Looking for a Translator? Do Not Consider Me!

Why not? Considering me?I’m not qualified! Once someone finds out that I work in the translation industry, they often ask me if I’m a translator. I’m not. Definitely not. People scratch their heads about that because I have a master’s degree in Romance language linguistics. I was born in Peru, and have lived in Ecuador and Chile. I could maybe translate a recipe, game instructions, or a personal email…but not much else.

What does it take to be a translator, then?

Start With A Graduate Degree

Most translators have graduate degrees with titles such as translation, translation and interpretations, translation and localization management.  

The courses included in a master’s could have the following titles:

  • Translation theory
  • Translation CAT tools
  • Specialization (in a number of areas)
  • Cross-cultural communication
  • Introduction to software and website localization
  • Editing (which is a skill set different from translation)
  • The business of translation

There are many programs out there. Here is a sampling of programs in the United States:

  • The Monterey Institute of International Studies states that in their master’s program their students ‘learn to bridge language and cultural divides through the art of translation. Our graduates translate in a wide variety of fields including business, legal, medical and technical. We offer translation degrees in Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish.’

    Check out the program details, but first any interested party should know that Monterey’s program costs $53,000 per year.
  • NYU’s graduate program is less: about $34,000/year. This program: ‘delivers rigorous curricula that prepares you to become an effective professional translator by providing an in-depth overview of translation theory, while also addressing the more practical aspects of translation as applied to a variety of professional fields.’ But people without existing skill need not apply: there is an admissions test to show that the aspirant is qualified to start the path to earning your MA.
  • In comparison, the Denver University program is a surprising bargain at $25,000 per year.  This is an online degree, a masters plus a certificate in translation. Their program is Spanish-English only. This is what they have to say about it. ‘Translation certificate students will gain the knowledge and transferrable skills needed to become effective translators … and will gain a broad theoretical and practical background through translation studies, as well as practice in different types of translation (legal, commercial, financial, localization, political, and medical translation).’

All of these sound great, if a would-be translator can afford it. No one could deny that a graduate degree is a big investment.

What About a Certificate? 

While these are not required to enter the translation industry, some linguists seek industry-valued certificates in order to establish credibility and therefore get more work. Certificates also require investment of both money and time – but much less – though they alone do not qualify a bilingual to be a translator.

What About Specialization?

Different qualifications are required to translate specialized content such as software, marketing, medical/life sciences, legal, and user assistance materials. A generalist could not translate legal or medical material accurately; subject matter expertise is required. Gaining a specialization requires even more classes and certification. Yet a translator who specializes will get more work and possibly be paid more.

I’d recommend two specializations to broaden your chance of getting work. Students can take specialization classes within many master’s programs. It seems logical to have a couple specializations: I would recommend choosing one of personal interest and one that is in high demand. 

Why Would You Invest?

A translator and blogger named Lloyd Bingham talks about whether or not a would-be translator should pursue a master’s in his blog called “Mastering without Master’s”. Lloyd doesn’t really answer the question, but he garners a number of views. (He himself does not have a graduate degree, but he works as a full time translator for one company, focusing on a number of languages).

He wonders how his career would have turned out had he gone for the master’s, he recognizes that a master’s is the ideal way to begin a specialization, gain credentials, help you explore other related roles in the industry, and assist with job placement and/or access to internships. I would add that a master’s will help a translator differentiate themselves from the masses, and master’s may enable you to charge more. Lastly, a master’s degree will give the student professional confidence equivalent to several years of experience.

All that said, two of Bingham’s interviews put forward a key point: there are rubbish translators with a master’s, and excellent ones without one.  

Why, Again, Can’t You Just Be Bilingual?

Nataly Kelly sums this up very well, so I’ll go ahead and let her:

‘The ability to write in English does not make a person a professional writer. The ability to speak English does not make a person a professional speaker. Likewise, the ability to write or speak two languages does not mean that a person can translate or interpret. Plenty of people who are perfectly fluent in two languages fail professional exams for translation and interpreting. Why? Being bilingual does not guarantee that a person will be able to transport meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process.’ See the whole article here.

Education and experience aside, a fundamental qualification is that a hopeful needs to enjoy it and have his/her heart in it. Another is the ability to be creative and structured at the same time.

What qualifications do you think a professional translator should have?

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