How to Become a Translator
In our global world, translators serve as a bridge between countries and cultures, facilitating communication and exchange between companies, governments, and peoples. Often working away from the limelight, they are nonetheless a central cog in the wheel of various industries, from culture and media, to international business, and even medicine and law enforcement.
Translators work with written communication, converting text from one language to another. This involves more than just a word-for-word substitution: a skilled translator must also be able to use their knowledge of the two languages to preserve the overall meaning, tone, and nuances of the work while keeping the facts and message intact. They are typically fluent in at least two languages, though some translators are veritable polyglots.
If you have an ear for languages and their finer nuances, read on to find out how you can become a translator.
1. Master your target language
The first thing you’ll need to do to become a translator is to learn another language alongside your native one. That’s easier said than done, and often requires years of dedicated learning. In some cases, you might have a leg up if you grew up in a bilingual household, but if not, there are plenty of opportunities to learn.
Many people first start picking up foreign languages during secondary school or higher education. College courses will often help you learn both the grammar of the language and the culture surrounding it. An immersion program, where you live and study abroad for a time, for instance, can help you develop your language skills and gain a deeper understanding of the language as something more than just a combination of sounds and symbols. What’s the real significance of inviting someone over for ramen in Korea (hint: it’s similar to Netflix & Chill) and do people really say “Gesundheit” when you sneeze in Germany? Answering these types of questions will build necessary cultural fluency and ultimately contribute to your translating skills.
Pick a language that fascinates you
There’s demand for translators in just about every language so the best strategy when picking one is to go with a language that genuinely interests you enough to sustain at least a couple of years of study. Certain languages might have more job opportunities than others and might be more common in different industries, but, at this stage, don’t be too concerned about this and focus on finding a language that you enjoy and develop a proficiency in it.
💡Although the terms “translator” and “interpreter” are often used interchangeably, these two jobs have slightly different functions. A translator only works with written text while an interpreter deals with spoken messages and real-time translations in contexts like meetings or even the UN assembly. One person can be proficient in both, but it is more common to specialize in one of the two career paths.
Salary-wise, translators and interpreters are pretty evenly matched with an estimated average of $54,016 and $52,342 per year respectively in the United States.
Alternatively, if your native language isn’t English but you’re reading this post in English, you may find it interesting to translate from your native language to English, or vice versa.
Whatever language you choose, if you’re considering a career in translation, you’ll need to intentionally step toward that dream.
2. Specialize in translation
As you gain more proficiency in your target language, you can start to focus on actually learning how to translate. Knowing a language doesn’t necessarily give you the skills to translate in it, as many bilingual speakers without formal education can attest to. You need both knowledge of a language and knowledge of the art of translation to become a skilled translator.
There are many degree programs and certificates that specifically train people in translation. The American Translators Association (ATA) provides many great resources for translators, including a list of accredited schools for translation. Internationally, the International Federation of Translators has many resources and affiliated associations of translators across the world that provide information for those looking to become translators.
At this point, you’ll also choose your source language/target language combination. Essentially, this means you decide which language you will use as your original “source” and which language you will translate things into. For example, you could decide to become an English to Spanish translator, or a Spanish to French translator. There are many possible combinations, but it’s up to you to find the one that fits your skills best.
3. Find your niche and choose translation industries
Once you have the basics of your target language down and a solid understanding of how translation works in practice, you can (and should) specialize even further. Translators don’t typically work in a general capacity; they specialize in one field or industry, becoming experts in a topic by learning the specific language and terminology associated with it.
There are many different fields you could go into, but here are five common ones:
Behind every translated book is a skilled literary translator that works on preserving the language and story of the original novel. Perhaps the most complex form of translation, it requires an overall understanding of the text as a whole and incorporates the editing and storytelling skills of an author to make foreign literature available to the rest of the world.
Literary translation must balance the technical aspects of translating — an impeccable grasp of grammar and precise word choices — with an understanding of time, place, and the context of both the source and target language. Reading translated fiction from across the globe is a great way to gain an appreciation for the complexities — but also beauty — inherent in this subfield.
Estimated average salary: $59,626/year
From scientific documents to user manuals, technical translators work on translating materials that deal with scientific or technical subject matters. This subfield of translation often requires a translator to acquire expertise in the field they’re working in. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to know everything about computer software, but they should broadly understand the topic — in two or more languages, no less — and know the terminology to use to clearly and precisely translate texts about it. An exception to this is if you’re hoping to translate articles for technical or engineering journals, which does require college level training in the subject itself, in addition to language fluency.
This field is full of variety, though, and there are so many documents and fields that encompass “technical translation” that we couldn’t possibly list them all here. Just imagine, somewhere out there, there are people translating patent documents, swearing over IKEA user manuals in multiple languages, and obsessing over software documentation — to name just a few examples. To find out if this might be the job for you, it’s worth doing your own research to explore what else you can do in this oft-forgotten but expansive subfield.
Estimated average salary: $55,019/year
The rise in international business has also led to an increased need for financial translators. If an American business is working with a partner in China, for example, the financial and business documents they exchange will need to be translated so each party can stay up-to-date on their business dealings.
Enter the financial translator, who works on key documents like balance sheets, cash flow statements, account audit reports, and much more, to facilitate communications between international businesses and banks. They are an essential part of the international business process by helping companies effectively communicate.
Estimated average salary: $70,322/year
💡Do none of these financial terms sound familiar? You might have to get to know them if you’re planning on freelancing as a translator, so head over to our post on finances for freelancers next.
Another important part of international business is administrative translation. As companies expand into different countries and partner with international organizations, the day-to-day business documents they send out to employees and partners need to be translated to ensure proper communication and operations.
Some of the documents an administrative translator might work on include operating procedures, strategic plans, guidelines, presentations, and newsletters. And that’s just to name a few. Dozens upon dozens of documents that most lay people never even think of are used in daily business operations and communications that may need to be translated.
To ensure this is done smoothly and efficiently, administrative translators need to learn specific terminology in their target language in order to properly communicate business concepts and keep everyone on the same page. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt if they also have a working understanding of the administrative processes they are translating.
Estimated average salary: $44,713/year
Businesses and government agencies often also require translations of legal or official documents, which is where legal translators come in. In this field, accuracy is key, as well as a deep understanding of the law and legal processes. They must also be familiar with legal terminology and its meanings in both the target and source languages, and also stay vigilant for errors, since even the placement of a comma can change the legal implications of a text.
Because of these strict requirements, the job of a legal translator can be quite demanding, making these specialists highly sought-after. Often, their services are needed during immigration or employment processes as birth certificates, marriage certificates, or diploma supplements need to be translated. They may also work on contracts between businesses or even actual legal texts.
Estimated average salary: $49,319/year
4. Earn a certification
Now that you’ve learned all the skills it takes to become a translator and have narrowed down the field you want to work in, getting certified is the last step before you become a fully-fledged professional translator. This is different from getting a degree (though a college degree in your target languages certainly won’t hurt). It’s more like the unofficial equivalent of a lawyer passing the bar exam. It shows that a professional organization recognizes your translating abilities and gives them some credible backing.
Although it isn’t required that you do this, it’s a good way to prove to potential employers you’re skilled, and it stands out on a resume. Certification is also an option for people interested in entering the field who didn’t study languages at school but are proficient in a second language (and maybe have a professional education outside translation). It might also be useful to have certification in a non-translation related field if you plan on working as a translator. For example, being a certified paralegal can give you a leg up if you’re interested in legal translation.
If you’re in the United States, the ATA offers certification in 29 languages and allows you to become a Certified Translator (CT). In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) offers various levels of certification in seven languages. You can put this designation on your website, resume, or any other promotional materials to let people know about your credentials.
5. Gain experience via internships or freelance gigs
Just like in many other professions, getting your foot in the door can be the most challenging part of the process — as if learning another language wasn’t already hard enough. When you’re trying to get started in translating, the best kinds of jobs to look out for are internships or freelance opportunities.
Various organizations offer translating internships, from organizations dedicated to translation to government agencies. These experiences are a great introduction to professional translating and can help you further narrow down the niche you want to go into. Critically, it can also help you build your portfolio so that you have a stash of working samples to show next time you’re applying for a position or bidding for a project.
Be aware though, that while there may be paid opportunities, there are just as many unpaid ones. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether an unpaid internship is something you want to do, but it might be better to value your time and pass them over for a paid internship.
Another option to consider are freelance opportunities. These short-term projects are a great way to gain experience across fields, if you’re still trying to figure out what you’re interested in, a steady way to build up experience and examples of translated documents, or a way to build a network of contacts in your field of choice until a fixed position crops up or until you can make a full living as a freelancer.
6. Look for employers and work opportunities
After you’ve built up a solid resume within your specialty, you can become a lot more selective about the work you choose to do. You can start working in a greater capacity for some of the organizations you interned with or did contracted work for by becoming a full-time translator on their staff. Look at job listings for these positions and see what kinds of skills they require and whether there are any areas where you can learn more to stand out among other applicants.
Of course, you can also choose to stay on the freelance path and create your own specialized translation business to have more flexibility and control over your career. If you’re experienced in literary translations, Reedsy can help you get your profile in front of clients in your target language and preferred genres.
Becoming a translator will help you expand the knowledge of the world past the boundaries of language and bring stories and information to people all across the globe. Whether you’re helping businesses work with other countries or sharing works of literature with new audiences, a translator is an integral part of our increasingly interconnected world.