How to become a professional translator or interpreter

What is the difference between a translator and an interpreter, anyway?

Technically, the word “translator” covers both translating and interpreting. For those who are interested in working as language professionals, however, the first thing is to understand what each job actually entails. In the language industry, a distinction is made between the written word and the spoken word: translators read something that is written in one language and write it out in another language, while interpreters listen to what someone says in one language and then say it in another. In this post, we’ll explain the work that translators and interpreters do, how those jobs sometimes overlap with each other, and how language lovers can gain the skills and knowledge they need to produce professional-quality work.

What kind of work does a translator do? How about an interpreter?

There are many commonalities between translators and interpreters. They can work in nearly any field, from international business and community organizing to health care, journalism, sports and entertainment, and anything in between. Both can work as freelancers or in-house employees, as full-time or part-time jobs. Sometimes a person can be hired to both translate and interpret. Occasionally the two jobs intersect and a translator or interpreter will be asked to do something called “sight translation” in which they translate a text out loud. That is, instead of producing a new written text, they translate on the spot, silently reading a text—one short passage at a time—and then telling the listener(s) what each passage says. Both freelance and in-house jobs can be at a translation or interpreting agency or working directly for the organization needing the translation or interpreting work (for example, a hospital, law firm, or school).

When thinking about entering the industry and deciding which route you prefer to go, it’s essential to understand the fundamental difference between the two tasks: translators can take the time (within reason!) to choose just the right word or phrase, while interpreters are working in “real time” and must choose their words much more quickly.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth of 24% is expected in this field in the United States between 2020 and 2030, or an average of about 10,000 job openings per year (Interpreters and Translators: Occupational Outlook Handbook: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

How to become a professional

Several factors are key to becoming a professional translator or interpreter: language skills, education/training, and a love of learning.

Language skills

The first step in becoming a translator is making sure you have a thorough grounding in at least two languages. This most often involves spending a longer period of time living in a country where your foreign language or languages are spoken and immersing yourself in the language(s).

Translators work into their native language almost exclusively. There can be some exceptions to this rule, however. For example, if a person’s native language is Spanish (spoken at home with the family), but they grew up in the United States, attended English-language schools, and have a bachelor’s degree from a college or university in the U.S., they will likely be most successful translating into English. Interpreters need to speak at least two languages fluently, as they will be working in both directions (for example, interpreting a doctor’s questions and comments from English into Mandarin, and then interpreting the patient’s responses from Mandarin into English).

Translators must be good writers in their target language (the language the text is translated into) and have an excellent understanding of the source language (the language the text was written in originally). In addition to understanding and speaking the languages fluently, interpreters must be decisive and able to think on their feet. There is no time to dither about word choices or rack your brain for vocabulary. You won’t always find the exact word you want, but you must be able to talk around any terminology gaps in a way that captures the sentiments expressed by the speaker.

Education and training

Education and training (such as internships) are a key element in becoming a professional translator or interpreter. An accredited academic program provides students with techniques to improve their skills and opportunities to practice them while getting feedback from experts, in addition to helping them make connections within the industry. It’s even better if you earn a master’s degree in translation and/or interpreting after first earning a degree or gaining work experience in an area you’re interested in specializing in, such as chemistry, health care, or law.

Your options for education and training will, of course, vary based on your location. Here we’ll focus on what is available in the United States. Some options for master’s degrees include an MS in Translation & Interpreting at New York University or an MA in Translation; Translation and Interpretation; or Conference Interpretation at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

A less-intensive route is to earn a certificate in translation. Arizona State University, for example, offers both undergraduate and graduate certificates. Community colleges are another good place to look for certificates in translation or interpreting, such as the certificate in Translation and Interpretation at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado.

The American Translators Association is an excellent source of information for newcomers to the industry, offering guidance for students and others interested in pursuing the profession. The ATA even has a program to connect newcomers with mentors to help them along their path and holds an annual conference attended by participants from all over the globe. If you are outside the U.S., check for a local translators association to find similar information and services for your location, such as the BDÜ (German Association of Translators and Interpreters).

Love of learning

For translators and interpreters, a love of learning and an interest in the world are paramount. Each job you work on brings opportunities to learn about new subjects or deepen your knowledge of ones you are already familiar with. You might even discover an affinity for something you never would have imagined: Here at GLS, many of our employees have developed a fondness for translating drug manufacturing documentation.

To really thrive as a translator or interpreter, you must be willing and eager to accept and learn from feedback. If it’s not offered by your employer or clients, ask for it! Only by reflecting on your work and incorporating feedback from editors and clients can you grow as a translator or interpreter. Be open to what they have to say, and don’t take it personally.

Translators typically pick an area of specialization (or more than one). They make their choice based on a variety of factors: topics that interest them personally, subjects they’ve studied at a university level, areas of strong demand for their language combination(s), etc. Specializations can be fairly narrow or broader—nuclear waste disposal, for example, or chemistry.

The GLS commitment to quality translation

As you can see, working as a translator or interpreter at a professional level requires some preparation and a good deal of knowledge. It’s not something that just anyone with a dictionary and 2 years of high school German can do. We here at GLS are well aware of this, which is why all our translators who work for us in-house have a degree in translation or languages and undergo rigorous training with us once they join the company.

GLS is an ISO-certified translation agency that provides high-quality, accurate, and well-written German ↔︎ English translations. Learn more about what we do.

Noelle Knapp-Lucero