as hiring managers in translation agencies) will be more inclined to hire you if you are registered with a recognised professional body such as the Charted Institute of Linguistics and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.
3. Land Your First Job
Working as a translator is not easy as it’s a mentally challenging line of work, but if you’re passionate about connecting people and bridging language barriers, it can be very rewarding. Experience is highly appreciated so you’d do well to have a few volunteering projects in your portfolio before you start looking for a job.
It’s important to note that most translators start out working for agencies as the experience they offer is invaluable, while it also gives them a chance to network with different people, companies and clients, something which is crucial if you want to become a location-independent freelance translator in the future.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Volunteer: Many non-profit and charity organisations need volunteering services so make sure to contact some of them and offer your skills pro-bono.
- Network: It’s vital that you connect with other professionals as it’s common for more seasoned professionals to outsource some of their work when they are on tight schedules. Make sure that you approach all fellow translators as potential employers rather than mere coworkers.
- Build Your Portfolio: Building a portfolio in this sector is admittedly difficult because all you have to show are samples from a source text and how you translated it. But rather than creating a boring portfolio make it as interesting as possible by adding notes and explaining how you overcame difficulties.
Where to Look for Work
- Job Boards: Traditional job boards have many opportunities for translators since many agencies work with recruiters.
- Linkedin: Whether you’re looking for a job with an agency or not, it never hurts to be open to extra work. Linkedin is a great place to get found by people who are looking for translators. Make sure you’ve built up your presence to maximise your potential.
- Translator’s Café: Translator’s Café is a massive resource for translators. It features a huge community with forums about everything translation related, while they also have a frequently updated job board section.
- Proz: Proz features a directory of translators and interpreters and a huge job post section.
- ATC: to look for agencies registered in the UK go to the ATC, the official association of translation companies.
4. Develop Your Career
One of the best things about translation is that it’s well-suited to freelancing; in fact, it’s the perfect option for those who prefer to choose their own projects. Make sure you do your research first, though; consult a reliable guide on freelance translation and, if possible, speak to friends or acquaintances that have already taken the plunge.
If you do decide to freelance, then make sure that you possess a comprehensive and reliable network, as well as the ability to cultivate relationships with new clients. You’ll also need to think about how you’re going to build a website, prepare contracts and other legal agreements, and market your services.
It’s also common for translators to pursue other related careers, such as teaching, writing or communications.
Translation is an interesting career and it will allow you to learn many different things. It also allows you to easily take responsibility for your future and become your own boss.
Do you think you’d be a successful translator? Let me know in the comment section below.