young girl writing on a pad

Learning languages from an early age favors language assimilation. However being bilingual does not necessarily make you a translator.

Something all translators share, even before they become translators, is a passion for languages. In time, they will become more or less successful translators. Surely this passion for languages will be reflected in a fluency in at least two languages, perhaps from birth. But not all bilinguals love languages (it is a “given” to them). Some of the best translators are those who have studied and learnt languages. A deep knowledge and mastery of expression in one’s own mother tongue, in my opinion, is the first prerequisite. Nevertheless, a passion for languages really is one the first requirements. Nobody likes to work in a profession he/she does not enjoy. So here’s some tips to become a successful translator, although many other elements are necessary.

1. Learn to meet strict deadlines

Translation is somethign that happens AFTER somebody has written something. Typically, that person will be in a rush to get the translation done and publish the content quickly. Whether it is a novel, a marketing brochure, a birth certificate or a speech, it will be required fast, very fast… mostly…yesterday!

2. Prepare for boring translations – they will be your bread and butter

People who have a passion for languages also tend to love reading, mostly literature. This will help you to become a good translator.  If you have searched this content and are reading these lines, you  probably are the kind of person who loves to curl up with a good paper or electronic book at the night time. However, when it comes to translation, translating fiction or literature does not happen very often. It is a fact that most professional translators never get to translate novels or fiction in their lifetime, at least as “paid” work. Works of fiction that need translation are usually dealt with by a combination of university teachers (for top intellectual novelists) or specialist translators who specialize in an author’s work even by in-house translators at publishing houses.
If spending days translating funny books or works of art was your aim to start with, I can safely say that you will find the vast majority of translation work really “boring”. Translators typically earn a living by translating reports, undertaking technical translation, legal documents, terms and conditions, contracts, certificates, business correspondence… In the case of audiovisual translators, pressure down and fast time-to-market make it a less than desirable area to enter. Indeed, there are many scripts with celebrities that need translation services, but I hope this was not one of your reasons for you to go into audiovisual translation. Again, the majority of audiovisual translators will spend their time working on speeches, training videos, seminars and meetings. So my advice is to specialize soon into a field (software, legal, technical , pharmaceutical, etc) and learn the terminology and what is happening in the field so you can understand and become familiar with the subject. It will make your life much easier and you will enter the market and position yourself much quicker.

3. Machine Translation is not your enemy – use it

Honestly, it is not. If you are a recent graduate, machine translation is something you probably grew up with. Use it to your advantage (and tell your clients you are willing to do post-editing). Confidentiality clauses apply!

4. Free translation? Only for friends, fools and family

Just like a mechanic will be asked by friends and family to have a look at the car, the engine or anything wrong with a vehicle, and computer specialists tend to the point of reference for all things Internet, email, and laptops when things go wrong, translators will be asked by friends and family for free translation of a letter or document in their free time. I have met companies whose marketing brochures had been translated this way…. They would never think of asking a relative or aficionado to take care of their website or design a brochure, but it seems that languages, words (foreign words, that is) are…. well, cheap. A favor is a favor of course, but do not over do it. There are internships where you can gain experience and surely there will be times when you are the only bilingual in the room or office or the family and you need to do translation or interpreting work. If you a put in this position, approach it as if it was a real-life job. Anything goes wrong and you will be tagged for life!!

OK, so you may be dealing with boring texts during your career a translator. Anyway, the same can be said for many supposedly interesting professionals. Obviously, it just depends on how you define interesting: you will surely learn many things that you would not know otherwise by taking on machinery and technical translations, medical translations, etc.  Interesting does not mean exciting. For a professional, a text may be challenging or intellectual, and that is what should make it.