What it takes to become a translator

Whether you’re choosing what to study after high school, stepping into the job market for the first time, or looking for a career change, translating for a living could be just the thing for you. It’s never too late or too early to get into this amazing profession if you have what it takes. Just make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into before taking the plunge!

The basics

Before you even start thinking about a career in translation you need to know the absolute basic requirements. Here we go:

You have solid language skills

You love languages and are good at them. Kudos to you if you speak many languages, but it’s more about quality than quantity. Some people think that you need at least two foreign languages to become a translator, but that’s simply not true. French-to-English translator Corinne McKay did not study translation at university because she was told she couldn’t become a translator with “just” one foreign language. Luckily, she came back to translation years later, became ATA-certified, and is now one of the most prominent and successful translators in her field. Oh, and did I mention that she is the president of the American Translators Association? So, if you speak two languages well, i.e. your mother tongue and a foreign language, you can absolutely build a career in translation.

That being said, speaking two languages isn’t sufficient. You need to work on your language skills (both source and target languages), get the right training, and gain plenty of experience before you can call yourself a good translator.

You are culturally aware

You can have all the language skills in the world, but if you’re lacking in cultural awareness, you’re going to find this career path very challenging. Fortunately, language and culture go hand in hand. Language is only meaningful within its cultural context, and you need to be fully aware of the context of the original text to accurately portray it in the translation. That’s why it makes such a huge difference if you live or have lived in a country where your second language is spoken.

You love words

Read, write, and translate. Rinse and repeat. If any of these activities make you feel empty inside, then that’s a pretty clear indication that translation is not for you. It’s that simple.

This also means that you have to be a good writer. Surprisingly, many translators do not consider themselves writers, even though translation is writing. The only difference is you don’t have to come up with the content — which might be easier in some sense — but on the flip side, you have to be faithful to the tone, purpose, and message of the original while ensuring it makes perfect sense as a standalone text in the target language. No easy feat!

Surprisingly, many translators do not consider themselves writers, even though translation is writing.

What about qualifications?

Now that we’ve got the basic foundation out of the way, what about the building blocks? Do you need to study translation or is experience enough? Well, the very short answer is that you can become a translator without studying translation. Except for specific job positions and certain types of translation, like sworn translation, nobody can stop you from working as a translator. However! Even though it is possible, it does not mean you should go without any translation-specific training or certification.

The reality is that many successful professional translators do not have qualifications in translation — some have degrees in languages or linguistics, but others have completely unrelated degrees and use them to their advantage by making them their field of specialization in translation. How do they compete with the fully qualified? Experience. So, the bottom line is, not having a translation qualification does not mean you can’t become a translator, but it will most likely help!

One way of getting formal training is by becoming certified with a translation association. For example, if you live and work as a translator in the US you might want to consider becoming ATA certified, a highly regarded credential that can boost your authority and improve your chances of finding high-quality translation work in the US. Certifications and associations vary from country to country so it’s worth doing some research to see what certifications exist where you are and what will work best for you. Find your country’s association here.

Aside from degrees and certifications, it’s important to understand that learning is a lifelong endeavor in the life of the professional translator. Continuing professional development, or CPD, should be top of mind at all times. One of the perks of today’s content economy, is how easily accessible education is — much of it for free — in the form of conferences, courses, sessions, workshops, webinars, and other resources offered by highly recognized and established translators such as Corinne McKay, Tess Whitty, Paul Urwin, Chris Durban, Karen Tkaczyk, and Nicole König.

Business and marketing skills

Working on your translation skills is vital, but if you know next to nothing about business and marketing you’ll have a hard time finding actual translation jobs. Unless you get lucky and find an in-house position you absolutely love and never want to leave, you’re going to want to learn to market yourself. Whether focusing on direct clients or working for language service providers (LSPs), it’s important that you’re willing to put yourself out there and have, at the very least, a basic online presence. This doesn’t mean you have to be on all social networks and post every day, but having an online profile and being visible, whether on LinkedIn, translation platforms, or your own website will greatly improve your chances of finding work and building a reputation.

Unless you get lucky and find an in-house position you absolutely love and never want to leave, you’re going to want to learn to market yourself.

Should you specialize?

One way of rising above the competition is by specializing. This could be something you have studied or a field of interest to you — e.g. a hobby — and enjoy translating. Many translators are reluctant to take this step in fear that they will lose business. This may happen in the short term, but the long-term benefits can be well worth the wait because people start seeing you as an expert in your field. And the fact that your target market is much smaller actually gives you an edge over the generalists — it becomes much easier to position yourself, focus on what your clients need, and ultimately, become a better translator.

We’ve already mentioned how important certifications can be in general, but these become a huge plus if you’re thinking about specializing in fields like medical, legal, or financial translation. These are large, profitable markets, but there are many other areas you can specialize in — some as niche as mountain climbing, veganism, or clocks. What’s important is that you find that sweet spot between what you enjoy translating and what people want. And you do not need a huge target market as long as you focus on becoming “the go-to translator” for that clientele.

Technology is your friend

One thing translators have to get to grips with is the increasing presence of technology in the language industry. But instead of seeing this as a threat, it’s much easier to embrace it and use to your advantage to improve your translation workflow. There have been all sorts of tech developments in recent years in the field, but the biggest player by far is the CAT (computer-aided translation) tool, a special type of editor for translators.
A CAT tool is basically the modern equivalent of having your desk piled up with dictionaries, notepads full of terms and phrases, and stacks of documents with all your previous translations. The difference is you don’t have to rummage through it all when you need to find out how you previously translated a certain term and where it could possibly be among all your notes and translations. The CAT tool instantly retrieves it and lets you reuse it.

A CAT tool is basically the modern equivalent of having your desk piled up with dictionaries, notepads full of terms and phrases, and stacks of documents with all your previous translations.

As you can see, unless you only translate literary, marketing texts, or similar creative content, you’re going to find using a CAT tool a huge productivity booster and timesaver. If you do decide to become a translator, get on the technology bandwagon as soon as possible and start harnessing the power of software tools to move you forward in your career.

Experience is everything

We all have to start somewhere, but the quicker you get some experience under your belt, the better your chances of finding and keeping the right clients. Nobody is born a great translator, so get into the habit of translating as much as possible from the get-go. You won’t really know if translation is for you until you start doing it anyway.

Once you’re feeling more confident, move on to applying to translation jobs. If you’re struggling to get paid jobs — very normal when you’re starting! — you can always work on volunteer translation projects so you can start building a portfolio and asking for testimonials. Remember, the more experience you have and the more clients can vouch for you, the more likely a prospective client will choose you over another applicant.

Newbie tip: Get your profile up and running on Smartcat and start getting orders from real customers around the world.

Ignore the naysayers

“Machine translation is replacing human translators!”, “With so much competition it’s a race to the bottom!”, “The growing gig economy means no security for freelance translators!”, “Nobody appreciates the work of translators!”, and so on and so forth. You get the gist.

Yes, we can be a cheerful bunch! But if the translation profession is in such a bad state, then why are there so many successful translators making a decent income and saying it’s the best job ever? Their existence proves that it’s possible to do well in the business if you work hard and know how to go about it.

Competition could not be greater but so is the demand for translation and language services — you’ve just got to find a way to stand out. If you focus on finding your unique selling point (USP) and becoming an invaluable resource, nobody will replace you — robot or human! So, don’t let the negative vibes — inside or outside the business — get to you. You can definitely make a great career out of translation if that’s what you really want to do.

We hope that this article gives you a basic idea of what you need to become a successful translator. If you’re worried you’re not good enough, remember that you don’t have to be perfect to start with. In fact, here’s a little secret — you never get perfect. You simply get better. Translation is a challenging career path, but also immensely rewarding when you see how it impacts others and, very often, how grateful your clients are for your help.

If you’re worried you’re not good enough, remember that you don’t have to be perfect to start with.

Over to you! Any questions?

We’d love to hear from you — what stage are you at in your career path or thought process? Let us know in the comments below. You can also ask us any questions you might have about a career in translation or the language industry and we’ll do our very best to help!