A professional translator’s job is not as easy as it may look. Bilingual dictionaries, glossaries, the internet at one’s fingertips, an innate curiosity and love of learning, as well as mastery of both the source and target languages are not enough to become a self-styled professional.
Depending on their chosen speciality areas, an aspiring translator needs several hundred hours of practice, subsequent certification (in some cases), and then quite a bit of experience before they feel ready to tackle certain topics.
A person who speaks two languages, even at native level
This is certainly a prerequisite; however, this alone is not enough.
A student of languages
They may be on their way to becoming a translator (though they may choose a different path), but they cannot be called professional translators. Not at this stage anyway.
A teacher of languages
Teaching and translating require different sets of skills. Sure, a translator can also be a teacher (I have done that), but that does not mean that all teachers of languages can translate. The opposite is also true: not all translators can be teachers.
While the two professions are similar in more ways than one, and a lot of translators are also interpreters, they require different skill sets.
A dictionary 🙂
Some people assume that a translator knows all the words in their language pair and two of the questions we get asked frequently is: ‘What does … mean?’ or ‘How do you say…..?’, to which we invariably answer ‘It depends on the context.’
In order to be a professional translator, one must be ready to put in a lot of hard work, be ready to face challenges, and keep investing in their continuing professional development.
If a person is merely doing translations on a casual basis, the work must also be of such nature that it does not have a potentially serious impact on the audience. When it comes to life and death matters, accuracy is paramount. A few years ago, a Chinese pharma company exported an over-the-counter drug to the US that listed the wrong ingredient due to a translation error.
Working out the instructions on a lawn mower might not need a professional translator, but anything more important than that will warrant hiring a professional. In fact, if you don’t want the service warranty on your mower to be voided, don’t even do that!
The right way to go about becoming a professional translator is… well, there isn’t necessarily a right way per se. One can take the translation studies route (Joseph Lambert and Caroline Alberoni both touched on this aspect on their blogs: The (un?)importance of translation-specific degrees to translation and Does an academic background really make a difference?), or have a totally different profession and later turn to translations, as some other translators have done, especially those working in very specialised fields like chemistry or medicine. According to our recent study on the translation landscape, 22% of freelance translators have a degree in a different field, and 16% a postgraduate degree in a different field.
Some countries require specific certifications for those who want to call themselves translators and work in this field. The UK does not. However, that doesn’t mean anyone can be a translator (regardless of what they might claim).
A professional is someone who does something for a living, who is committed to continuing professional development (CPD), who has the right skills (just knowing another language is not enough – I may be repeating myself, but it is the truth), who strives to find the right words, who understands the two cultures, who has excellent writing skills and the list can go on; so, until you make a career of it and are able to generate a monthly income from it, you are still an aspiring professional.
Before you embark on your long journey down The Language Highway, you need to do some forward thinking with respect to what kind of translation you’d be happy doing for the rest of your life. Some people thrive on translating about nuts, bolts, and shims (like my very talented fellow Romanian translator Elvira), others need something that gets their creative juices flowing.
If you want to specialise in marketing translations or if financial translations are your cup of tea, you need to make sure you understand the terminology. This is absolutely vital for those working in the legal or medical fields. Mistakes can be costly, but when it comes to areas like medicine or law, an accurate translation can make the difference between life and death.
Nowadays, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to CPD. If you are a member of a professional association (there are lots of reasons why you should join one), you have access to a range of high-quality training courses. There are plenty of CPD courses you can embark on – some even free, and the community of translators is a friendly one, so there will always be someone to help you. Webinars and courses are not the only ways to do CPD, you can read my post dedicated to continuing professional development for more tips. What you should never do: accept a translation job that is beyond your abilities. Not only will it take you longer to carry out, but doing a so-so job instead of a great one will have an impact on your reputation and subsequent assignments. Not to mention potential damage you might (involuntarily) be responsible for.
Being a professional is much more than just having a full-time translation job. Career progress is an important aspect of being a professional – one of the most important, in truth. Your work ethic is critical to this: unless you can behave like a professional, you will not be treated like one.
This is the only way to becoming a highly regarded professional translator, whether in-house or freelance.
If you think I’ve missed any points, feel free to add them in a comment below.