Career Translation: Getting Started

(cc) Markus Spiske, source:

Career Translation: Getting Started

So you want to be a translator. Where do you start? What skills will you need? Which certifications are important? This month Young Germany will walk you through the process of becoming a translator in Germany. Today we'll be covering the basics.
by Nicolette Stewart

What skills are important in a translation career?

A love of language, top communication skills, and cultural knowledge: these are the most important tools for a career in translation.  The rest will depend on your specific situation and goals.

Depending on what kind of translation you intend to do, you will need to master different skill sets.  A legal or technical translator will need to be exact, have knowledge of the field, and be familiar with CAT translation software such as Trados or Across.  A literary translator will need to be able to create a text as artistically coherent as the original and so will need a good ear for style and nuance and a hand for recreating them in his or her native language.

Writing skills in your native language are particularly important no matter what kind of translation you hope to do, as translators generally only translate into their native language.  So, for example, if you are an English speaker working in Germany, you would be translating from German into English.

Past experience as a lawyer or engineer or IT expert will make you more attractive as a translator in those fields—even without any translation-specific experience.  Read widely in the field in which you intend to translate.  Practice.

Online literary magazine no man's land has a guide for literary translators, who will have a different set of procedures to follow when looking for and submitting work than commercial translators.

If you find a contract position as a translator, you won’t need to worry as much about your business skills, but if you decide to take the freelance route, you will need to be able to find and keep clients, keep up on administrative tasks like billing and taxes, advertise your services, create a website, and motivate yourself to meet deadlines.

In fact, the ability to meet deadlines might be one of the most important skills a translator can learn, next to writing skills.  According to Katy Derbyshire, a freelance literary translator:

"It’s important that you have writing skills in your native language.  I think if you can’t write in your native language, there is no need to start a career as a translator. That’s what you’re doing on a day to day basis. You’re writing in your native language, and you have to understand the source language, but you need those writing skills in whatever form. It’s quite isolated at times, so you shouldn’t have to have people around you at all times. I think you need to be a good communicator. You need to be able to stick to deadlines but that’s probably the same in most jobs. Deadlines will lose you more customers than anything else."

Do I need certification?

Whether or not translators in Germany need certification is up for debate.  If you are looking for a contract position within a company, a certificate will put you ahead of any competitors lacking that official recognition.  In other cases, a degree in any field will do—particularly if that field is relevant to the field in which you will be translating.

In an interview with The Local, translator Clare Howes says: "In Germany qualified English translators are quite sought after. But you definitely need to do a masters—every English-speaker coming to live in Germany thinks they can become a translator just like that. Lots of people believe they can translate, but firms are always going to pick those with proper qualifications."

The translator behind the website German Translation Tips & Resources also gives a convincing argument for certification: "The online marketplace for German translation puts downward pressure on prices and there is nothing to stop anyone calling themselves a translator. As a result, official recognition of your qualifications and abilities is becoming more important than ever."

But the American Translators Association say certification is unnecessary. "Are translators without ATA certification ‘bad’? Not at all! In some cases, there is no certification exam available in the individual's language combination. And often the translator is well-established and does not need the additional confirmation of skills."

If you do want to pursue certification, you can do so through a large number of organizations.  You can find an index of these here.  Translation is also a course of study at many universities.  You can find an index of many of these programs here.

How do I get experience translating?

In order to land your first job, it will be helpful to have some experience under your belt and some examples of your translation work in your portfolio. Derbyshire recommends that aspiring literary translators translate short stories and submit them to magazines in order to get some published translations onto your resume.

If you cannot manage to get a translation published, or you are more interested in working in a commercial translation field like marketing, simply pick out some appropriate texts and translate them for your portfolio.  They may never have been published, but they will showcase your skills to a potential employer.  Another option is to find a non-profit organization and volunteer your translation services.  Not only will you be doing a good deed, you'll be building your portfolio and getting your name as a translator out to a potential future paying customer.

What is a translator’s work day like?

A translator’s average day looks a lot like the average day of any writer—and ultimately, a translator is a writer, just a writer with very specific starting points for his or her work.

In an interview with Slightly Bookish, Derbyshire describes what her average day looks like:

"I get up early and go to my office, which I share with two very quiet people. Usually I’m the first to get here so I’ll sneak on to Facebook, check a few blogs, and so on. I supplement my income with other kinds of translation, which I try to get out of the way beforehand. Then I start working on the novel by reviewing what I translated the previous day. I’m quite fast so that can be up to about ten pages, depending on the text. There are always a fair amount of changes to be made at that stage, the second draft. Then I get stuck into translating. When things are going well I’ll be immersed in the text and my office mates can’t talk to me because I don’t really hear them. I research things as I go along, mainly on the internet but I also have a fairly large collection of different dictionaries and reference works. For things that need more in-depth research, I’ll get hold of books and read them at home. At some stage I’ll contact the author with my questions, but I like to save them up and ask them all in one go, so ideally (if the writer is in Berlin or is visiting) I might meet up with them one evening to discuss things."

German Tips

Translator: der Übersetzer, die Übersetzerin, plural die Übersetzer

Translation: die Übersetzung, plural die Übersetzungen

Interpreter: der Dolmetscher, die Dolmetscherin

by Nicolette Stewart