Many translators I know long to interpret; some even became translators as a way to cultivate their language skills ultimately to be able to interpret. Despite the obvious relationship between translation and interpretation, the two are distinct vocations, each with its own skill set and preferred personality.
Interpretation is subdivided into consecutive interpretation and simultaneous interpretation. The former involves listening to a speaker while taking notes on the content of the speech, then when the speaker chooses, to render that speech into the target language. The speaker may speak for a few minutes or upwards of a half hour. Also, consecutive interpreters are usually expected to interpret into and out of their native language.
Simultaneous interpretation by contrast is typically done in a booth. The interpreter listens to the speaker using a set of headphones, then instantly renders the speech into the target language, almost always the interpreter’s native language. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter is rarely more than a few seconds to a minute behind the speaker, and though the quality and accuracy of the interpretation are not nearly as high as they are in consecutive interpretation, the speed and intensity are much higher.
Interpreters are different from translators. They need to be extremely fast with their languages, capable of making snap decisions even when not at all certain about what a speaker is saying. They must be poised and composed, even when working with angry officials or attorneys, business tycoons, or heads of state, have excellent spoken languages skills, including the ability to listen very accurately under less than ideal ambient noise conditions, and good oral presentation and public speaking skills in all of their languages. Travel is a frequent part of interpretation work, with some assignments, such as escort work with the U.S. State Department, lasting upward of three weeks.
I strongly recommend that anyone interested in interpretation take the time to talk to working interpreters and look carefully at getting some professional training. Both consecutive and simultaneous interpretation require the development of a very precise set of skills, neither of which could easily be obtained on the job.
As any freelance translator knows, translation agencies use project managers to coordinate translation projects. And as any freelance translator who has been in the field for a while knows, a good project manager is worth her or his weight in gold.
Project management is a very intense, fast-paced, challenging line of work which is becoming more and more diverse as the years go by. Many localization firms now have project managers who oversee the localization process, coordinate document translation with translation agencies or translators themselves, interface between engineering, sales and marketing staff, and manufacturers to prepare a product for release. Project management definitely requires language sensitivity and good communications skills but not necessarily strong translation skills. You do need to be capable of patience and perseverance, as well as creative problem-solving and multitasking.
If this area interests you, I suggest you talk to some project managers at firms that hire such people (try translation agencies, large software and localization firms, to start with). See if the work appeals to you. Don’t worry too much about the technical side of the job; many firms are willing to train otherwise capable candidates in that area. And if you do get into project management, perhaps you’ll be in charge of a project I translate for.
Most translators have spent at least a little time doing terminology research, have created a glossary list or two, and may have even build a terminology database in an application like Microsoft Access or used an MAT system like Trados. This is a large part of what a terminologist does every day, but such people also create and verify the definitions that translators and other writers work with.
In other words, to be a good terminologist you either have to be an excellent linguist or educated and experienced in the field you are created terms for. Ideally, you should be both, and terminology positions at places like the United Nations require just that. Many localization firms, however, are happy to get one, and will train you for the other if you are an otherwise suitable candidate.
Should such work appeal to you, contact large translation and localization firms, or companies that you know are routinely doing a lot of translation work, to see what is available. Also be prepared to use Trados, database systems, and other linguistics tools, as well as having a sound knowledge of your languages and of terminology creation.
Many translators have already taught one of more languages, perhaps during the process of acquiring their second language. It is a natural thing to do, as translators usually have a well-developed ability to explain their languages and considerable classroom experience studying their B languages.
Teaching as a career requires more than just a commitment to language, however. It requires a commitment to students and to education. Most translators do not have the formal academic training or teaching credentials necessary to turn teaching into a career and would therefore need to go back to school for certification.
If you want to teach at the university level, then you will probably need an advanced degree either in your language or in teaching. If you want to teach and to translate literature, then a doctorate in your language and its literature is an essential first step. Do take the time to talk to the kinds of places you would want to teach at as a way to find out what credentials or training you would need, and to verify that the move into teaching is for you.
There is clearly a connection between translation and linguistics, insofar as translators tend to have strong analytical skills for their languages, and at least some translators have excellent critical thinking skills. The linguistics field is diverse, including such areas as computational linguistics, historical linguistics, phonology, morphology, Indo-European studies, and so forth.
Of course entering this field requires a Ph.D. in linguistics, and given that demand for linguistics, with the possible exception of those specializing in computational linguistics, is low (at least in the United States), one should not enter this field lightly. Also keep in mind that a person with a doctorate in linguistics has limited career options, pretty much university-level academia or nothing. Industry at present only seems interested in linguists with computer science skills, that is to say computational linguistics, though there are some positions for linguists from time to time for tasks such as product naming or branding, or language resource management.
The usual research into good graduate programs, including those at schools like Cornell and MIT, should be done thoroughly. Also, for those who are interested in this field but hesitant due to the lack of faculty positions, consider related fields such as cognitive science, psychology (particularly psycholinguistic research), or even philosophy of language. Research in areas such as machine translation, language acquisition, and natural language processing continues apace, and there should be openings.
So much of translation involves cross-cultural issues, and so much of the background and experiences that translators tend to have are directly related to cross-cultural matters, that this field seems natural for translators to move into. Be aware, however, that much of what passes for cross-cultural training has more to do with equipping business executives with the daily know-how to survive in another country.
You will need to know how to handle the minutiae of life for an American abroad: setting up bank accounts, establishing phone and utility service, or registering as a resident alien with a local office. You may also have to teach people who to handle high-level business negotiations, what to do in emergencies, or where to take clients when entertaining becomes a part of business. If you have had all of these experiences yourself and are a good teacher interested in cross-cultural issues, you are ready to enter this field.
The only glitch remaining is that this field is not quite a field, per se. Rather, cross-cultural training is often offered as a part of language training, or at least by the same places that offer language training. You may not even be able to find a full-time position, and that assumes your languages and cultures are in demand. So move slowly if you want to enter this field and take the time to talk to people who are involved in it.
Translators frequently are well-suited for work with the diplomatic arm of their governments. For security reasons you would almost certainly have to work for the government where you were born and raised, and at least with the U.S. Foreign Service, you would to pass the Foreign Service Officer’s Exam, a series of interviews, security clearance, and then would as likely as not end up in a nation whose culture and language you are wholly unacquainted with.
If however the challenge of new languages and cultures appeals to you, and you are intrigued by diplomatic and government work in general, this is a possibility well worth exploring. The work, I’m told, is rarely glamorous or vital to national interests or international stability, but it does have its small rewards, plus the occasional large one when you get the chance to meet with important dignitaries or government officials, to work on projects you personally believe in, or to become involved in the decision-making processes that can truly have a positive impact on a region.
Translators are also well-suited for work in the intelligence branches of their governments, both military and civilian. In the U.S., the CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, each branch of the military, and other groups are in constant need of American citizens with excellent foreign language skills, strong written and oral presentation skills, and critical thinking and analytical skills. I know a few translators who have found happy homes in this kind of work, translating and evaluating reports, documents, and so forth in the B languages and preparing analyses based on such material in English.
Some readers may protest that such organizations behave immorally or unethically. While much of what these organizations do does seem to be in that gray area of the law and life, they don’t seem to spend much more time there than most corporations do. And there is the possibility of doing work that virtually anyone would find morally acceptable, such as participating in putting together reports on terrorism and tyranny, compiling information on natural disasters such as the tsunami in Indonesia or environmental problems like global climate change. So investigate closely before you dismiss this possibility; it may surprise you as to the rewards that can come in such work.
Technical writing is the process of preparing documentation, usually computer hardware and software manuals, for mass consumption. Technical writers combine strong writing skills, superior understanding of technology, and good DTP knowledge to produce everything from a word processor’s manual, printed or electronic, the help page on a Web site, or for that matter your automobile’s owner’s guide.
Obviously the skills of technical writing and translation overlap, though in the United States this would, with rare exceptions, only apply to native English speakers. I know quite a few translators who have left translation to work in technical writing, and I myself have done some freelance technical writing work. It pays reasonably well, the work, once you are established, can be quite steady and challenging, and there is, for some people at least, a certain greater sense of freedom in creating a manual than in translating one, as well as more job satisfaction.
If you are interested in this possibility, I suggest you read one of the many good books on the subject, talk to some local technical writers in your area (there is probably a local writers’ organization that can help you find them), and sound out some potential clients so you can test the waters. You might even be able to split your working life between technical writing and translation; some clients might even like that combination. Check first, of course, then move ahead as the situation warrants.
Other Forms of Writing
Rather than go through all the other types of professional writing, including copywriting, editing, proof-reading, journalism, and commercial writing, to name some of the categories, let me just say here that if as a translator you are in fact a good writer (and I mean good, as in your clients compliment you on your style, punctuation, word choice, and even prefer you to other translators simply because you “make it sound good”), then there are numerous possibilities for you.
Translation is a form of writing, albeit one that few people realize exists. There is no reason, in principle, that a translator cannot become a technical writer, journalist, or copywriter, as long as the translator gets the right training, if needed, and makes the right professional moves. If any of these areas interest you, start by contacting the National Writers’ Union (they know all about all this stuff), and then follow their suggestions to find more information and become more acquainted with these fields.
Translators frequently develop strong DTP skills as a part of their work. This seems to happen more often to in-house translators as translation vendors try to combine the translation and layout processes into one flow, but nevertheless some freelancers, myself included, do own and use DTP applications and scanners.
DTP is an art and a science. Learning the basics of a DTP application is not much harder than learning a word processor well, but using a DTP application effectively to create stunning layouts, such as are seen in design magazines, requires a lot of practice and a certain artistic flair. Most of the DTP world doesn’t require such skill though (witness the layout of the average magazine or computer manual), but nonetheless these publications, along with virtually everything else, involves some form of DTP. As with technical writing, some translators combine translation with DTP work in their freelance business. And some do move into DTP, though not without getting some classroom training or hands-on experience first.
Translators with Web translation experience can move into this area with relative ease. I know a few who have done so, and I’m sure many more will. There are even some futurists in the translation profession who believe that virtually all translations will eventually be done through a Web-based real-time model, though that remains to be seen. In any event, if you have the skills, you should be able to find a home in this diverse field.
This category is the catch-all area for everything from international law to international business or finance. Any time a company is involved in business in more than one country, a translator with the right education and experience becomes very valuable. Few translators seem interested in these possibilities though, perhaps because they are so often far removed from translation itself, or even language in general, for that matter.
Also, these areas require the greatest amount of schooling to enter. If you want to go into international law, first you need a law degree. If you want to become involved in international business, you may need an M.B.A. or a Master’s in Finance.
If after reading these articles you have decided that translation is not for you, or if after translating professionally for a while or longer you have decided that translation is no longer for you, I’ll try to offer a few suggestions, some obvious and simple, others perhaps less obvious and more complicated, for other careers. Learning another language is a wonderful undertaking, and being able to use it for your career is a wonderful outcome of all that effort. But sometimes a professional pursuit must become a hobby, and so my suggestions will include ideas that have little directly to do with foreign language proficiency. At the same time, as someone who loves languages, I’ll bear in mind the attitude and commitment translators have made to their languages.