A Perplexed Translator’s Guide to the MA in Translation Studies and DipTrans

Image of perplexed translator used on the article A Perplexed Translator’s Guide to the MA in Translation Studies and DipTrans

Written by Gwenydd Jones

Spanish-to-English translator and translator trainer

This article will help you find North when it comes to deciding between the MA in Translation Studies and the CIOL DipTrans.Are you thinking about getting a professional translation qualification but unsure about the best choice? Wander the Internet no further. You’ve found the consummate guide to the MA in Translation Studies and CIOL Diploma in Translation. Read on to have your bewilderment dispelled.

A post-graduate translation qualification is a positive outcome. A certificate to show potential translation clients. Letters after your name. A powerful CV. Authority. And when you think about having the DipTrans or an MA in Translation Studies, you think about the completed process, that certificate on the wall. So, you sign up for your course or exam or both and off you go on your merry journey into the qualifications sunset.

But wait a minute. The sun has set and risen again 365 times and you’re still in the process of qualifying. How many study hours did they say? Is this qualification I’m going for still relevant to my professional goals? What were those goals again? Am I here working on a Sunday? How much is this all costing me?

Yes translator, you’re right to be perplexed and hesitant. Signing up for a major post-graduate translation qualification like the MA in Translation Studies or CIOL DipTrans is a major career decision. Not only that, but the process of obtaining and finally having these qualifications will affect your life in the short and long term. I know this because I’ve done all three. Three? Yes, an MA in Translation Studies, the DipTrans (including two re-sits) and an MA in Legal Translation. Talk about walking in circles to find North.

That’s what led me to write this article. I’m going to share my experiences of getting MAs and the DipTrans to help you understand more about what you can expect to go through if you do them. This article will help you find North, so you can head off on the route towards the right translation qualification for you.

You’ll learn about the experience of deciding which one or ones to do. Then, what you experience while actually doing them. And finally, what you experience after completing them, both regarding employment and possible next steps in your career.

What you’ll find in this article

  1. Reasons for doing translation qualifications
  2. The basic difference between an MA and the DipTrans
  3. What to consider before you sign up
  4. MA in Translation Studies vs DipTrans: cost
  5. MA in Translation Studies vs DipTrans: time
  6. MA in Translation Studies vs DipTrans: difficulty
  7. What will you get out of the DipTrans?
  8. What will you get out of an MA in Translation Studies?
  9. Questions to ask when considering the DipTrans or an MA in Translation Studies
  10. Other qualification options for translators

Ready? Let’s go!

1. What are the reasons for doing translation qualifications?

There are lots of good reasons for doing translation-related qualifications. You can see them all on this pretty infographic that we made for you. You’re welcome!

Inforgraphic of reasons to do translation qualifications
Check out this cool infographic on reasons to do a translation qualification. #t9n #xl8. By @Gwenydd_Jones Click To Tweet

2. The basic difference between an MA in Translation Studies and the DipTrans

MA stands for Master of Arts. This is a post-graduate level 7 qualification issued by universities. It’s a comprehensive course that you attend in person or online. Over one or two years, you follow lectures and modules, you read and study and you’re assessed. When you complete the required work to the required standard, then you pass the course and you’re awarded your qualification.

Contrast that to the CIOL Qualifications Level 7 Diploma in Translation (known as the DipTrans for short). This is also a post-graduate level 7 qualification. It’s OFQUAL regulated and issued by the Chartered Institute of Linguists, London. Basically, it’s a three-part exam that takes seven hours to complete. You sign up, you go, you do the exam in one day and if you do it well enough then you pass and are awarded your qualification.

The two qualifications are therefore very different as regards content: the MA in Translation Studies is a course; the DipTrans is an exam. But they do have certain challenges in common. It’s important to think about these challenges and how you’re going to overcome them before you sign up for anything. That way, you can plan for success.

3. What to consider before you sign up

The DipTrans and MA have three challenges in common that you need to be ready to face.

1. They involve a financial investment.
2. They involve a time investment.
3. They involve a post-graduate level of difficulty.

The thing about these three challenges is that they seem less important when you’re considering them abstractly than when you’re actually facing them over a prolonged period. When I think back over the time I dedicated to obtaining these qualifications, I remember battling, especially towards the end, with motivation, time management and pressure. I wasn’t prepared for how tough it would be.

Financial strain

I worked full-time while doing my three post-graduate translation qualifications because I had to support myself. They were the source of major on-going financial strain because I had to either replace work time with study time or dedicate all my free time to study. When you’re working and studying all the time, it’s very difficult to reconcile so much work with the fact that you have no spare cash.

Time commitment

The time investment meant I lost evenings and weekends. I had to cancel plans with family and friends to put study first. This can get a bit depressing and lead to burn-out and so it’s important to plan ahead to make sure you stay on track and manage to get a break once in a while.


In terms of difficulty, the MA in Translation Studies is difficult because you have to learn about a broad range of aspects of translation theory and practice, read widely among academic papers, do research and produce your own papers, including a dissertation. If English is your second language then it’s even harder because you have to write essays in high-quality academic English.

The DipTrans is difficult because it’s a level 7 post-graduate exam. You have to give top performance for a gruelling seven hours with only paper dictionaries. It’s unrelenting, fraught with pitfalls and it makes you go blind. OK, that last part is a slight exaggeration, but I was definitely dizzy afterwards.

So, think before you act!

Owing to these three important considerations, it’s worth taking some time to think carefully about your goals to make sure the qualification you choose will help you attain them. By analysing your current abilities and future goals, it should start to become clear whether the best option for you is the DipTrans, probably combined with a DipTrans preparatory course like ours, or the MA in Translation Studies.

Whether you’re an experienced translator or new to the profession, consider where you currently are in your career and where you want to go. Consider whether or not there’s market demand for the qualification you’re interested in. Be honest with yourself about the money and time you can realistically invest. A careful and honest analysis will help you make sure you choose a qualification that will fulfil your current needs and take you in the right direction.

The rest of this article contains lots of information that will help you identify the best option for you.

Identify where you want your qualification to take you and what you’ll do once it’s complete.

4. MA in Translation Studies vs DipTrans: cost

Regarding cost, a little bit of on-line searching will tell you that the MA is considerably more expensive than the DipTrans exam. The costs of doing an MA are in the thousands or tens of thousands, depending on the university and country in question. You can see the current fees for doing the DipTrans exam on the CIoL website. At time of writing, the cost of sitting all three papers combined with the centre fee is around GBP 800.

Now for the costs that aren’t so obvious.

Lost work time

When I first started qualifying, I didn’t really factor in the cost of doing qualifications as lost work time. That was a mistake. If, like me, you’re a freelancer, you’ll know that we don’t get paid if we don’t work. Because of this, I view dedicating my working hours to another activity as a cost, as if I were spending the money I would have earned. So, when pricing up these qualifications, I recommend factoring in any time you’ll be unable to work as a cost.

Travelling costs

Studying online, as I did in my first MA in Translation Studies and in the DipTrans preparatory course that I did was considerably cheaper than physically attending classes. It was therefore a shock to my finances when I did my second MA in Legal Translation and had to fly from Seville to London several times.

Cost of failing

When you look at the prices for the DipTrans, you probably think that, while not cheap, it looks like an affordable one-off investment. But if you fail a paper, or two, or all of them, then you’ll have to keep shelling out for the re-sit or re-sits.

DipTrans preparatory course

Many people opting to do the DipTrans will take a preparatory course. A top-end course like ours is a training investment and that should be factored in as part of the cost of attaining the level to pass the exam.

Long-term investment

Once you’ve established the cost of getting these qualifications, you need to consider whether the qualification that you’re going to do will enable you to make that money back, and more, in the long-term.

I just mentioned the significant travel costs of attending the course for my MA in Legal Translation. But, as a long-term investment, attending that course in person meant that I made friends with other students. My new contacts led to new work opportunities over time and so I eventually covered the higher costs that way.

Beyond that plus, I find that there’s a lot of market demand for legal specialists in my language combination. Legal work currently represents at least 50% of my translation workload and I can charge more for it because it’s a specialist field. I therefore consider that MA to have been a wise long-term investment.

The MA in Translation Studies and the DipTrans also paid for themselves as a result of attracting more and better translation clients. And the combination of these three qualifications equips me to teach translation theory and practice and to prepare other translators for the DipTrans, which represents a separate income stream to my translation income.

Thinking about doing the DipTrans exam or an MA in Translation Studies. Read this first! #t9n #xl8. By @Gwenydd_Jones. Click To Tweet

5. MA in Translation Studies vs DipTrans: time

In terms of time investment, most MAs take one year of full-time study or two years studying part time. I had to postpone modules on two occasions, which lengthened the courses slightly for me. In both cases the universities were flexible, supportive and didn’t make me pay extra. It’s probably a good idea to check the university’s policy on this (and on paying for re-sits) before you sign up.

With the CIOL DipTrans, the Chartered Institute of Linguists offers the exam once a year in January. You have to sign up for it between May and August of the preceding year. Before you can do this, you have to find a centre where you can sit it. They’re available all over the world (more about this in a moment).

When I came to actually do these qualifications, I learned a few other things about time.

Preparation time

The DipTrans also requires preparation time. Depending on your needs and preferences, this could involve studying over a number of months, doing past papers or taking a DipTrans preparatory course. While it’s no secret that I think you should come and train with me on the Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation Course with DipTrans Preparation, I genuinely think that investing the time in doing a quality preparatory course is a smart move, whether it be with me or someone else, or me.

Travel time to get to a DipTrans exam centre

DipTrans examination centres are available all over the world. You can search for them here. Note that, while it may not appear on the CIOL website, you can also sit the exam at the British Council. This is important to remember because, at least for Spanish-to-English translators, they’ll let you sit the exam on a computer in Madrid.

There’s a limited number of options in each country and these are narrowed further if you want to do the exam on a computer (highly recommended). Unless you live in a capital city, you may need to travel some distance to do it. On my first re-sit I had to catch the AVE from Seville to Madrid to enable me to get up there to do the exam and return on the same day.

If you can’t get to a centre, speak to the CIOL because they work hard to enable everyone to have access to the exam and there may be options that aren’t advertised on their website.

Time pressure in the DipTrans

If you do all three DipTrans exam papers on the same day, you’ll have seven hours of intense examination. That’s hard going. You’ll also hit time pressure in each exam paper, particularly if you’re a developing translator. One reason why it’s a good idea to do a DipTrans preparatory course is to get professional assistance in refining your translation process to ensure you perform well within the time limit.

Time dedication to MAs

The time you can dedicate to an MA is endless. There’ll always be more to read, more to learn and some way to improve the essays or translations you’re submitting for assessment. The dissertation can go on forever and will become a monster if you don’t plan your time carefully. But, even with the best of planning, producing a top-quality dissertation takes a while. Some students fail to complete their MA for this reason. The university probably won’t give you your money back if you don’t complete. However, they might award a post-graduate diploma if you do the full master’s degree but don’t complete the dissertation or final project.

On a more positive note, you can do an MA and work full-time. I did it, twice. The challenge is that if you’re working full-time then the MA will consume all your free time. This will put strain on your own sanity and on any close relationships you might have. It was tough for my partner and I would imagine that it’d be especially difficult if you have children. I was nothing but impressed by the parents on the legal MA course that I did at City University. Some of them were combining the MA with working full time and flying over from Spain four times a year. They were incredible.

My advice in this regard would be to involve those close to you in the decision process to sign up for these qualifications. Make sure they understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it because it’ll affect them hugely and you’ll need their understanding and support.

6. MA in Translation Studies vs DipTrans: difficulty

Both the MA and DipTrans are post-graduate qualifications. This means that, in order to pass either of them, you’re expected to have a “postgraduate level of competence” (that’s a quote taken from the Chartered Institute of Linguists’ website).

Regarding the MA, to get on the course, universities will probably ask for a good bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject, such as languages. You have to have a high level of English because at least some of the course will be given in English and you’ll have to write essays and, probably, the dissertation in English. If you don’t have a graduate degree, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t let you on the course, but you may have to prove your abilities through an entry test or interview.

With the DipTrans, anyone can sign up for it, but the CIOL does give a clear warning that the exam tests professional translation skills at a post-graduate level. Candidates are advised to have skills in their source language that are at least equivalent to a good honours degree, as well as relevant cultural knowledge. That’s an absolute minimum.

Here’s my perspective on difficulty.

The DipTrans is easier if you have translation experience

I believe that if you’re an experienced professional translator then you have a good chance of passing the DipTrans. I’ve also worked with professional writers and editors who have prepared with me and managed to pass all three papers first time. If you don’t have any translation experience then you have less chance of passing all the papers first time. This is because, beyond being a test of language ability and cultural understanding, it’s a test of professional translation, editing and proofreading skills.

I want to tell you a little of my story here, to try to show you what I mean. But I’m tired of writing (and you probably need a break from reading). So, here’s a recording of my DipTrans story.

You can do an MA in Translation Studies without translation experience

Unlike the test situation of the Diploma in Translation, a master’s degree is a progressive learning experience. You don’t need to be a professional translator when you start doing an MA in Translation Studies because you’re going to develop and hone your skills during the course.

That’s not to say that a professional translator can’t also gain a lot from doing the MA. If you’re passionate about translating, discovering the discipline is a wonderful opportunity to give vent to that passion. Every student builds on their own skill set and fills their own knowledge gaps.

It’s harder to fail an MA. I chose the wording harder to fail, rather than easier to pass because I don’t want to give the impression that passing an MA in Translation Studies is, in any way, easy. But, assuming you do what needs to be done, the MA is harder to fail because of the progressive nature of the course, the tutor and peer support, the preference towards an assessment rather than an exam format and the opportunity to re-sit within shorter periods. In an MA, you get continual feedback on where you’ve gone wrong and where you can improve. You have more time and more control over what you do.

A top-quality DipTrans preparatory course can provide you with a lot of these elements in a smaller package. Our Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation Course with DipTrans Preparation includes translation theory and more detailed personal feedback than you’ll get anywhere. For that reason, it’s a good option as a sort of mini-MA or a way to dip your toe in and see whether you think you’d enjoy doing a master’s degree.

7. What will you get out of having the DipTrans?

This section will tell you what I get out of holding the DipTrans and what you’re likely to get out of it once you’ve done it.

The CIOL Diploma in Translation is internationally recognised, certified proof of your translation abilities. It’s undisputable evidence that you can translate at a professional level. If you’re an experienced translator who doesn’t have any translation qualifications and who’s not interested in studying translation then it’s probably a good option for you.

Assuming you have the level to pass, it’ll provide you with a relatively fast route to getting some translation-specific certification to put on your CV. The agencies that I’ve spoken to about this have told me that it’s a qualification that they respect and that they look for.

Negatives about doing the DipTrans

As I think I’ve now clearly shown, the DipTrans is a qualification obtained through examination, this means that what you won’t get out of it is knowledge. Knowledge about the translation process, knowledge about your languages, knowledge about the translation industry, and so on. You won’t get any of that because it’s a test and not a course.

It’s a very challenging exam and so you have to allow for the possibility that you’ll have to re-sit one or more papers. Translators find this frustrating because of the ongoing investments required in terms of both time and money.

If you want to learn something, then what you need is a course. A good DipTrans preparatory course like ours is a good way to prepare for the exam and learn along the way. But if you want to get into things in depth, perhaps you would do well to consider taking a translation-related MA, a Master of Arts.

8. What will you get out of an MA in Translation Studies?

I smile when I think about both of my MA courses because I got a lot out of them. While they were both challenging, I learned a lot, enjoyed the learning process and found them both very interesting.

The 100% online format of my first MA in Translation Studies from Portsmouth University, UK, was very convenient as regards time management. It also worked out cheaper because I didn’t have to go anywhere. On the downside, it was a little lonely, in spite of the fairly busy discussion forums.

My second MA in Legal Translation from City University, UK, required me to go to London every so often, and the rest was done from home and online. It worked out much more expensive because of having to miss work and the cost of flying over from Spain, but it was also much more sociable. I really felt part of something on that course and made friends and work contacts.

I got knowledge and new skills in many different areas of translation and language. Both MAs were fairly practical and I could apply my new knowledge and skills immediately in my work. This was also great because it allowed me to consolidate what I’d learned and to continue building on it.

I did my first MA in parallel to starting my career as a translator. One of the modules required me to simulate a professional project and find my own text to translate. Because I was interested in literary translation, I contacted a local publishing company, explained the situation and offered to translate something for them for free. They responded the next day with three chapters of one of their novels for the project. They also said that if I’d translate the whole book then they’d publish it and pay me royalties.

I decided to take a sabbatical from the course to give me time to translate the novel. While I didn’t make any real money, I got great experience, and a published novel to put on my CV.

Specialisation is especially relevant to MAs that focus on a specific element of translation. Since I went into translation from a language background, by the end of my first MA in Translation Studies, I had a very strong linguistic footing, but no clear specialisation. That was my main motivation for doing the second MA: I could see that there was money to be made if I specialised somewhere.

If you’re not an experienced translator, then the MA is a good way to start increasing your competence in all of the different elements of translation. If you’re already working as a translator, it can help you hone your skills and increase your knowledge about translation.

Finally, you have long-term pay-off. These types of course are investments and you’ll get long-term pay off as long as you know what you’re going to do once you finish. Now it’s all long over, I can see how the investments I made are paying off through more highly paid work, greater customer demand, more work in my preferred fields and opportunities to diversify.

Negatives about the MA in Translation Studies

Of course, it isn’t all wine and roses. Negatives that you may experience with the MA include stress, especially when combined with work and family commitments. As I pointed out at the beginning, don’t underestimate the time involved. It’s a sacrifice in that respect and you need to make sure you’re motivated.
There’s much to be said for becoming a specialist in translation,

but, if you come from a purely linguistic background, it’s worth remembering that translators with specialist knowledge of other fields are very much sought after (and that their services tend to come with a higher price tag).

There’s also a higher risk of non-completion. Make sure you’re ready to go the long haul by ensuring you know what you’re signing up for and can realistically do it. It’s important to think about the financial side of it, but also your time, availability and motivation.

If in doubt, talk to the course provider, that’s what they’re there for. And remember, you could dip your toe in the water with our premium Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation Course, which is popular among translators from the US and the UK who want to do CPD with personalised feedback.

9. Questions to ask when considering the DipTrans or an MA in Translation Studies

Here’s a few questions to help you decide which of these qualifications is best for you.

1. How much money and time do you have? If the answer is not much, then the MA in Translation Studies may not be feasible.

2. How competent are you at the languages involved? If you’re uncertain about your competence, you’d do well to speak to the course provider first. We offer a free level test on our DipTrans preparatory course.

3. How much translation experience do you have? This can be a make-or-break factor in the DipTrans.

4. Are you interested in translation as an academic discipline? If you’re not sure whether you’d enjoy studying translation theory and writing academic essays then the MA in Translation Studies might not be the right fit for you.

5. What are your long-term goals? If you plan what you’re going to do when you’ve completed the qualification then it’ll help you choose the right course.

6. Where are the gaps in your qualifications? Language specialists may prefer a post-graduate qualification that combines translation with another field. In contrast, specialists in other disciplines may be lacking formal language training and qualifications.

I was perplexed about whether to do the DipTrans exam or an MA in Translation Studies, but now I’ve found North. Read this guide now! #t9n #xl8. By @Gwenydd_Jones Click To Tweet

10. Other qualification options for translators

If you’re still not certain whether the DipTrans or an MA in Translation Studies is right for you then you may wish to look at other options.

It may be worth considering qualifications in other disciplines to develop a specialisation. There are other professional examinations out there, which are worth researching. You may like to do the ATA certification exam (American Translators Association) or the ITI membership exam (Institute of Translation and Interpreting). You could also look at diversifying by doing a course in a related discipline, like copywriting, or getting a second source language up to professional standard.

If time is a problem for you or you’re still not sure which road to go down, consider trying some shorter courses, webinars, conferences or workshops. These can help you get a better idea of where you want to end up, before you start making major investments. Our Premium Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation Course is one such option.

And don’t forget that there’s a wealth of knowledge to be found for yourself in books and by following blogs.

Take some time to think. Look over the horizon and identify where you want your qualification to take you and what you’ll do once it’s complete. This is a life-altering decision and a major investment of you money and time. Take time to map out your future, to ensure that you take the right path first time.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this article and found it useful. If you’re interested in training with us on the Advanced Spanish-to-English Translation Course with DipTrans Preparation then drop us a line. You can ask to do a free level test if you’re unsure about it. Lots of Spanish-to-English translators have already completed the course, but they remain in touch with us through our private Facebook Group. If you decide to come to train with us then you’ll also be invited to join that and become part of our network.

If you’re not quite ready to do that then sign up for our newsletter in the column to the right. That way, we can keep you updated about our latest articles and courses.

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