Where to Start
First, the minimum requirement to begin the process of becoming a translator is knowing two languages fluently. It does not matter how you acquire your languages. Whether you are born into a bilingual family or environment, or are educated in school, ideally starting at a young age, you must achieve adult-level fluency in your A and B languages.
Adult-level fluency refers to a command of your languages identical to that which adults working professionally as native speakers of those languages would have. You must, in other words, be able to read, write, speak, and understand what these people would in their various professional and personal settings. In other words, high school and college-level language classes represent the initial phase of the process. You may have completed three or even four years of university coursework in Chinese or Russian or French, but that is, unfortunate to say, very little. When you can pick up a newspaper, magazine, or research article on any subject you plan to translate in, read it without using a dictionary at all, then have a discussion about its content with a professor or other person knowledgeable on the subject, and finally write a cogent “letter to the editor” about the article, you have the achieved the language facility you will need.
Okay, the above is an exaggeration. But only slightly. All of the successful translators I’ve known in the past two decades have that ability, or very close to it, in their languages. Achieving this will require lots of classroom and fieldwork. By classroom I mean courses that first teach you the language, and then have you function in that language doing professional-type things. By fieldwork I mean living and working in the country of your B language, ideally for years.
My own background may help clarify what I am describing. I started Japanese as a sophomore in college (better late than never), then spent my junior year in Kyoto in Japan studying at Doshisha University as an exchange student, during which time I practiced kendo with a school club, took calligraphy lessons twice a week, had four hours of Japanese language classes every day, lived with a home-stay family, and traveled extensively using youth hostels and college rail passes. Senior year back in the United States I took more Japanese classes, and after graduation I went back to Japan for two years, where I worked as an English teacher and did some basic translation work, and during which time I took advanced courses in Japanese at night, along with lots of other activities that took place in Japanese. Following that I went to graduate school for a year as a linguistics student, taking classes in Japanese, whereupon I left my program and entered the translation school at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In my first meeting with my advisor during orientation week I was told that my language background was wholly insufficient to be a translator and that I should go back to Japan for at least several years, perhaps even a decade, and then come back. Being a bit stubborn, I didn’t do that, studied very hard at the Monterey Institute, where virtually every translation class I took was in Japanese, and finally graduated. Then I started translating. In retrospect I think my language skills could have been sharper, but more on that below.
Often overlooked are A language skills. You must become an excellent writer in your native languages, with the ability to emulate a wide variety of styles, respect the customs and conventions of your native language, and produce properly formatted, orthographically correct, well punctuated material. Take writing classes, including technical or scientific writing classes, as are available for English at many schools in the United States. Read books on the subject. My favorites for English are The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and On Writing Well, by William Zinser. These are all classics and belong in the collection of any native English speaker who wants to translate. Also worth reading is George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Further, find and read any book or article on writing for the subject area you choose to work in. Finally, read, read, read written material, particularly in your subject area, so that you are fully conversant in the style and conventions of your native language.
As you develop your language skills, you also need to gain a thorough grounding in one or more subject areas you can do your translation work in. A translator has to translate something, obviously, and as discussed in the first article, that something is a text, document, or other written material that is on a particular subject. In other words, you not only need fluency in two languages, but also knowledge of the subject in question.
Common subject areas at present in the translation profession include scientific and technical material, in particular hardware and software documentation, medical and biotechnology materials, and telecommunications and research documents, as well as legal, financial, and sometimes more general texts, which here refers to everything from birth certificates and school transcripts to newspaper articles and Web site content.
The more difficult or demanding a subjects is, the greater the pay and amount of available work. If all you can do is handle simple documents like birth certificates or general news articles, you won’t be able to find much work or convince an employer to hire you. If however you can translate medical instrument patents, pharmaceutical research, and bioinformatics material, you should have little difficulty finding a job.
So you will need to take at the very least university-level courses in the basics of the subject you want to work in, or through professional experience gain equivalent knowledge. If you are still in school, this should be fairly simple: take introductory physics, engineering, and calculus classes plus programming courses if you want to work on software or hardware localization, take accounting and finance courses if you want to be a financial translator, take law and policy courses if you want to be a legal translator.
Your subject knowledge will save you if your language skills flag. My Japanese, though fluent, is not perfect, and so when I’m translating a research article on, for instance, robotic vision, my knowledge of computer science and robotics helps me see what the article is talking about even if the language is obscure to me. And remember, many documents will be poorly written, so again your subject knowledge will be invaluable for figuring out what the document is trying to say.
Ideally you should take courses in your subject area in both of your languages, or work professionally in your subject area using both languages. Of course this is often impractical, sometimes even impossible. So instead you can read, read, read all material you can find on your subject area in a process that is referred to as parallel reading. Texts about on the Web, including not only such multilingual sources as Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) but also through industry and professional associations which maintain their Web resources in several languages. I know this seems like a lot of effort, but it is what you will have to do to become a competent professional translator.
I realize that many people, particularly in the United States, but also in other countries acquire their language skills through a liberal arts education that includes a lot of classes on literature, culture, and history, and virtually no science, mathematics, business, or other professional-type coursework. This type of background will be insufficient. Although literature is a fascinating and worthy aspect of language and is often translated, the world of literary translation is quite separate from the rest of the translation profession, and best approached by pursuing graduate-level study in your language, usually a doctorate, and then an academic career in which translating literature is a part of your profession. My undergraduate advisor was a master of modern Japanese language and literature who spent his non-teaching time translating and writing about Junichiro Tanizaki. I learned a lot from him about literary Japanese, virtually none of which has any impact on my work as a technical translator.
So learn everything you can about your languages, but stay focused on the reality of what is translated in the translation industry. Whatever your background or interests are, you should be able to find a subject area that appeals to you and is in demand for your language pair. To make certain you are heading in the right direction, find out what is in demand by looking at job listings for translators in the ATA Chronicle, other language publications such as Language International or Multilingual Computing, and Web sites including not only the obvious job search engines like Monster but also resource like www.translatorsbase.com. If you don’t offer what the market wants, you won’t have work. So find out as early as possible how to develop your skills so that they match the realities of the market for your languages.
First of all, classroom work is experience. Regardless of how limited and artificial learning a language as an adult in a classroom is compared to acquiring one as a child in situ may be, the classroom is where most translators start. Make the most of it; go to the extra practice sessions, join the conversation club for your languages, find native speakers and spend time with them, and go to where your B language is spoken as a native language.
A classroom can only take you so far. Few if any universities offer language classes specifically for using the language in a medical, engineering, legal, or scientific context, and there are hardly any textbooks along such lines. So the alternative is to spend time living in the language and its attendant culture and society; this is the most efficient route to achieving the adult-level fluency in professional, business contexts that a translator will ultimately need.
Merely traveling around a country for a few weeks or so, staying in youth hostels, hanging around bars, coffee shops, pachinko parlors (or their equivalent) will introduce you to a limited subset of the language, one that will be of little value in the translation profession. As a translator friend of mine pointed out recently, dating someone from the country of your B language will also be of limited value. After all, how many couples discuss genomics or IC design as a part of a relationship, particularly during the initial few months?
Instead, you need a job. Teaching English or another language seems to be the most common route into another country, particularly for an American with a humanities education. While not optimal, this is certainly practicable. If you take the time to read extensively, expose yourself to the language in all possible professional contexts, and challenge yourself by taking extremely advanced classes, studying for a proficiency exam, you will make ample progress in a year or two.
Conversely, for people now living in other countries and planning a translation career with English as their second language, the situation is a bit different. Because English, American or otherwise, is so widely used and available around the world, because many countries offer such outstanding language training for their youth in English, and because some countries use English as a second language for official, diplomatic, or business purposes, the need for such people to spend one or several years in an English-speaking country like the U.S. or U.K. is limited. They can and do develop excellent language skills while growing up in their own countries. If you have such a background, take advantage of the incredible head start you’ve gotten; expose yourself in university or through employment to all aspects of English in the subject areas that interest you professionally. You will be that much more prepared when you start translating.
Finally there is the process of learning to translate. If fluency in two languages were the necessary and sufficient requirements to be able to translate, then there should be no shortage of translators working between English and any other language in the world. Unfortunately, fluency in two languages is merely the starting point. You also have to learn to translate.
No one at this point in time understands exactly what goes on inside translators’ brains while they are translating. Such studies are probably not possible given the limited resolution of current brain scanning technology, but I await the day that we do have detailed information about this issue. Such information could easily demonstrate to an often doubtful public that translation involves more than just knowing two languages.
Training programs for translators have existed for upwards of four thousand years. Ancient Egypt had its School of Scribes, the Vatican has trained scholarly priests to translate since its inception, and virtually every major nation on the planet now has at least one school dedicated to training translators and interpreters.
In the United States at present, there are several types of training programs, each with at least a couple of schools. The ATA provides a booklet on the various programs available, so I’ll be brief here. The Monterey Institute of International Studies and Kent State University have programs that confer an M.A. upon completion of two years of class work and a graduation project. Classes involve not only translating a lot of texts, but also studying terminology management, MAT and other uses of computers in the translation process, and even courses on the business side of the profession. A few schools, such as the University of Washington at Seattle and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, offer a Master’s specifically for translation of a particular language pair in a scientific or technical context. The University of Hawaii and New York University (NYU), among others, offer online training programs that lead to a certificate of completion. Classes largely involve translation work. Last, Bellevue Community College and other schools around the country provide classroom certificate programs in which students start by learning about the profession and process of translation, and eventually take not only business, computer, and ethics classes, but also classes that involve actually translating.
As an aside, there are also individuals who offer workshops and seminars purporting to train translators and interpreters during a weekend or two. Such offerings tend to appear and disappear over the years, and no one in the profession believes that you can learn to translate in just a few days, so they won't be discussed in any detail here.
The majority of translators in the U.S., as stated previously, do not have formal training. However, the industry has changed a lot in the past decade. The translation profession is now listed as a hot career in books like Cool Careers for Dummies, and is gaining widespread recognition because of the War on Terror and some high-profile legal cases. The FBI, CIA, and other government agencies are actively and publicly recruiting translators and other language professionals. And the ATA has revamped what used to be known as the accreditation exam into what is now called the certification exam, adding among other things a continuing education requirement. The details of the ATA certification exam can be found here.
In other words, if a translator who started in the profession in the 1980s or 1990s tells you that because she didn’t need any formal training you don’t, think again. The question is not what did I or someone else who has been around for a long time do at the start of their careers. Though interesting, even amusing at times, and possibly inspiring, the information is rather old. You need to find out what your potential employers want you to have. If they don’t care about training at all, then just make sure you can translate well. If they want some form of training, go get it.
These days, some employers, particularly the ones offering higher paying positions in technical translation or localization seem to want some form of training. Other employers don’t care much at all. However, most prefer training if they can get it. At the same time, they will likely test your ability using a short translation test or a bilingual interview. Training, many employers know from bitter experience, does not guarantee ability, and lack of training, obviously, does not preclude it. So be prepared to demonstrate that you can translate.
Which leads to the question of how do you know when you can translate. And how do you know when you are just starting out to translate that your translations are any good. Some people believe that you just know, that they have an intuitive sense of when a translation is good, and that they felt from deep down within that they could translate. Such people represent either the gifted minority whose ability will outshine everyone else’s or the misguided, even deluded majority who fall into the all-too-common trap of using language classroom standards and uninformed measures to evaluate their own work.
If you aren’t sure you can translate, then you can’t say where your translation may have problems. You are left with two options. First, get a job that involves a little bit of translation, one in which your work is supervised and monitored. Some firms offer internships or have junior translation positions. Other companies want, for instance, bilingual software testers or game evaluators. Such positions can offer a lot of experience, from which you can build a lot of competence and confidence. The other option is to go to school.
The decision to go to school to start a career represents a business decision. In business, money is always the limiting factor, by which I mean that it is the factor that more than any other determines what you should do. School costs money and time. While you are in school, you will probably make no money, so not only are you paying tuition, but you are also losing income. On the other hand, after graduation you may be able to command a higher salary, obtain a more secure position, even move faster and further on your career track.
To make this decision, you need numbers. Check the current tuition at Kent State University and the Monterey Institute, or at any other program you are interested in, then compare it with the salaries being offered by employers. Further, contact the program director to find out what the graduates are doing and what their income is. You want to know not only what the graduates from last year are up to, but also what those from five and ten years ago are doing now. Then talk to a couple of current students and recent graduates to see how they feel about their investment. Last, talk to several potential employers to find out if they reward education in any substantial way.
Your path into the translation profession can follow one of several routes. No one at this point can say which is better. I know people with graduate-level educations in translation and people with no formal training whatsoever. I also know that the demands in the profession vary depending on the language and subject you are working one. This is, as described above, why I cannot be more specific. Of course, what we’re trying to do here is determine beforehand, possibly years beforehand, whether or not an employer will reward you with a job, maybe even at a higher salary, after you complete a training program. As Niels Bohr said, prediction is difficult, especially about the future.