So You Want to Be a Translator?

By Derivative work: André Costa (WMSE) Original: Geremy Good, from The Noun Project [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
The translation profession is projected to have grown 29% by 2024, faster than the average for all occupations according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So it is no surprise that the profession is en vogue as many people are now considering whether they should pursue a career in this fascinating profession. Maybe you are one of them and are wondering whether it is enough to know two languages, what career opportunities are out there and if pursuing a Master’s degree in translation studies would put you in a better position to access good translation or interpreting jobs. We hope this article will provide the information you need and help you make an informed decision.

There are many myths and preconceived notions about translation that need to be examined. The first of these is the idea that knowledge of two languages is enough to produce quality translations. Just as having ten fingers does not make you a good pianist, knowing two languages does not suffice to make you a good translator. You might have a gift for languages, but being a successful translator requires other types of competences, such as analytical skills, deep knowledge of the source and the target language, research skills, technical skills, and last but not least marketing and management skills.

Another confusing issue for most outsiders is the difference between translation and interpreting, which some consider to be separate disciplines even though they may share some overlapping skill sets and theoretical underpinnings. The main difference to understand is that translation focuses on written texts, and interpreting involves oral discourse. The professionals you see in conferences or on television, for example, are not translators, but rather, interpreters. Most graduate programs in translation studies offer introductory courses in translation and interpreting that are broad and designed to give you an overview of the translation and interpreting profession as a whole. In other posts on this blog, our interpreting instructor, Elias Shakkour, will provide more information about specific aspects of interpreting and the interpreting profession.

Another assumption about translators is that they can handle any translation task, no matter what the language pair may be. It is not uncommon for translators to be subjected to the following remark: “What do you mean you don’t speak Language X? I thought you were a translator!” The number of languages a translator knows does not determine how competent he/she is as a translator. Each case is different. There are very good translators working only with one language pair (one source language and one target language), while there are others working with half a dozen. What is important to note is that in most cases, translators work into their strongest language, usually their mother tongue, and that they have all the other languages as source languages. This implies that you need to have advanced writing skills in your A or strongest language, since the product you deliver to your client will be evaluated on the basis of the quality of the text in this language. It doesn’t matter how much you have mastered the source language if you cannot express yourself correctly in your target language. As for a translator’s source languages (languages they have studied as foreign languages), most translators have an active knowledge of those languages (meaning they can not only understand oral communication and read in them but also speak and write in them), but there are also cases of excellent translators who have only mastered their source languages passively, and the translation profession is not worse off for it.

By M. Adiputra (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
By M. Adiputra (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Now that we have dispelled some of the most widespread misconceptions about translation, you might be wondering what kind of abilities you need to develop in order to be a good translator. Let’s have a look at some of them and talk about how to go about developing them.

  1.     The first skill you will need to develop is excellent knowledge of both your source language(s) and, most notably, your target language or strongest language. Although this might seem obvious, let’s consider what this actually means. For example, someone who has studied Spanish and acquired conversational skills that allow them to interact with native speakers of Spanish while on vacation in Mexico probably does not have a level of language that is high enough to produce quality translations. Excellent knowledge means having in-depth knowledge of the grammar and vocabulary of the language as well as extensive experience with the culture and mastery of the language’s conventions and nuances. Excellent writing skills in your target language are essential, which is why most translators work into their mother tongue. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but if you translate into a language that is not your mother tongue, you will have to work hard to hone your skills and get them up to snuff. In order to do this we recommend that you frequently read all sorts of texts, with a special focus on excellent language models (for instance, The New York Review of Books for models of English is a good place to start). Another good way to learn is to team up with a friend or colleague who is a native speaker of that language and who can help you spot your weaknesses and increase your confidence. Finally, you will need to stay up to date on current events in the countries where your source and target languages are spoken so that you can easily recognize oblique references when approaching new texts.
  2.     There is a lot of discussion about whether or not to specialize during your translation training, but you will most likely have to handle a range of different texts during your career, especially in the early years.  Since no individual can know everything, and knowledge is constantly evolving, one of the most important skills you will want to develop as a translator is the ability to carry out high-quality research. Becoming a “Google-Jedi,” as we like to call it, will be lifesaving in many situations. This implies being good at finding information, but also knowing which resources to trust and how to find reliable sources. As a translator it is important not to make assumptions about the text or about the things you think you know; rather, it is better to double-check with an authoritative source than to make assumptions that might lead to distortion of meaning or other types of mistakes in your translation.
  3.     A final essential skill to develop is the ability to “learn to learn.” As a translator you will encounter many problems (from linguistic to technical issues) that you will have to handle and resolve in the shortest period of time, because usually clients are in a hurry and they want their texts to be translated quickly and efficiently. To achieve this kind of professional competence, there are a number of habits you need to form. These include actively participating in forums and specialist groups on social networks, engaging in continuing education and training initiatives, networking within professional associations (such as the ATA), and reading about translation theory and practice, terminology and, of course, the specialized domains that interest you. These are just some suggestions that will transform your professional career into a journey of enrichment and growth.

There are also a number of other skills that you will need to develop a successful translation career: ethical responsibility, scrupulousness, efficiency, communication, translation techniques and strategies, computer savviness, networking, management and marketing skills to market your services, and others. We will explore these topics in later blog posts. You may wish to embark on developing these skills on your own, but a Master’s in translation studies can definitely get you to where you want to be much faster than going it alone.  If you wish to know more about the MA in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Illinois, check out our website or leave a comment below and we will be happy to answer your questions.




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