February, 2010 update…
Since I work for a language services company, I often get asked whether we are hiring translators. I don’t mind the question. We’ve all had to hunt for work, and these days far too many people are without it. However I’ve found that roughly 90% of those who inquire are not qualified to be translators or interpreters. Being bi-lingual is an excellent skill, but as ESPN analyst Lee Corso would say, “Not SO fast, my friend!”
Fluency in another language means being able to comprehend, speak, read, and write in that language at the level of an educated native speaker. Being fluent is only the first step in becoming a professional translator or interpreter. Like any other profession, it requires practice, experience, and training. There’s no one path to success, but here are some good guidelines:
Step 1: Get Certified
The first thing I tell people who want to know how to become a translator is to get some sort of accreditation or certification. Having credentials provides documentation that you have the skills required to translate or interpret professionally. Many universities offer advanced degrees and professional certifications in translation, and we have a separate post dedicated to the subject: Top 10 U.S. Translation Schools.
Want to be a translator? The American Translator’s Association offers certification programs for translators. Want to be a judicial or medical interpreter? Organizations such as the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators and the International Medical Interpreters Association offer certifications as well. Finally, check to see if your state offers accreditation programs for translators / interpreters.
Being certified through one of these organizations is also helpful because you will be listed on their website directories, where potential clients requiring your services can find you. Overall, certification may not be required to be a successful translator or interpreter, but if you’re starting out in this industry, it is the best place to start.
Step 2: Get Tested
Another resume builder is to take language proficiency tests such as the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) or other language proficiency tests to show potential clients that you are indeed fluent in your specific language.
Shameless Plug Alert: we also offer language proficiency tests here at ALTA.
Step 3: Gain Experience
The next step is to gain experience. All of us have had to start out doing internships or working entry-level jobs in order to climb the ladder, and the language industry is no exception.
If you’re enrolled at or live near a college, take classes in translation / interpreting and look for opportunities to perform translation or interpreting work on campus for various departments. It is crucial to get experience where you can show samples of your work to potential clients and get recommendations.
Step 4: Market Yourself
After getting credentials and some experience, it’s time to market yourself to law firms, police stations, hospitals, government agencies, and language agencies that may need translators or interpreters in your area. Most translators / interpreters work for clients on a contract basis, not as full time employees. A great way to market your services is to start a website or blog and join the active community of online language professionals.
Also, make sure you have your resume and rates ready! The best indicator that an aspiring translator or interpreter is not a professional is when they have no idea what their rates should be! If you don’t know what rates to charge, call other interpreters and translators and find out what theirs are.
Step 5: Keep Learning!
As you progress as a translator / interpreter, there are other areas to consider as well. What specialized industry or industries can you translate or interpret for? Do you keep up with industry terms and trends? Are you computer savvy and knowledgeable regarding translation memory software? Can you provide simultaneous as well as consecutive interpreting? If you have had success as a translator, maybe you could consider diversifying and becoming a certified court or medical interpreter.
Overall I hope I have not discouraged anyone from becoming a translator or interpreter. My purpose here is to provide a helpful guide to entering this highly competitive industry.
Below are some links to articles about what it’s like to be a professional translator, and the paths others have taken to success. Good luck!
Paths to Success in Translation
What it’s like to be a translator
Interview with Translator, Mary Maloof-Fleck
Interview with Translator and Interpreter, Aaron Maddox
ProZ Translator Resources
Top 10 U.S. Translation Schools