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Becoming a translator: What you need to know

– Posted in: Translators
Becoming a translator: What you need to know (Thinkstock/iStock)

There are countless ways a person can become a professional translator – so much so that even among those who specialise in the same subject areas, it’s possible to find skilled individuals with entirely different qualifications, working histories and interests.

Despite this, though, almost everyone that excels in the vocation of professional translator has a few important characteristics in common. These include the ability to manage time effectively and work flexibly, an exacting attention to detail, a willingness to throw themselves into a project 110%, and, of course, a love and passion for their chosen languages.

Today’s translation and interpreting sector is booming, with globalisation driving demand for skilled modern language professionals among businesses of all sizes and sectors. This has made it easier than ever for people in all walks of life to find work as translators, whether they approach this as a wholesale career change or simply a means of earning a little extra on the side. Without the aforementioned aptitudes, however, this might be short-lived!

In this guide, we’ll be exploring the challenges faced by those who enter the world of translation, as well as the factors that can win them a competitive advantage in a fast-moving, demanding line of work.

Is background important?

It goes without saying that individuals who are exposed to multiple languages and cultures from an early age are often best primed to become translators, as they enjoy both a deep-rooted knowledge of the languages themselves and an understanding of everyday life in the locales where they’re spoken.

This was the case for Beatriz Candil Garcia, a translator for London Translations who works with texts in English, Spanish, Italian and French. “I actually started my career as a mistake,” she says. “It wasn’t planned. Every three or four years my family moved country, so I got to learn new languages. When I first started working in the defence industry, I was always asked to translate documents because it was so difficult to find anyone with the language skills – and clearance – these projects demanded. And I realised that I liked it.”

For obvious reasons, this kind of background has produced many world-class translators. The case was different for Martyn Glenville-Sutherland, another London Translations freelancer who was taught French by his mother – a primary school teacher – in much the same way he was taught Latin in school: “Only when I studied French and Italian at university did I spend a year abroad,” he says.

What education is required?

To become a translator today, qualifications and accreditation are not mandatory. In fact, university and college courses dedicated to translation are relatively new. Beatriz, who holds multiple diplomas in subjects as diverse as legal and audiovisual translation, feels it’s no less important to have the motivation to learn outside of an academic environment.

She does, however, add: “When I realised that this is what I wanted to do, and that I only wanted to work on translations that I liked, I decided I wanted to be as well prepared as possible. And with universities coming up with courses, I figured there was something I could learn.”

Martyn, conversely, embarked upon a career as a French and German teacher after completing his degree, and pursued this for many years before making a switch. “When I started translating, I just jumped straight in as a freelancer,” he says. “I started pitching my skills to clients and carrying out quality work on time, and from there on it was word of mouth.”

Today, any budding translator can sign up to a website such as ProZ and begin ‘bidding’ for work, or else look for jobs through other channels. However, both Beatriz and Martyn agree that those who are successful are those with good enough judgement to say no to jobs that exceed their capabilities. “I never accept a job that I cannot meet with regards to deadlines, quality or content,” says Beatriz.

Does a translator need prior experience?

Some translation projects require highly technical knowledge of a subject area, so prior experience is invaluable. One potential pitfall for beginners, however, is that a lack thereof won’t always stop them from getting a job – even in cases where they could end up struggling.

“People often hire cheaper translators without looking up how much experience they have, then a few projects down the line they contact me to fix their mistakes,” says Beatriz. “When I get the document, I say wow – this is a very complex text! I’ve never done a translation in an area I haven’t worked in.”

What are the best personal qualities to have?

There are a number of personal qualities that are common to the best translators, but the ability to manage time effectively and commit oneself to the job at hand are perhaps the two most prevalent. “When a big project comes in, I make sure I have no family commitments,” says Beatriz. “I start looking at documents as soon as I take a job and work out how long it will take me, then I add to the time for things going wrong.”

Martyn agrees: “When you accept a job, you accept that you’ll have to work long hours to get it finished. You know that’s going to happen – it should never come as a surprise. As a translator, I manage my time more than I ever did when I taught.”

Both translators agree that having to burn the midnight oil is simply in the nature of the work. For those who want to work nine to five every day, translating might be a poor career choice. There are positives, however – as Martyn puts it: “I have more free time because I create more free time.”

Beatriz concurs: “It gives you more freedom in the long term. But you have to be prepared to let everything go and focus on your work. That means not counting hours – I don’t care if you’ve had lunch or slept!

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