How to become a translator: all your questions answered

How to become a translator: all your questions answered

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 7, 2022

Looking for a career in languages? Alongside foreign services and the travel industry, becoming a translator is one of the top jobs for bilingual people and language lovers. But it takes a lot more than knowing two languages perfectly to build a successful career as a translator. The profession requires you to handle various terminology, skills and technologies, depending on the field or industry you’d like to be translating for. In some cases, you will even need to gain certification. Once you have the necessary degree, you’ll also need to decide whether to work as a freelancer or to find employment within a company. In our article, we review all the requirements to become a translator.

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What does a translator do?

Put simply, translators convert written texts from one language to another. This is what differentiates them from interpreters, who convert spoken words. While both need to be fluent in a foreign language, they each have to master the communication medium they use in their job. Another common requirement is for translators to translate from a foreign language to their own native tongue.

The various fields of translations

Translators may also need different skills according to the type of written content they translate. For instance, translating medical and legal documents requires very precise and accurate knowledge of the terminology, while marketing content often demands more creativity to ensure the translated copy follows brand guidelines in the new language, in particular when it comes to puns and cultural references. With the expansion of the Internet, more and more translators are also needed to translate website content to create a smooth customer experience for different markets. Then there is subtitling, which is gaining momentum with the advent of streaming services. While this particular realm of work requires specific technical skills, it’s a quickly growing source of work for translators.

Post-editing, a growing source of work for translators 

It’s also worth noting that machine translation is gaining traction, especially for certain types of content like customer reviews or product descriptions, for which large volumes of content may need to be translated almost instantly. As a consequence, post-editing has become a common task for translators, in order to ensure the copy is at least correct and understandable.

How to become a professional translator

Does this all sound appealing to you? Then here are a few steps you need to take in order to become a full-fledged translator.

Know your languages

That’s an obvious one. Unless you know a foreign language like English perfectly, you won’t be able to understand all the texts you have to translate. Equally important, you need to master your own mother tongue in order to exercise an extensive vocabulary range in a specific field or to be able to write appealing content.

Small tip: All great writers are also great readers. And the brain, like any muscle, needs practice. So it’s worth reading books and newspapers in your foreign language and in your mother tongue to keep your linguistic juices flowing.

Get a translator’s degree

Having a translator’s degree will always look good on your CV and help you get jobs. Even more importantly, such courses will allow you to learn the skills and the technology you need to become a professional translator. Whatever field you end up specializing in, it’s highly likely it will involve an advanced translation software (CAT tools: computer-assisted translation tools) to support you in translating content efficiently and accurately.

To help you get started, you may want to look at the selection of top translation schools in the USA from either the American Translators Association (ATA) or the ALTA Language Services.

Look into becoming a certified translator

This is slightly different from just getting a degree: In order to translate for certain organizations like the United Nations, you will first need to gain a specific certification on top of your degree. The same goes for certain fields, like the medical or the legal industries. 

What does the life of a translator look like?

You’ve done the hard work, learned a foreign language and got your translator’s degree. It’s time to get a career. One important aspect to consider is whether you’d prefer to work as a freelancer or as a full-time employee in a company.

Working as a freelance translator

Many translators work as freelancers for agencies. This gives them the opportunity to work remotely, at the hours they want. All you need is a computer with a good Internet connection. As long as you manage your time well in order to meet your deadlines and accept the usual ups and downs in workload, it’s a perfect job if you fancy yourself as a digital nomad.

It’s also a good opportunity if you’re starting as a translator: you can get a taste of translating for different agencies, clients and industries, to see which types you prefer. Many agencies will ask you to pass a test for free before recruiting you, so keep that in mind. 

Working as an in-house translator

Alternatively, you may also find work directly for a company, especially if you have some experience. Obviously, you may get a little less variety, but you will also get the usual benefits of working in a company: colleagues, regular hours and various benefits.

What does it take to become a translator?

Between the type of topics and industries you are interested in, the degrees and certification you need to gain and the type of employment that suits your needs, there are many factors to consider on how to become a successful translator. But before anything else, loving and mastering languages is the essential condition to becoming a translator.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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