Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Questions from an aspiring translator (or interpreter)

I've just received the following message, and since I think that it might be of interest for other aspiring translators, I'm positing here my answers to this person who is considering translation (or interpretation) as a future profession:

I'm interested in interpretation and translation. I was looking on your website and wondered if you could take a few moments to answer some questions:

Q. How realistic is it to expect to make a living with interpretation/translation? 

A. Perfectly realistic. I've been working full time in translation since 1985 (so, 27 years now - how time flies!). My wife also, after a career as an engineer, switched to translation and has been a full time translation for the past fourteen years. I know many people with successful full-time careers as translators or interpreters. Bear in mind, though, that my view may be skewed, as I tend to associate mostly with other translators, and I might have lost track of other people who started out as translators (or interpreters), but then abandoned the field.

Q. Is it difficult to find full time employment in either field?

A. Yes. Most translators who work as translators (or interpreters who work as interpreters), do so as freelancers. There still are, however, some companies who have a translation department with staff translators, and of course many translators and interpreters are employed by international organizations, most notably the European Union (and other European organizations).

Q. Do opportunities and pay increase with education (such as obtaining a Masters or PhD) in either field?

A. Yes, though it also depends on which subject the Master or PhD was earned in. Bear in mind that a PhD is mostly useful if you are pursuing an academic career.

Q. Would combining a degree in interpretation/translation with a major in another program be beneficial to my success?

A. It certainly would - a key to success in translation (and interpretation) is knowing what you are translating

Q. If you could go back in time, would you still go into interpretation/translation?

A. Sure: it's been a very rewarding career.

Q. Would you recommend this field to someone just starting out?

A. Yes... but with two provisos:

  1. Translation (and allied fields) are increasingly dependent on technology (computer assisted translation tools, etc.). This career is no longer suitable for technophobes (if it ever was).  
  2. Since most work opportunities are as freelancers (and I don't see this changing any time soon, if at all), you need to be the kind of person who is able to work on your own. You also need to learn what "being in business" really entails (but see my book recommendations below).

Q. Is there any other information that you think a prospective student should know about the fields?

A. I can highly recommend three books, to start with: How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, by Corinne McKay, The Entrepreneurial Linguist, by Judy and Dagmar Jenner, and The Prosperous Translator, by Chris Durban.

A final consideration, perhaps unrelated to your questions: many people seem to think this is a career suitable for part-timers. I strongly believe that, in most language combinations, this is definitely not so – becoming a good translator or interpreter requires a very significant investment in time and study.


  1. I have been a free-lance translator and interpreter for 17 years, but I don't think I would choose this career again. When I started out, it was all very exciting and rewarding, but in the very recent past it's getting more and more frustrating. At least where I live, interpreters and translators are looked down upon, as "everybody speaks English" and it's been my experience that at meetings with interpreters, interpreters' services were not used.
    On the other hand, translation agencies in Central and Eastern Europe dominate the market & push rates down to ridiculous levels. Maybe we just lack proper professional associations and representation, but I'm sceptical.
    Maybe it also depends on the language pair, but then again, as I say, people here think that English is the only option for anybody anyway.

  2. Thanks for the honest replies. I am starting out as a translator, but I've been doing it for a year and I have heard lots of good feedback. The biggest thing, however, seems to be maintaining high levels of quality. I know from my little experience that maintaining quality is hard work - how do you keep the levels of quality as high as possible at all times?

  3. This is a very interesting and also very inspiring post. I work as a translator and assistant for an American law firm, but there is great reluctance in turning that into a specific in-house position, with no duties other than translation. From their perspective, it's not worthwhile, as they can have documents sent out and charge the translation costs to the client's account. I would love to dedicate myself more to translation full-time, and hope to be in a position to do so soon, as I agree that it does require full-time commitment to the profession. As for the quality issues, as long as you can find serious agencies and clients who understand the importance of extra time, wherever possible (not easy, I know...), it's easier to provide a higher, consistent quality. CAT tools definitely help with that, too.

  4. It was really interesting to read this! I receive sometimes this kind of emails, but to be honest I could not answer them so much to the point...

  5. MUHAMMAD ASGHARSunday, June 24, 2012

    I would like to answer this question:

    How realistic is it to expect to make a living with interpretation/translation?

    After having multiple traffic accidents and becoming semi disabled, I started this career to earn livelihood for my family because I was confident, I would make it due to my grip over my native language (Urdu). After spending about seven (7) years in this profession, I can say that it was not a bad decision as I am living a content and easy life now. I do recommend this profession to those who feel they are good at it and can make their place after facing the incresimg competetion in this field.

  6. I also would like to add my kudos for a very interesting post. We are a translation agency that primarily hires freelance translates for a variety of languages and have found the freelance market very demanding (for the freelancers).

    I may also note that there are a lot of translator "hacks" out there passing themselves off as professional translators, but really appear to have limited skills in LOTE.

  7. I must give you major props for being completely honest in your responses to all the translation-related queries. It will be very helpful to novice translators.


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