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How to Become a Translator


Maybe you've already done some translation work, paid or pro-bono, or maybe you are completely new to the business and are wondering if being a translator may be the job for you. You may be asking yourself what it takes to become a translator.

Basic Requirements

Naturally, you have to know at least two languages - that's obvious. How fluent do you have to be.

Let's talk about your source and your target languages. The source language is the language of the original text you're translating. The target language is the language you're translating into.

Most translators will only translate into their native language or mother tongue. There are exceptions, of course, especially where a translator has been living abroad for many years. Generally, though, most people only have native proficiency in, well, their native language. I am a German translator and I have been living in Canada for over 8 years. I still have my translations proofread by a native speaker. (It's good if you're married to one.)

However, just being a native speaker is not enough. If you are a good writer in your first language, you have probably come accross some writing, even published writing, that makes you shudder. Native speakers can write poorly, too! If you want to be a translator, you need superior writing skills in your target language. You need an excellent command of grammar and style. If a company pays hundreds or thousands of dollars for a translation, the document must be important to them and they will expect quality.

The requirements for your source language are not quite as demanding. You should have an excellent comprehension of your second language, of course. However, when you're translating, you hopefully have access to lots of dictionaries and reference material (more on that later).

Keep in mind, though, that having to look up a lot of words of the source text will severely reduce your output and speed in translating. I occasionally translate from French to German, but I do have to consult my dictionary a lot more. I believe that my translation is still good, but it takes me accordingly longer.

Lastly, it is good to have a broad education and general knowledge of certain specialist fields. Translation agencies and clients look for translators that are familiar with the topic of the translation. There's nothing harder to translate than a text that you don't really understand. Specializing in certain fields also gives you a more limited vocabulary you need to master, especially concerning technical terms.

You may acquire your knowledge through a formal college or university degree (I have a Bachelor Degree in Physics), or simply through reading up on the subject matter regularly.

Technical Resources

As an absolute minimum, you need to own, or have unlimited access to, the following:

* A computer. Can be Windows or Mac, but I would recommend Windows if you have the choice. You might have personal preferences, but Windows will give you better compatibility with your clients. (I don't want to get into the whole 'Bill is evil' discussion here. Unfortunately Windows has a de-facto monopoly in the market, and some important software is not available, or not 100% compatible, on Mac).

* An Internet connection. With documents getting larger and larger, broadband would be preferable, but dial-up is fine for starters too. It's important that you're able to check your e-mail several times a day, so an Internet café is not a good idea.

* An office suite. You will need at least MS Word. (DOS versions don't count here.) Excel is important, too. Powerpoint may be a good idea, but is not as commonly required. If you are translating web pages, you will need an HTML editor. FrontPage is good, but most freeware software will do just fine for this purpose.

* Fax capability. This could be a fax modem or an e-fax service. A fax machine is better because you may have to sign contracts with translation agencies and fax them.

* A mobile phone or a pager would be a good idea if you go out during business hours a lot.

* Dictionaries and reference books. You can never have too many of those. The Internet has become an excellent resource too.

* And lastly, a quiet office. It doesn't have to be large, just enough to accommodate your computer, your books and yourself. You should be able to work without distractions. If you live alone, your living room or your bedroom may be just fine. If you have a family, especially kids, or roommates, you must be sure to either have an office where you can close the door, or there must be times where your family is out (work or school)

* Other good things to have, but not absolutely required, include desktop publishing software (such as PageMaker), a translation memory (Déjà Vu, Trados, Wordfast, etc., more on that later), and more dictionaries and reference books. What software is required often depends on the field you're working in, and you'll learn as you go.

Translation Degree

Do you need a translation degree to become a translator? Yes and no. Read more about it here.

Is a translation degree required to become a translator?

Do I need a translation degree to become a translator?



Whether or not to study to get a translation degree is an important decision to make when you decide to become a translator. But is it really necessary? Well, yes and no.

Having formal education as a translator, for example a Bachelor degree from a university, will certainly make it a lot easier to find your first job. When you are first starting out as a translator, you will most certainly face the famous catch 22: Any good translation agency will certainly ask for translators with experience, but how can you gain that experience if no agency will hire you?

If you have a recognized translation degree, however, agencies are more likely to take a chance on you even if you have no experience. Ideally, the translation program you choose will even include an internship so that you do gain work experience before you graduate.


Of course, there are other ways to gain your first work experience, but more on that later.

Once you've been in the translation business for a few years, your education will become less and less important, and your work experience and good references will be what matters. I have some formal education as a translator, but I moved from Germany to Canada before I could complete my degree and certification. I believe that my education was what landed me my first job, but now I don't stress it too much on my CV anymore and I believe that it's my extensive work experience that makes new clients hire me.

There are of course exceptions when you do need a degree. Many government jobs are open only to translators with a formal education. In many countries, you need some sort of certification in order to officially certify a translation for legal matters. And of course there are translation agencies that advertize that they only use certified translators, so having a degree would also open those doors for you.

What about other education?

As a translator, you need a good foundation of the area of specialization you translate in. No translator can produce a good translation of a text she doesn't fully understand. I specialize in technical and patent translations, and my degree in physics has certainly been very helpful both in convincing agencies to give me work and in producing good quality translations.

In general, I think that there are two good ways to become a translator. You can either have a translation degree and acquire expertise in your area of specialization on the side. Or you can have a degree in your specialization and try to gain the necessary skills and experience as a translator in a more informal manner. Of course, this is not a rule set in stone, but I do strongly believe that some sort of university education will be extremely helpful in being a good translator and in getting work.

It would be wonderful to have both a degree in translation and in your area of specialization, but in my opinion that would be overkill and is much too costly and time-intensive to acquire. My recommendation would be to opt for one or the other.

As with all the content on my site, this reflects my personal opinions and experience, and you are welcome to disagree.

© Christian Erwig-Straughan