Volume 15, No. 3 
July 2011

  Danilo Nogueira Kelli Semolini


Front Page

  Translation Journal

The Profession

How to become a translator

by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

e keep a blog in Portuguese called Tradutor Profissional (www.tradutorprofissional.com), where we write mainly about the reverse side of translating: taxes, how to behave as a professional, how to deal with clients, and so on. As a result, we receive lots of e-mail every week, with a great variety of questions. We try to answer all of them and help everybody, but there are limits to what we can do.

How can I become a translator?

Can we say the same about our industry?

Above all, network! Believe it or not, your colleagues are the best source of work.
As many of the posts are targeted at beginners looking for guidance, this is probably the most frequent question we are asked. First of all, translating is not a licensed profession in any country we know of. That means a degree in Translation Studies is not a requirement to practice. Anyone can wake up some day and decide: "Hmmm, now I'm a translator." As a consequence, the ways to becoming a translator are many—and none of them offers guaranteed success. We know many translators, but no two have trodden the same path. You see now how hard it is to answer the question?

However, every path begins at the same point: studying. If you don't like to study and research or have no patience for it, you're not cut for the job, and the best advice we can give you is to give up. Then, the path splits in two: you can study Languages, Linguistics or Translation—or you can study (and/or work in) something else.

The first career choice

This first career choice is not easy. The other day, a 17-year-old youngster contacted us, kind of desperate, because he had to choose his profession before going to college and couldn't decide between Translation Studies and Cinema. Choosing a profession sounds so definitive, so forever, that no 17-year-old should have (or be allowed) to do it. But they must decide, and what they don't often realize is that, despite looking like a definitive decision, it is not. We bet many of you have changed professions at least once in your life; we surely did. So we told him to try and relax.

In fact, translation benefits greatly from life experience, which often—not always—comes with age.

But, even if temporarily, a choice has to be made and any choice has advantages and disadvantages.

By choosing to take a degree in Linguistics, Languages, or Translation Studies, you may hone your writing and grammar skills, which might help you develop a greater ability to play with words. We don't need to explain how important this ability is for a translator. The weakness of such education is: what is this professional supposed to translate? Take Kelli as an example. She has a degree in Languages and Linguistics. When she graduated, she barely knew a bolt from a nut, had never heard of assets and liabilities (not even in Portuguese!) and so on. We don't see a niche for such professional.

You may say that these professionals can translate Linguistics. Or books and articles on translation studies. Or literature. Well, of course they can, and they will probably be good at it. But there is only so much material to be translated in these areas, and too many bachelors in Translation Studies to deal with the task. As a result, they end up translating whatever text that may fall into their hands: a newspaper article, a medical book or the manual for an airplane. They will translate it because there are bills to pay and food to buy. Yes, many will learn by doing. Not the ideal scenario? Well, the world is not ideal, either.

However, dedicated professionals will find their way no matter what, and even beginners who have never heard of assets and liabilities may do a decent translation if they research properly. Both of us are cases in point: whatever we know of accounting and finance, we learned by translating, researching and studying in our free time, for neither of us has any formal training in the area. Not easy, but quite possible.

Niches can be very comfortable, but...

People who studied or worked in other areas have niches, but have to rely on their own talent with words and discipline to study and learn about translation, since speaking two languages is only the beginning; in addition, knowing a foreign language just passably well is a minus; translators need in-depth knowledge of their second language, a type of knowledge that cannot be gathered from searching the Web.

Also, don't go thinking you speak a language well because it is your mother tongue. You probably do not know enough about your own language to translate into it. Obviously, you can say whatever you want in your native language; however, as a translator, you must say what someone else said, and that is a different task.

We are tired of receiving e-mails from people who write poorly, cannot structure their thoughts logically and admit their knowledge of a foreign language is not that good, but they want to be translators and ask us how to.

First of all, these people have to study languages. We think they should start by reading an awful lot of everything, from real estate catalogues to cell phone manuals to drug leaflets. Important: in their mother tongue. This is how you learn to use the resources of your language, how to explain your thoughts so that someone can understand what you say without guessing.

Second, they should study grammar. Syntax. Morphology. If they didn't pay attention to what their high school language teacher said, that is their loss. They'll have to learn on their own. Only after they have acquired high levels of knowledge in their mother tongue should they study a foreign language. For every hour studying a foreign language, spend two studying your mother tongue.

After all that, we can think of niches. If you have a degree in Law, there is a great deal of legal texts waiting for you. The same if you are an engineer, doctor, or scientist. But, if you were a crappy student/professional, it may not work that well after all. What we are saying is: if you change professions and are counting on your old one to become a good translator, regardless of you reasons to pursue that change, it is crucial that you were good at what you used to do. That is what we told our 17-year-old: if you want to study Cinema, go ahead. Be good at it. Then, when you grow tired of it, turn yourself to translation and be good at it too.

Hey, there's more!

Beginner translators and translator wannabes ask lots of questions, not only about choices. They live in small towns in the middle of nowhere, how can they find clients? They are too old/young, isn't it a problem? They've lived in a foreign country for six months and have never really studied the language, but can become translators, right? "I have a passion for languages, can I become a translator?"

An ageless profession

Translators are ageless. Agencies and final clients usually don't give a hoot if you're 22, 45 or 60. In fact, contrary to what is the rule in many other professions, being too young may work against you. We have said before: life experience is of great help for translators, not only because you had more time to learn and improve your translation/niche knowledge, but also (and mainly) because older people have been through a lot. They've had more time to have more experiences, to learn about music, movies, popular sayings. You never know when this "side" knowledge will be helpful in your activity as a translator—you only know it will.

But then, again, it is not that young people should not translate: they just have to research more.

I live in Back of Nowhere Village!

Yes, you do indeed. But, since you sent an e-mail, we assume you can access the internet. And we will assume further: somehow, you manage to have a broadband connection at home. And there you go, you don't live in Back of Nowhere Village anymore, you have moved to WWW town. Each and every translator lives on the internet. We don't know our clients in person. They probably don't know what we look like, our marital status, whether we have children or even where we live. They know "Brazil" and that is good enough for them—and there is no reason why you cannot translate from English into Brazilian Portuguese and live in Sweden.

I have a passion for languages!

Living in a foreign country, being bilingual, studying a foreign language for a decade, having a passion for languages are pluses, but not enough. Translating is much more than that!

You know those detectives in the movies who say you have to get into the killer's head in order to get him? That is what we do. We have to get into our writer's head, think the way he thinks, understand what he thinks, and why he thinks that way. Then, and only then, can we translate properly.

We can't help but think about bank correspondence during the recent financial crisis. Banks had the obligation to deliver terrible news to both clients and shareholders, but no bank wants to do that. So, they prepared wonderful, even poetic letters and press releases. Beautiful texts that made us feel like hanging the writer by his foot and tickle him to death. An unprepared or distracted reader could think that, despite the chaos in the whole world, everything was fine with their account. But the poetic language hid terrible news, of course. As we were translating, we couldn't get rid of the nature of the text. In Portuguese, it had to be as beautiful and deceitful as it was in English.

I am/want to be a translator, but I don't like computers: I treat them like sophisticated typewriters

Then you should look for another profession. Seriously, the typewriter era is gone, has been gone for a long time and is gone for good. Deal with it. Computers are not fancy typewriters. Don't learn how to use Word; we did that 15 years ago. Learn how to take advantage of it. Learn how to use track changes. Learn how to use CAT tools, as many as possible, and choose the one that best fits your needs. Learn how to deal with the easiest software and hardware problems you might have.

Ok, but How can I Get Clients?

That is the question we dread the most. Not because we are afraid of competition. We think everybody has a place under the sun. But, when Danilo started, over forty years ago, no one told him how to get clients. When Kelli started, three years ago, she didn't ask how to get clients. After all, isn't it obvious? It is like any other profession: you prepare your résumé, no matter how little you have to put in there, and send it to every agency and company you think might need translation services; you tell your family and friends you are now a translator; you make yourself known in the area. Go to conferences, both about translation and your niche. Participate in discussion lists, forums, social networks. Have a professionally designed and printed business card.

Above all, network! Believe it or not, your colleagues are the best source of work.

We got most of our clients from our colleagues' indications. They remembered us because we are always present: on Twitter, Facebook, our blog, helping when they have doubts, asking for help when we have doubts, or even just chit-chatting for a few minutes. Study hard, make your presence felt, make people remember you for the right reasons and you'll be fine.