Deciding upon translation as a profession

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Though having knowledge of two or more languages may be enough reason to decide upon translation as a profession, this decision must be made carefully. There is more to translation than just knowing more than one language and being able to communicate the meaning of a source-language text through an equivalent target-language text. In other words, there is more to translation than meets the eye.

This article describes the most common reasons for deciding on translation as a profession and the requirements professional translators should meet if they want to succeed in the translation industry.

Starting points

There are several reasons why someone would decide to become a translator or an interpreter. Knowing a second language is both a requirement and a reason, and from this, other reasons may come into play:

  • Having lived abroad and learned the language and the culture(s) behind that language.
  • Having been raised by parents with different native languages.
  • Having taken a language course.

It is important to note that when deciding upon translation as a profession, having taken a translation course is not a requirement but a possible next step.

Knowing two or more languages is probably the first requirement a translator-to-be must fulfill. The understanding of a second language gives access to another culture, a culture that needs to be known and understood by the translator if s/he wants to become a successful professional service provider.

Living abroad in a country that uses the second language to be learned is perhaps the most effective way to learn not only the language but also the context in which such language is used, and that gives shape and meaning to that language.

However, while some people may think that there is no other way to learn a culture than experiencing the culture (i.e. living in that culture), there are actually other ways to get in contact with the customs and the realities of a given country. For instance, being raised by parents with different native languages can also lead to a deep understanding of the language and its culture, provided parents effectively transmit their customs to the child.

And, of course, taking a language course is another way of not only learning a language but also some of the aspects of the culture(s) in which such language is used.

Career need

Having learned a language and its culture may be enough reason to decide upon translation as a profession. Someone with a second language knowledge and in search of a professional career may see in translation a door to professional development. After all, being a professional translator has its benefits, including the possibility to be your own boss and to keep learning and continuously improving.

Career change need

For some professionals working in other fields (engineering, teaching, marketing, etc.), translation may represent an opportunity to move from one professional career to another. This movement may be driven by a strong taste for language(s) and different cultures, the need to change routines or an economic need.

In addition, the specific knowledge these professionals may have acquired before jumping into translation will certainly help them when deciding on a field of specialization in translation. In fact, there is a good number of professional translators with a degree or a diploma in other areas. It is this knowledge and experience in other fields that will help these professionals develop in the translation business.

Economic need

From an economic point of view, translation may be a second option for those in need of an extra income --or a better one. Starting a new job can be scary. However, translation as a profession gives the possibility to explore a new source of money with minimum investment (many translators started their professional career with only a personal computer and Internet service).

In the long run, with time, effort and money investment, those in need of a new job or income can see in translation the possibility to develop not only financially but also professionally.

The professional translator checklist

Though knowing a second language and its culture, and having a need, may be enough reasons to decide on translation as a profession, professional translators-to-be should know that there are other, more professional requirements they should fulfill if they want to be successful.

The following is a checklist of the characteristics a professional translator should have. Those willing to become professional translators are recommended to check these requirements and make sure they meet them or, at least, that are willing or able to meet them.

Translators are language-lovers

Learning a language does not mean loving that language or languages in general. Loving a language means enjoying to read, speak, write, and think in that language very well, and being passionately interested in the culture and customs of the countries in which such language is used.

If you are interested in making friends that use the language you love, listening to them, their experiences and their realities, reading texts and books not only on the grammar and the syntax of that language but also on the history, the geography and the culture behind that language (newspaper articles, blog posts, even advertisements), and texts written in that language, then you have become that language's lover and you meet the first requirement to become a professional translator.

Translators are writers

Professional translators do not only transmit the meaning of a source text via a target text, they also write this new target text, they create a new piece of writing appropriately adapted to the target audience in style and register.

If you possess remarkable writing skills and you enjoy writing as a means of communication, then you meet the second requirement to become a professional translator.

Translators are avid readers

Reading whatever they found in front of their eyes --or glasses-- is something professional translators do, specially if it is written in their target language. But translators do not read because they have nothing better to do. Translators read because they love learning. Texts are for professional translators the best meal for their brains.

So, if you ever found yourself lost in reading, while in traffic, taking a bath, waiting for the train or the bus or even while walking or sleeping, then you meet one more of the requirements to be a professional translator.

Translators are researchers

Even when professional translators are curious, they know that it is not possible for them to know it all. So, they make sure they keep a few tricks under their sleeves, tricks they call 'resources'.

For professional translators there is no term that cannot be translated though, even if the term was invented five minutes ago. Translators will make use of every resource at their disposal to find the right translation, to render the best version they can of a source word in a target language. Dictionaries, glossaries, translation websites, fellow translators, anything would do if a translator encounters a word s/he has not heard before or a word s/he is not sure how to translate.

So, if, when one of your friends or relatives asks you "How do you say "this" in...?", you are the type of person that, instead of being annoyed, you enjoy the opportunity you are being given to spend hours searching and investigating, then you meet the fourth requirement to be a professional translator.

Translators are critics

While it is true that professional translators will make their best to render an excellent piece of text in the target language, they are also extremely analyst and perfectionist. For them, the perfect translation does not exist and any text --either original or translation-- can always be improved.

But this perfectionism does not only apply to their own translations. Professional translators, precisely the ones that love the language, will usually expect the same level of adequacy from those around them. So, if you are one of those that cannot help correcting the grammatical or syntactic mistakes others make, then you meet one of the most important characteristics professional translators have.

Translators are service providers on call

Professional translators, and also interpreters, are service providers on call. This means that they may not have weekends, nights or full meals. This does not mean they do not have their own personal lives, of course. But it is extremely important, specially for freelance translators, to have great organizational skills if they want to enjoy both their professional and their personal lives.

If you consider yourself an organized person, capable of having a personal life around a demanding --but great-- professional one, then you meet another requirement to become a professional translator.

Translators are collaborators

Networking and collaboration are two activities a translator should engage in on a regular basis. Meeting and sharing with colleagues and with potential clients can lead to other jobs, get translators out the hook whenever they need help with a project or with the translation of a tough term and is fun.

Professional translators meet and group in translation websites, social networks, translator associations, educational institutions and translator events such as conferences and workshops. This helps them create a network of trusted colleagues and be up to date with translation community tendencies.

If you like sharing your knowledge and acknowledge that sometimes you may need help from others --and do not hesitate to ask for it-- then you meet one more of the requirements to become a professional translator.

Translators are managers

Professional translators are also managers. This entails managing their time, their projects, their revenue and even their publicity. Receiving a project offer, accepting, completing and delivering it is a very small percentage of the tasks a professional translators must perform if they want their business to succeed.

Here, organizational skills are also extremely important. Professional translators must make decisions regarding their translation business constantly, including the rates they will charge for their services, the tax practices they will adopt, the means they will use to promote their services, the amount of money they will invest in translation and other computer software as well as in training, the amount of money they will save for times in which translation assignments may decrease.

If you see yourself as a person that can act as both a professional and your own boss, then you have another characteristic professional translators have.

Translators are professionals

Professional translators are expected to be professional when doing business and in their endeavors. Professionalism in translation entails representing credentials, capabilities and experiences honestly, accepting only assignments that they have the knowledge, resources and time to do well, treating all sensitive information as confidential, taking any and all steps necessary to ensure consistent delivery of work of a high professional standard, doing everything possible to meet agreed-upon terms, even when unforeseen problems are encountered and striving to continually improve skills.

If you endorse these professional guidelines, then you meet one of the most important requirements professional translators meet.


If you are thinking of becoming a professional translator, or if you have just made your decision and you are about to get started in the translation business, make sure you run the translator checklist first:

  • [ ] I am a language-lover.
  • [ ] I am a writer.
  • [ ] I am an avid reader.
  • [ ] I am a researcher.
  • [ ] I am a critic.
  • [ ] I am a service provider on call.
  • [ ] I am a collaborator.
  • [ ] I am a manager.
  • [ ] I am professional.

If you do not meet any of these requirements yet, ask yourself whether or not you would be willing to do whatever it takes to meet them. If you would, then you are ready to get started in the translation business!

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