I’ve received the following message (slightly edited to hide the author’s identity) from an aspiring translator.
I'm an aspiring translator; I've across many websites stating that Italian is in demand. Is this true? Also in your opinion, is it necessary to speak a language fluently even though translation deals with reading and writing? Is it absolutely necessary to live abroad for several years to become a translator? Can I add languages just by learning to read and write in those languages?
I’m sharing my answers in this post, in case other beginning translators might find them useful.
- I'm currently learning French but I've across many websites stating that Italian is in demand. Is this true?
- Is it necessary to speak a language fluently even though translation deals with reading and writing?
Yes, although, if you do not plan to become an interpreter, it doesn't hurt too much if you don't acquire a perfect accent in your foreign languages. A professional translator only translates from a source language into his or her native language.
The proficiency you have to gain in your source language is the same as in your native language: a precondition for becoming a translator is to be able to read and understand one or more foreign languages just as well as your native one. You need to be able to understand all subtleties of the language you work with, all cultural references - just as if you were a native speaker of that language. Only then, you'll be able to convey what the foreign language says (and what it implies) into your native language.
- Is it absolutely necessary to live abroad for several years to become a translator?
No, but it is necessary to live and study abroad long enough to become thoroughly fluent in the foreign language. How long that may be, depends on your knowledge before going abroad, the quality of the courses you follow there, and your innate language-learning skills. Plan to spend at least several months abroad for each foreign language you study.
- Can I add languages just by learning to read and write in those languages?
You need to become fluent in your working foreign languages, and that includes learning to write with ease in all your working languages. Although as a translator you won't translate into the foreign language, you must be able to communicate with customers who only write and speak that language.
Finally, something you don't mention, but that is nonetheless essential: your knowledge of your own native language.
A translator is a writer, and must be able to write his own native language with correctness, clarity, subtlety and grace. In many respects, in fact, a translator's task is more difficult than a writer's: a writer can go where he pleases, and perhaps in doing so he can avoid his own weak points. A translator also is a writer, but he must follow a predetermined path, taking in stride all the obstacles the author scattered along that path, either on purpose (the subtleties of the original), or by chance (where the author failed and wrote obscurely where he should not have done so).
If you are interested in becoming a translator, I recommend you enroll in a good university-level translation program. The best in the States is offered by the Monterey Institute of International Studies, but there are also good programs elsewhere, including several offered online (among these, the program offered by the University College of Denver University, where I teach).