Language Degree to Full-Time Professional Translator, How?

A path going through rolling countryside, as a metaphor for the career path towards being a full-time freelance translator.

Written by Gwenydd Jones

Translator, translator trainer and copywriter

To become a full-time professional translator, a language degree is a good starting point. In this post, I share a possible path from graduating with a degree in modern languages, to becoming a freelance translator. It’ll point you in the right direction on getting experience, and thinking about specialisation and further qualifications.

Perhaps you recognise yourself in this email:

“I’m in the final term of my undergraduate degree in Hispanic Studies. I’ve developed a keen interest in translation, but I just don’t know how to move forward to become a full-time professional translator. I would love to do an MA in Translation Studies but I don’t know how I’d be able to fund it. Do you think it’s a bad idea to go for the DipTrans straight out of undergraduate studies?”

At the end of an undergraduate degree, it’s tempting to immediately do an MA in translation or sit the DipTrans exam, to improve your translation credentials. Credentials are essential. But they’re just one part of what makes up a professional translator. Find out how to become an accredited translator to get more work.

If you don’t have any translation work experience, it’s difficult to be sure that you’re choosing the right post-graduate course. Not only one you’ll like, but one that will help you get profitable work in the long term. If you step out of academia and get some perspective on the translation workplace, you’ll see things from a new angle. You may find that things you thought to be true, aren’t.

Hear my story in this interview with Gwenydd Jones on how to get started as a translator.

Work experience is part of the path to becoming a successful full-time professional translator

If you want to become a full-time professional translator, I think it’s a bad idea to do qualifications directly after completing an undergraduate degree. I’d say it’s better to get work experience first, possibly alongside doing a vocational translation course like ours.

Get insight on how to go from a language degree to full-time professional #translator. Click To Tweet

Translation work experience will help you start to develop the professional translation skills needed to pass a challenging exam like the DipTrans. If it’s the MA in translation that attracts you, then you can make sure you’re clear about where you want to specialise professionally. It may be that you decide to learn to translate under the guidance of qualified professional translators like us and qualify through the CertTrans and DipTrans. You may then end up deciding to combine the DipTrans with a degree in a different area to give you a specialisation.

The translation profession is changing rapidly, and the most successful translators specialise. What seems like a good MA today, may not be the most useful one tomorrow.

Get a job in a foreign country

Most graduates fresh out of university need to further develop their source- and target- language knowledge, and source-culture awareness, to be competent translators. If you’re in this category, consider looking for an option that will let you expand your skills for a few years.

Try to connect with working translators, to learn as much as possible about the industry.

After my BA, I taught English in Seville for about 3 years before I thought about becoming a professional translator. This amazing experience did wonders for my knowledge of the Spanish and English languages. Also, by living and working in Spain, I really started to engage with and understand Spanish culture.

I know other full-time professional translators who did something similar, including my colleague Lucy Williams (read Lucy’s story or watch her interview on how to work as a translator). Some of them worked in other areas, but they all spent time living in the source-language country before becoming translators. Most of them weren’t qualified as translators when they started out freelancing. They gathered translation experience before or while qualifying.

My colleague Nikki Graham is another example of a successful translator who learned on the job. Watch Nikki’s interview on how to be a translator.

From history degree to EU interpreter

My flatmate and colleague in Seville went on to spend two years in Germany. Then, she moved to Paris to qualify as an interpreter. After a 5-year language-learning spree, followed by a two-year post-graduate course in Paris, she started working as an EU interpreter. She interprets out of French, Spanish and German into English, and lately learned Swedish.

My friend is an excellent example of how post-graduate qualifications can help mould a language professional once they’ve gathered practical skills. She needed real-life language knowledge and experiences before she was ready to qualify as an interpreter. It’s clear that she wouldn’t have been ready to qualify as an interpreter straight after her BA.

Specialisation for full-time professional translators

If you have a language degree, when you get into translation, you’ll meet a problem: you don’t have a specialisation. Working in a specialist field is the way for translators to differentiate themselves and make a decent living.

After a few years “out”, you might feel ready to consider a post-graduate qualification in another field that you could combine with translation. For instance, you could combine the DipTrans, which proves your translation ability, with a master’s degree in another area, which proves your specialisation. Our lead tutor for our French-to-English translation courses is a good example of why specialisation matters. Sarah Bowyer came to translation following 10 years working as a solicitor. Her career as a freelance translator got off to a flying start. Watch Sarah’s interview on how to become a translator.

Thinking about doing a #translation qualification? Read this first. Click To Tweet

I did the DipTrans and an MA in Translation Studies. Then, I realised that I didn’t have sufficient specialisation to get the highest-paying work. So, I did a second MA, in legal translation. It was that legal specialisation that made the difference for me. If I could go back, I’d combine the DipTrans with the MA in Legal Translation and do another qualification in a different field. There are lots of different specialisations to consider: medical, software localization, engineering and financial, to name but a few. Perhaps you’d like to read this article I wrote on “How to Train to Be an SEO Translator“. Or this article by Lucy Williams: “Why I Specialised in Fashion Translation“.

You may find that things you thought to be true, aren’t.

There’s a lot of time and money involved in getting post-graduate qualifications. I’d recommend thinking and planning in depth. That way, you’re more likely to make the best decisions for your career and personal development. You may find my article “10 Crucial Questions to Choose the Best Spanish Translation Qualification” helpful.

If you’d like to hear more about my story and what’s involved in the DipTrans and MA qualifications, check out my webinar on ProZ: “Post-Graduate Translation Qualifications: DipTrans & MA“. I’ve also been told that this guest blog I wrote for Nikki Graham’s website is helpful: “DipTrans: the Real Costs and Returns“.

In conclusion …

I’d advise the person who sent me that email to get out of academia for a bit and go abroad. They could broaden their knowledge by living as a member of the source-language community and working in different jobs. I’d tell them to try to connect with working translators, to learn as much as possible about the industry. They should think hard about where they’d be wise to specialise. And then decide which post-graduate qualification is best for them and their career goals.

Learn how to think like a professional translator so you can become one

It’s a myth than anyone who speaks two languages can be a successful professional translator. Translation is a highly complex skill, and you have to learn how to do it. Check out our introduction to translation (pre-DipTrans) and DipTrans preparation courses. They’re designed for new and professional Spanish-to-English translators who want CPD or to prepare to sit the CIOL Diploma in Translation exam. Get your free level test.

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