How to become a translator

Published: Thursday 11th February 2021

Elderly man writing as a translator

Are you thinking of becoming a translator? You’re not alone! Thousands of people are entering this fascinating field every year. This field is usually pursued by people who are enamored with language and who enjoy the intricacies of converting meaning and information from one context to another. 

Interested? Here’s how to become a translator

What is a translator?

A professional translator translates written work from one language into another. Translators work primarily with written materials. The job is often confused with interpreting, which is a separate field that involves translating spoken language in real time. 

Translators often work in two specific languages: usually one’s native language and a target language. However, there is technically no limit to the number of languages you can work in, and many translators work in three, four, or more languages. You will usually work to translate between one language and another, and vice versa. Or, you can specialize in simply going from one language to another. For example, you may have the ability to write and read in both English and Spanish, but you may specialize in translating from English to Spanish specifically. 

Translators can work in a wide variety of contexts. You could work primarily in the healthcare and legal sectors, translating documents on complex subjects for patients and legal clients. You could work in the arts, translating books, film scripts, and other written materials for consumption in different markets. Or you could work on the technical side of things, working to translate business materials, technical manuals, and other content into the right language. 

You will often work with dedicated computer software. Machine translation is becoming increasingly popular in the industry. Machines cannot convert language with the same precision and clarity as a translator, so you may need to use such programs to translate large amounts of text and then review and edit the final product in order to ensure meaning and information is correctly conveyed.  

What education do I need to become a translator?

There is no formal education or advanced degree required to become a translator. However, most practitioners have at least a bachelor’s degree, usually in their target language. The only requirement for the job is being fluent in two or more language, and great reading and writing skills in both languages. 

Do I need any other experience or qualifications?

Woman lookign out the window as she comes up with the nest sentence she will translate

Because there are no formal requirements for this profession, there are a range of certifications, proficiency tests, and other means translators can use to display their competence.

Continuing education is necessary to keep your skills sharp. Such courses can be taken through organizations like the American Translator’s Association, which offers certification in over 29 language combinations. Many private companies may also offer proprietary certifications that can act as proficiency markers. 

Aside from certifications, there are other things you can do to help you along in your career. Spending time living in a country that speaks your target language can be very helpful. You will also need to continuously research niche and specialized fields of writing in order to expand your knowledge and keep your skills sharp. 

Mains duties

In general, your duties as a translator will include:

  • Converting written work from one language into another
  • Maintaining original meaning and facts
  • Relaying style and tone
  • Compiling terms, phrases, and technical language into databases for future use
  • Researching topics and writing styles to increase knowledge
  • Working with clients to ensure work meets specified needs
  • Consulting with industry experts on various subjects to ensure accuracy is maintained
  • Maintaining an understanding of shifts in language and culture and how that will affect one’s written work

Where are all the translator jobs?

Most translators work on a freelance basis, promoting their services on freelancing websites and working with contracts as and when they come. In this case, you would work remotely and submit your work to tight deadlines.

You may also wish to work for a translation agency. These organizations usually have a steady stream of work from organizations such as government agencies and large private companies. 

There may also be openings for full-time translation services at larger organizations that work across languages, such as multinational corporations and NGOs.


Young woman looking out the window thinking about how to become a translator

Translator salaries vary widely between industries and individuals. Salaries are actually quite rare in the field, as most people work freelance and therefore charge by the word or hour. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median yearly income for a translator in the US is around $51,000. On the lower end, people earned around $28,000. On the higher end, individuals earned around $94,000.

Your income will also be dependent on the languages you are proficient in. While demand for translation in popular languages like French, German, and Spanish will remain high, demand for growing languages in the US will increase in the future. Such languages may include Chinese, Hindi, Punjabi, Korean, Malay, Tagalog, Arabic, Vietnamese, Telugu, Urdu, Bengali, and Gujarati. There may also be demand for obscure languages where supply is low, such as Hmong and Karen.

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