The need for translators has never been greater.
But how do you become one, exactly? Do you need to be fluent in more than two languages? How many books, TV shows and movies do you need to consume before people will consider you “ready” for the job? And how do you even get a translation job in the first place?
So many questions. Fortunately, we have some answers.
Read on as we explore the various steps you can take to build a successful career in translation.
- The education and training you need
- Building a portfolio
- Networking for success
- Finding work as a translator
- Navigating the business side of translation
Qualifications and training to work as a translator
Just like a skyscraper towering over most buildings in the city, it's crucial for a successful translator to have a solid foundation. As Giada Atzeni, an English-Spanish-Italian translator, interpreter, and post-editor for various industries such as orthopedics, marketing, cosmetics, and religion puts it:
“Studying in order to become a translator is crucial, just as with other jobs. Even if some people think that knowing a foreign language is enough to be a translator, it's not true. I think a translation degree is necessary, then doing other courses to choose your specialization sector is also important. Specializing and finding your niche makes you stand out from the crowd. Of course, you also have to remember your CPD (continuous professional development) in order to hone your skills and be prepared for the new tendencies of the market. Also, you may want to do a course because you'd like to add another sector to your specializations. In any case, CPD is another characteristic of a good translation professional.”
That in mind, look for programs that provide a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical experience, such as internships or opportunities to take on small translation projects. Additionally, attaining certifications and joining associations such as the American Translators Association or the Chartered Institute of Linguists can provide credibility and demonstrate your expertise to potential clients. Consider pursuing these certifications and joining industry associations to improve your skills, broaden your knowledge, and network with other professionals in the field.
To be clear—just knowing a different language often isn’t enough to translate something well. Translation is more than simply understanding a text. The nuances of the target-language text must be replicated so naturally in your native language that whoever is reading the translation won't feel like they're reading a translation. That’s more difficult to do than most people think. Car manuals, academic papers, fiction, medical documents and financial reports are all written with different “voices”— it’s up to the translator (you, in this case) to be good enough of a writer to recognize and recreate those nuances comprehensively and accurately. Relevant real-world experience is a major asset for aspiring translators, since it means you will likely have first-hand experience with the documents you're translating and with how people in that industry talk.
Building your translation portfolio
Once you feel like you have a solid foundation under you—whether that comes from an educational program, volunteer work, or freelance projects—building a strong portfolio is the next task on the list. Your portfolio is a place to showcase your language skills and your expertise in various subject areas.
A translator's portfolio should include samples of their work and highlight their proficiency in both the source and target languages. It should also be tailored to the target audience by featuring translations relevant to their industry or area of interest. While you won’t have much to work with at first, remember that your portfolio isn’t necessarily a place to keep track of everything you’ve ever done. Include only your best works or things that are similar to the projects you're hoping to find. Relevance matters: a portfolio that’s excellent for a legal translator might be terrible for a translator of fiction!
For instance, say that a company wants to expand their e-commerce platform to the international market. If you were trying to win them as a potential business partner, you might consider showing them a portfolio that highlights your expertise in website creation, marketing, localization, and (of course) the target country's local language. This might mean showing off a webpage that you’ve previously worked on, your credentials as a web page developer and language expert, experience in the marketing field, etc.
This same approach can be applied to any field you're interested in getting involved with. In the entertainment industry, for instance, overseas media is becoming more accessible to general audiences. If reading/watching content is a hobby or personal interest of yours, consider seeking out and joining fan-driven communities for translators and creators. In addition to connecting you to a community of like-minded individuals (who might have industry connections!), this will also let you accumulate translation experience for your portfolio.
Networking for success as a translator
Networking is perhaps one of the strongest weapons in a translator's arsenal. It helps you connect with potential clients, collaborators, and industry experts. Building and maintaining a strong network also helps you to stay up-to-date with industry trends, to gain valuable insights into the market, and to expand your client base.
Some of the ways to build your network include attending industry conferences, joining professional associations, participating in online forums, and reaching out to industry professionals through social media platforms like LinkedIn.
Become a translator: Finding work
As with any position in any industry, there are many different types of translation jobs available. Understanding the different types of translation work commonly done will help you to identify which direction best suits your skills and interests. Once you've figured out which specialization you’re most interested in, start looking for job openings. Freelance websites such as Upwork and Fiverr are an easy place to get started, but as you gain more experience, you’ll likely want to consider taking an in-house translation job with a company or seeking out more specific translation projects on job boards/social media.
The most important thing is to be proactive—in the beginning, you’re probably going to have to go out of your way to showcase your skills and expertise. You might consider offering your services to non-profit organizations or offering an initial discounted rate to help attract potential clients. And, finally, make sure to communicate effectively with clients and deliver high-quality work within the agreed timeline. It’s important to build a good reputation. Even if somebody doesn’t have a second project to give you, they might recommend you to industry peers or serve as a reference later on.
One of my business partners worked as a freelance translator for a year. The beginning was the most difficult part—she wasn’t getting a lot of work, and she never knew when the next project would come in. Having said that, she ended up having more work than she could handle by the end of the year! Important to note is that most of that work was coming from just two people.
- An editor at one company was very impressed with her work and thus shortlisted her as someone to contact for future translation projects
- She became good friends with a much more experienced translator, and this translator would occasionally recommend her (my business partner) for particular jobs if she (the translator) was too busy to handle them herself
That in mind, networking and maintaining relationships is key! You never know where your lucky break is going to come from.
Navigating the Business Side of Translation
Being a translator is a lot like running your own business: you're your own boss, you pick the work you do and don’t do, and you make your own decisions about your rates and availability. Many of us love that, but it does mean that you have to figure a lot of things out by yourself.
First, set rates that reflect your experience, education, and the type of work you are doing. You can research industry rates or seek advice from more experienced translators to determine your prices. Creating a business plan and setting goals are also critical to maintaining focus and achieving success. This could include identifying your target market, defining your niche, setting financial targets, and outlining a marketing strategy for your brand. Ultimately, you want to make a name for yourself as being good at solving a specific type of problem.
We want to highlight that, for most people, it won’t be enough to simply take random jobs. In the initial stages you've got to do what you've got to do, and there's no way around that—but for long term success, you'll eventually want to specialize.
Eman Abdo, a translator, localization & transcreation English-Arabic specialist, shares how she goes about communicating with clients and then maintaining the relationship after a project:
“I always say that communication is key. For me, I always explain everything whenever I start working on a project. I ask all the necessary questions and understand the nature of the project and all the requirements. Managing difficult situations could be less stressful if the translator is proactive and communicative as some clients may not understand the whole picture. So, patience is key in such cases. Maintaining good relationships is essential and it could be done in different ways depending on the client’s culture. For example, sending emails wishing them well during the holidays or simply thanking them after working on a long-term project.”
In my years of experience in the market, I’ve come to have a few insights into the process of starting and maintaining a professional translation service.
I saw a need for accessible, reliable business translation services—but, at that time, there wasn’t a solution available that offered all of the benefits I was looking for: high quality, but with an affordable price and reasonable turnaround times.
I decided to fill in this opportunity myself.
I dove headfirst into learning everything I could about the language industry and what went into providing professional translation services. During this process, I started to provide a range of translation and language services that targeted different specialties, from marketing and medical documents to localization and interpretation—all using a multilingual customer-centric model.
It took 3 years before Tomedes became profitable. My business was initially a one-man show, and I used the lean-approach as my business model. That worked well—it’s still the model we use, even at Tomedes’ current scale.
Admittedly, it was a lot of work for one person. But in exchange, the translators that I joined hands with got the power to determine their work-life balance. They could also be sure that they’d only work on the projects that interest both them and the client, and, of course, that they'd be handsomely paid for their efforts.
Starting a successful career in translation requires a combination of education, training, networking, and business acumen. It's not for everyone, but with dedication, hard work, and perseverance, I really believe anyone can build a successful career in translation. It's a job that offers cultural exchange and the opportunity to broaden your horizons, so take the chance while it's still here.
Translation might just be the calling that you've been searching for.