Sunday, March 14, 2010

Answers to an aspiring translator

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?

For translation into English, Spanish, German, French and Italian are the main Western European languages. Studying a language depending on current demand is futile. Study a language because you feel attuned to it, or because you find it interesting and challenging, not because you suspect it might be in demand.
  • 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).


  1. Do you have any advice for where to find the best BA and MA Translation programs in Canada?

  2. I freely admit I'm not an expert on translation courses in Canada, but the following are some of the Canadian universities that offer courses in translation:
    Concordia University (Montreal), Glendon College, York University (Toronto), Université de Montréal, McGill University - Montreal, Université Laval, University of Ottawa.

  3. Thanks Riccardo!

  4. Italian in Demand??? I dont think so. FIGS are the primary pairs in the Translation Industry. Lots of work there for those languages!

    FYI... F - French, I - Italian, G- German and S- Spanish.

  5. Ricardo!! Do you agree my above comment ?

  6. Hi "Translation Agency",

    I think you contradict yourself: first you say that Italian is not in demand, then you mention that FIGS are the primary languages in the translation industry - since Italian is part of the FIGS languages, that is like saying that Italian is not in demand, but that it is... choose one or the other: you cannot have it both ways.

  7. I admire you having so much time to answer so many questions of aspiring translators.

    You can give them thousands of tips but they will not achieve success without strong will and hard work:)

  8. "they will not achieve success without strong will and hard work"

    On that, I completely agree!

  9. Is it just me or is not enough being done to guide those who want to start up the translation business (or any business) as far as actually establishing the necessary online presence is concerned?

    Correct me if I'm wrong but do we now live in an age where not having a PC with access to the Internet at home is unheard of? It's just that I'm not all that confident that you could trust in your local library to tell you certain simple, bald truths that are vital to helping to get a new start-up business off the ground in the modern world. Things like what you need to do to get an email account (and all the warnings against things like phishing that go with it); and we are not all born with the knowledge that having an email account does not require any subscription fees! There is not enough computers in my library. How confident could you be that your local library would be able to put you in touch with someone who is actually familiar with your business area of interest for what it is; someone you could actually meet face-to-face (on or off the premises) or via Instant Messaging services like Skype?

  10. Hi Georgetrail,

    I'm not sure what you mean by "establishing the necessary online presence", but I would certainly say that for a translator or aspiring translator having a PC at home with access to the Internet is an absolute necessity.
    And I agree with what you imply, that is, that not enough is taught to students of translation about the practical side of our profession, including such things as you mention (but do you really think that any student nowadays would have difficulty in getting an e-mail account)?

  11. Dear Ricardo,

    I followed your suggestion to visit the University College of Denver University and looked for information about getting a degree in translation however I could not find tuition information anywhere.

    I would really like to have formal training in translaton so I can be more prepared and be able to get more confidence in the field.

    Thank you for all the advice you have given us, I found them very useful.


    Elsa T.

  12. Hi,

    I know this question has already been asked to a degree but can you please clarify for me that I need to be fluent in a language at both reading & writing AND speaking & listening, before I can think about becoming a translator?

    I ask because my reading and writing skills are considerably better than my speaking and listening.

    Many thanks, Adam.

  13. Hi Adam,

    In my opinion, if you plan to be a translator (and not an interpreter), you speaking skills may be somewhat lower than your reading and writing skills, in the sense that you can still have a heavy accent in you B language, and that would be OK (you would still need to speak the language fluently, though).

    You listening skills, however, should be on a par with you reading skills: i.e., you should be able to understand someone speaking your source language just as well as a native speaker.

    This doesn't mean always be able to understand everybody, no matter what regional accent or dialect they speak - it means being as likely as a native speaker to be occasionally stumped.

  14. Hello Riccardo,

    I'm the guy who asked all these questions. I appreciate you doing this.

    This gives me a clearer view of what needs to be done. Being a translator is still my goal. However, the one thing that discouraged me from embarking on a career in translation was due to being told, and from information online, that I had to live abroad for several years to be a competent translator. I don't have the means to do that. I've traveled to many countries of my source language, which is Spanish, and have worked very hard to maintain and sharpen my Spanish. I studied abroad twice and I always took those opportunities to deepen my knowledge of the Spanish language. I didn't waste time.

    Now for French, I put that aside to focus more on Spanish. If I decide to continue to learn it as my third language I'll consider living in France or another French speaking country for a few months.

    Just out of curiosity Riccardo, what if living abroad is never an option? What if you just can't move abroad? Should you give up learning a third language? Would it be a waste of time to learn if you can never study abroad or live in that particular country for a short amount of time?

    Thanks again

  15. Hi Anonymous,

    Why should you give up learning a third language, even if living abroad is never an option? I think you are confusing learning languages and working with them. By definition, a third language is usually not one you work with very often: you work mostly from your B language into your A language most of the time, no matter if you do have or not a C language, a D language and so on.

    Learning a language well enough for it to be a working language (i.e., one from which you translate confidently) is certainly much easier if you can at least study abroad for a while - to learn how the native speakers actually use the language in day-to-day situations.


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