Through this website I’ve had quite a few emails from people wanting to become translators and asking me for advice. It’s quite difficult to know what to say, because unlike most careers, there is not one way to get there. Translation being such an unregulated business, anyone can decide they’re a translator and look for work: in England, you just have to register as self-employed and you’re away. It doesn’t mean you will get work without experience or qualifications, but it’s as simple as that.
The obvious way to become a translator is to do a University degree in translation. However, this is not compulsory and if you realised late, like I did, that translation is the career for you, you can still become a translator. After all, not everyone knows age 18 what career path they want to follow. However, you must know your source language/culture very well and have some formal linguistic training, or at the very least a talent for writing in your mother tongue. I’ve had people getting in touch with me telling me that they can speak French and English and would like to become translators. Some of them had good degrees, but not necessarily related to language, and very little or no experience. In these cases, I’ve answered that being fluent in two or more languages isn’t enough to become a good translator, and that they should ensure their written skills were up to the job. Translators not only have to convey the meaning of a text into another language, but they also have to do so in a manner that will be pleasant to read, and that is a skill in itself.
The problem is, because it is so unregulated, they are many ways to become a translator according to where you live, and I can only talk about my experience in the UK. I didn’t have any experience of the translation industry when I decided I wanted to try to become a translator. I thought that my six years in Britain, my Masters in English (which included modules in translation) and my literary education had provided me with the tools to make a go at being a translator, so I decided to take the Institute of LinguistsDiploma in Translation. This would allow me to see what proven translators thought of my skills, and I hoped it would show potential clients that I was competent.
Once I passed it, the hardest bit began: finding clients. While preparing to take the diploma in translation, I had done some voluntary work to have something to put on my CV in the "experience" section; I also was lucky enough to have a friend who trusted me with a few projects for the organisation she used to work for. I signed up on all the translation sites (mainly Proz and Translators’ Café) I found and I did exactly what one shouldn’t do, but I didn’t know any better. I sent my meagre CV to hundreds (literally) of translation agencies. I received a handful of answers, mostly asking me to do tests. After doing a few tests, a couple of the agencies actually gave me work. I kept sending CVs, adding to them the few jobs I had done, and somehow things snowballed from there.
What would I do differently? I would try and find Chantal Wilford’s tips and learn them all by heart. I wouldn’t send CVs to so many agencies without even a phone call. I would also decide early on what my specialisations should be and try and improve my knowledge in those few fields early on. The one thing I did right was that I kept working part-time in a school in my first year as a translator; it was sometimes hard to juggle both jobs, but it meant I never had to accept the rock-bottom rates some people offer.
So what does one do to become a translator? I’m sorry to say the answer isn’t straightforward. It depends on your background, on the country you live in, on the clients you’re hoping to reach. Becoming a translator is like the act of translating itself: it all hinges on the context. It would be very interesting to hear about the experiences of other translators in other countries…