Career Advice: Am I a Potential Translator?


If you speak foreign languages (or if you are studying foreign languages), you might consider a career in translation.  This blog post outlines what it takes to become a translator and helps you decide whether this type of career is suited to your skills and personality.  It gives you tips on how to train to be a translator and how to start out as a freelance or in-house translator.

career advice-am i translation for me

What is translation?

Translation is the process of converting a text in one language to a text with the same meaning in another language.  As a translator you may translate short texts such as articles or leaflets or longer texts like reports, instruction manuals or novels.  Translators usually specialise in one (or more) area(s) of translation, such as literary, legal or technical translation, as they need to have developed knowledge of the field and specialist vocabulary to be able to translate accurately and authentically.

What is a career in translation like?

Working as a translator can require you to meet short deadlines and work with lots of different clients on various different projects.  Many translators work freelance for a number of clients.  To be a successful freelance translator you will have to promote yourself as well, perhaps through social media or a website.  You might need an accountant to help you manage your finances and complete your tax return.  Freelance translators either charge by the word or by the hour.  It is good to charge the going rate for your work as charging too high will put clients off and charging too low will expose you to accusations of unfair competition.  You can look on the ProZ website for an idea of average rates.  It is also possible to be an in-house translator for a company or work for a translation agency who take on translation tasks for other businesses or organisations.  Even as a freelance translator you may have face-to-face contact with your clients so it is important to have good people skills as well as good writing skills!  You can read more about working as a translator on the National Careers Service website.  There are tips on becoming a freelance translator on the ITI website.

Is a career in translation for me?

To be a successful translator you need to know your native language very well and speak at least one foreign language fluently.  It is good to have had experience of the life and culture in the country (countries) where they speak the language you are translating from (and into) as well.  You will also need to have an eye for detail and accuracy but also flair and creativity, as you will be crafting texts that are not only accurate but also readable and enjoyable.  You will need to be able to work under pressure sometimes and keep to deadlines.  You will need to be organised so as to keep track of your projects and clients.  Translation can be a solitary career, so bear this in mind – but it doesn’t have to be: instead of (or as well as) being a freelance translator, you can work in an office with other translators.  Even if you are self-employed there are forums you can join, such as the ones offered by ProZ or translatorscafé and it is likely that you will collaborate online on translation projects with other translators.  It is important to be confident with computers as not only will you be using them to write your translations and communicate with your clients, translators increasingly make use of Computer Assisted Translation (CAT) tools like Trados or Smartling that facilitate and speed up the task of translating.  For example, CAT tools can store your past translations so you can insert the same translation of the same phrase, keep terminology lists for you and allow you to dictate translation instead of typing it.

To find out whether translation could be for you, try translating every day and see how you feel.  Try to attend a workshop on starting out as a translator where you could speak to qualified translators about their work.  These may be offered by the Institute for Translation and Interpreting (ITI) or perhaps your local university.  If you know any translators, ask them what they like and dislike about their work.

How can I train to be a translator?

Translation courses are usually offered by universities and can be at BA, MA, Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma level.  To work as a translator, you should usually have a degree and will probably need a postgraduate qualification in translation, but you can also develop your skills through practice.  Many universities offer BA courses in translation studies that give you an idea of what the translation profession is like and some practical training, such as this one at Cardiff University or this one at Swansea University.  There are a number of MA translation courses in the South West, such as the MA in Translation at UWE, the MA in Translation at the University of Bristol (and a specific MA in Chinese-English translation), the MA in Translation at Cardiff University, two different MAs at Swansea University, the MA Translation at the University of Exeter or several different MAs at the University of Bath.   If you are not in the South West, you can look here for a comprehensive list of translation courses in the UK.

If you wish to take the Institute of Linguistics Diploma in Translation (DipTrans IoLET), you can train via distance learning with a tutor who communicates with you via email and phone (e.g. at Birmingham or City University London) or with some private teachers.  There is a list of institutions offering training for the DipTrans on the IoLET website.  You can get tips on studying for and passing the exam online, such as this post.  There is usually a cost for doing a translation course, for which you can take out a loan if you wish.  You could see taking the course as an investment.

If you wish to specialise in a certain type of translation (e.g. technical translation, legal translation, medical translation), it can be helpful to have a qualification in that field as well, or working experience in the field.

How do I find work in translation?

You can apply to work for a translation agency or advertise yourself as a freelance translator to potential clients by contacting them directly or through social media.  You could attend translation industry events to network with other translators.  You could also attend non-translation industry events to introduce yourself as a translator to prospective clients.  If you have had other jobs in the past, your former employers may be interested in giving you translation work.  You can also volunteer to gain experience and make a name for yourself.  Many NGOs are looking for volunteer translators.  There are also specific volunteer translation platforms, such as Translators without Borders and Trommons.  More tips are available on these blogs.

Do I need to join a professional association?

In the UK, there are two main bodies translators can become members of, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL).  Qualified membership of these bodies (MITI and MCIL) is seen as proof of a certain level of professionalism.  This is because members commit to maintaining their skills through continuous professional development (CPD) and reviews by their peers.  It is not compulsory to be a member to practise as a translator, though.  There is an assessment fee and an annual fee for membership of these bodies.  There are also other categories of membership which do not require the same level of CPD commitment but give you access to a community of translators, materials and events.  You can find a lot of tips and testimonials on the journey to becoming a qualified member of these two organisations online, such as “My journey to becoming a Qualified Member of the ITI”, “Joining the ITI as a Qualified Member (MITI) – how was it for me?”, “6 Top Tips for Translators to Achieve Chartered Linguist (Translator) Status”, “Becoming a Qualified Member of the ITI” and so on.  To help you decide which exam to take, you can read blogs by translators who have already done it, such as this one or this one.

Good luck!

We hope this has helped you make up your mind as to whether translation could be a career for you.  Good luck!

Written by Suzannah Young

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