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The 6 Steps to Becoming a Translator
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Corinne Kalupson
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Events pro, writer, mom, chaser of dreams.
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The world around us keeps getting smaller. Between the growth of global business, increased distance learning and the whirlwind of social media, opportunities for making international connections are more and more frequent. Because of that, the need for good translators in nearly every industry is increasing at a rapid pace. Becoming a translator requires a fairly intense program of study, but the benefits are incredibly gratifying. If you’re interested in language, travel and culture, enjoy reading and research and are able to work with patience, care and impeccable attention to detail, becoming a translator may be the career path for you.

What does a translator do?

In short, a translator is a communicator who converts information from one language to another. This is somewhat different from an interpreter, who translates spoken words in real-time — in a meeting, classroom or conference setting, for example. Typically a translator will be assigned to convert words from a written “source” language into their own native language.

Translating is as interesting and colorful as it sounds, requiring layers of specialized knowledge and an eye for detail. The work is not as simple as plugging data into a piece of software, although there can be an aspect of that as well. Instead, becoming a translator requires an extensive, specialized education. The potential translator should be fluent in both required languages; that is, they should understand the words, of course, but also have a general knowledge of grammar, style and regional dialects of a language not their own. Ideally, training to become a translator should also include an immersive experience in a country where the student’s non-native language is spoken. Fantastic writing skills are crucial, as is the capability to do extensive research, should that be necessary. A translator’s work is required to be careful and thoughtful so that the message of the original text isn’t lost. 

Where should I start the journey to become a translator?

Translators arrive at their careers from any number of paths. Study can start as early as the beginning of your college career or later in life, after becoming established in another field. Because a prerequisite for the job is a strong background in writing, research and reading comprehension, a teacher, counselor or library scientist could make a very natural transition into a job as a translator. 

6 steps toward becoming a translator.

1. Commit to learning a second language. 

In fact, don’t simply learn a second language. Become fluent in that language in speaking, writing and culture. It’s not enough to just ace a couple of semesters of conversational Spanish or German. A translator needs to be able to understand the language as well as a native speaker. There are some areas of the country where there’s an opportunity to take focused translation courses as early as immediately post-high school. However, the most direct route is to study your chosen language as a major in college. Consider that a four-year degree program can provide a student with more diverse choices. For example, if an emphasis in linguistics is available, enroll! That and other opportunities may not crop up anywhere except a college setting. Your interest in a specific language may stem from just about anywhere: you may have enjoyed prior education or exposure, have a genealogical connection to a region of the world or the language may have a natural pairing with another field in which you’re interested. However you get there, it’s important to be excited about the language you’re studying.

2. Add an immersive experience to your resume. 

Travel is a wonderful way to build your newly-acquired knowledge. Choose either an internship or study abroad program in a country where your second language is spoken. This will help you to learn nuance and dialect in a way that transcends what you’ve learned in a traditional classroom. A secondary benefit is that you’ll gain a deeper appreciation and respect for the culture that you simply can’t achieve from reading books. If your school doesn’t offer a specific, appropriate translating-centered internship in the region you select, consider overseas studies in communications, journalism, sociology, economics or education. These emphases will add a rich layer to your background and look great on a resume.

3. Study for and pass a certification exam. 

While it’s not a required credential, becoming certified is another way to challenge yourself and make connections. Evaluation by a governing body is a good thing! Generally, your skills will be tested on the completion, fluency and mechanics of your translations, with a close eye on the actual number of errors. Be aware: because translation is such a specialized industry, there may not be an ATA chapter near you; also, there are some languages for which no certification test may be available. In that case, you may need to rely on work experience and further education until you’re able to become certified. 

4. Choose an emphasis. 

There is a vast range of directions that a job as a translator can take you, and there are ways beyond accreditation to prove your commitment. You can further expand your network and open professional doors by developing specialized, industry-specific knowledge. That is, select a minor in any one of a range of fields — medicine, business or literature, for example — and then learn the terms and standards of that field inside and out. The greatest minds in every trade may be limited to working in a single language. A good translator can help to spread their findings across the globe. Some available jobs for translators include:

  • Medical transcription: translate medical articles, research findings or drug datasheets.

  • Literary translation: translate novels, memoirs and screenplays for publication.

  • Machine translation editing: improve AI research by editing translations produced by software programs.

  • Marketing: translate global sales initiatives to stay relevant in varying markets.

  • Financial translation: work in the stock market, accounting and banking.

  • English as a Second Language: coach students at any level to translate their thoughts from their native language to yours. There is a specific need for this position in a university setting but also in the mainstreaming of elementary and secondary-aged children.

5. Continue developing and fine-tuning your skills. 

Continuing education is absolutely necessary for the growing field of translation. This education can be specific to your second language or to personal and professional development. Each is valuable. Organizations such as the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages offer courses and mentoring that apply to translators. Take a seminar on cross-cultural communication or a refresher class in Latin. Study ethics as it applies to your field or emphasis. If you’re feeling even more ambitious, consider adding another language to your repertoire. Your access to multiple combinations of languages will ultimately mean a greater body of work that you can achieve.

6. Use your network and build solid business relationships. 

Many translators work on a contract basis, hired for specific contracts that last for a finite period of time. In order to keep the flow of work consistent, you’ll need to be active in the greater community and make good professional contacts. Join a mentoring group, attend virtual seminars and go to conferences. Help someone else in their career, and they’ll remember you in the future. Referrals and reviews are the heart of any small business success, and professional translators are no different.

How many years does it take to become a translator?

You’ll likely be ready to pick up consulting and contract jobs after you’ve achieved your Bachelor’s degree, provided that your studies include an internship and travel. Should you choose to get a master’s degree, add another 2-3 years to your training. The good news is that becoming a translator is an ongoing opportunity for lifetime learning. Ease your way into extending your reach, becoming an expert in new things. Ask for support, and be open to collaborating with other professionals on large projects. The more practical experience you have, the more opportunities will arise.

How much does a translator earn?

The range of salaries for a translator varies greatly. That much translation work is contract and remote means that earning potential is as high as your ability to hustle. The industry is growing rapidly, which means salaries for experienced translators may increase over the next 10 years. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median salary for a translator is about $49,000 annually or around $24/hour. While there are large companies and government agencies who require a full-time translator, many people who work as translators do so on a contract basis and remotely. If you find yourself on that road, be sure to familiarize yourself with income tax and other requirements for small businesses. Financial surprises are the worst kind. That said, remote work is a huge perk. It means the projects are ever-changing and therefore never boring.

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