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Translators use their excellent command of two or more languages to rewrite texts that have been written in one language (known as the source language) into their mother tongue (known as the target language).
Translating can be a long and complex process as it does not just involve replacing the words of the text, but also ensuring that the text is communicated to the reader in the same way as in the original text. This may include localising names, places or content, or adding translation notes to enable the reader to fully understand the cultural context of the original document.
Many translators specialise, which means they work primarily with texts on a certain subject. This involves taking time to research the text and the subject matter and to use specialist dictionaries and reference books to find the suitable equivalents in their own language.
The majority of translators work with translation memory software, which enables them to speed up the translation process and ensure the consistent translation of key terms.
The final step of the translation process is proofreading and editing the final version. The translator must ensure that both the text and the format are correct before delivering the translation to the client.
Graduate and trainee salaries typically start at £18,000, depending on qualifications and experience. Salaries may then increase to somewhere between £25,000 and £35,000 depending on specialisation. Senior translators can earn as much as £50,000, and translators for the EU and UN tend to be the highest paid.
Freelance translators often charge per 1,000 words. Depending on the languages, the deadline and the topic of the translation, this ranges from £40 per 1,000 words to £120 per 1,000 words.
A translator’s typical responsibilities include:
- rewriting original texts and material in the target language
- researching subject matter using specialist dictionaries, reference books and the internet, in order to find the best word in the target language and keep the meaning and style as close as possible
- liaising with customers to arrange quotes, translations and deadlines, and to clarify the meaning of any unclear words or phrases
- proofreading translations and editing the format of documents prior to delivery
- meeting deadlines, which can often be very tight
A bachelor’s degree is almost always required to become a translator. However, this does not have to be a degree in languages – bilingual people may find it more beneficial to read for a different subject which they are then able to specialise in.
Most translation companies require their translators to have a master’s degree in translation or interpreting, although many established translators decide to sit the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) instead. The DipTrans consists of three papers: the first paper is a general translation and the other two consist of translations of specialist texts. No other qualifications are required to sit the DipTrans.
Translators must have the following skills:
- Good IT skills
- Good communication skills, both written and verbal
- Enthusiasm and motivation
- Good organisational skills
Most translators specialise in a particular area, and some will only take on texts relating to that subject. As a result, specific subject knowledge may be required, and this may be gained through industry-based experience, short courses (some of which are specially designed for translators) or just experience in translating these texts.
Translators tend to work between 35 and 40 hours a week, often between 9 am and 5 pm. Freelance translators may work longer or shorter hours, depending on projects and other commitments. Translators who accept projects with short deadlines or who work for companies based in different time zones may work late into the night in order to complete projects on time.
Translation work is office based and fairly solitary, although teams of translators may work on large projects, especially if they are employed in-house. Contact with customers is usually limited to emails or telephone calls.
Most translators work freelance from home, which means that hours are often more flexible. Freelance translation really lends itself to part-time work, making it ideal for people who wish to combine career and family. However, career breaks are uncommon among freelance translators, who must establish and maintain a base of customers.
No experience is required to become a translator, and the only things that are required are a fluency in two languages and a talent for translation. However, some companies may require a postgraduate qualification or a certain number of years’ experience. Qualifications such as a Masters in Translation or the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation are therefore recommended.
The majority of translators work as freelancers. This may be from home or from an office, and might involve working alone or with a small group of freelancers, who may or may not be other translators.
However, there are also a number of in-house positions available and the very best translators may eventually find in-house work with the European Union or the United Nations. A substantial number of translators also go on to set up a small translation firm or agency.
Major employers include:
- The United Nations
- The European Union
Translators tend to begin as trainees in translation agencies or companies. From there, many move on to become freelance translators working from home. Others may become senior in-house translators, or move into roles in translation management or project management in larger translation companies.
Promotions depend very much on the translation agency or company as well as the translator’s languages and specialist subject(s). However, in most companies the opportunities for promotion are limited. In order to progress, many translators look for opportunities with international organisations, despite the fact that these jobs are few and far between with more and more organisations using freelance translators and agencies themselves.
The grading system used for jobs within the European Union’s Directorate General for Translation means that translators here have a good chance of being promoted.
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What’s it really like?
Alexandra Malcolm works as a freelance translator. She has spent considerable amounts of time living and working in Germany, but currently lives and works in Sheffield.
“I chose to become a translator because I loved learning languages at school and I knew that I wanted to continue to use my language skills on a day-to-day basis. I studied for a BA in Germanic Studies at the University of Sheffield and I am currently reading for an MA in Translation at the same time as working as a freelance translator.
My degree required that I spend a year abroad in the countries of the languages that I studied. Consequently, I spent six months working for a translation company in Berlin, Germany. The other half of the year I spent studying at a university in Sweden, which enabled me to improve my Swedish language skills. The time I spent in Germany made me certain that I wanted to become a translator.
Luckily, the company I worked for decided to employ me as a freelance translator, so during the final year of my course I was also taking on translation projects from them and a few other companies that had offered me work. The experience that I had gained in Germany and my freelance work made it very easy for me to find work after I graduated, but I decided to complete my Masters in Translation anyway.
I study part-time, so I still take on projects. This allows me to see the direct link between my work and the course, which is really helpful. I still spend some of my time establishing contact with new clients and looking for work, but most of my day (if I’m not studying) is taken up with translating and proofreading texts.
I specialise in technical and marketing texts, but more by chance than anything else. The first company I worked for specialized in those areas so most of my translation experience has involved working on manuals and press releases.
I love the diversity of the work I do and some projects are really exciting, but it can be a little lonely. I’d prefer to be working in a translation office, where you can bounce ideas off other translators. I’d love to work for the European Union in the future, but I have a long way to go before that.
The best thing about my job is that I can travel with it – freelance translators can work from anywhere in the world, as long as they have an internet connection.”