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Should I Become A Translator?

First off, your heart alone can answer that. I can only map out a few questions and considerations for the two of you to meditate.

The next few paragraphs may amount to a tall order to someone straight out of university as well as to non-grads with all the right ingredients but give yourself a break because, if you’ve gotten this far, your heart headed you here and when you really want something and start doing something about getting there, you find allies along the way, along the same way that gives you time to fill in the blanks somehow or other.

Discard concern about conforming to a one-size-fits-all profile. Good translators may come in any size, shape and color: neurotic but idealistic language teachers, laid-off factory workers, ex-army commandos in from the cold, sharp disbarred lawyers, retired physicians and poetic alcoholics. We are all human. We all have both failings and the strengths that flourish from them: you are one of us to at least some extent.

Next, mercilessly strangle any noble aspirations you may have of translating enough true literature in the near term to pay bills regularly: the royalties are small change unless you do dimestore novels and better literature largely goes to academics with connections, doctorates, tenures and bibliographies of Amazonian length and Pacific depth.

Most translations are intended for extremely narrow readerships, e.g. user manuals for lens polishing machines, sale contracts & commercial leases, government tenders, depositions, spec sheets and things of the like. So this begs the question of how innately curious you are. Innate curiosity is easy to measure: if you see someone in his 70s walking backwards along a park path around a lawn, do you see a loony and give him wide berth or do you feel like asking him why he’s doing that?

The Holy Trinity of Translation is Language Proficiency, Specialization and Writing Skills and the ideal translator is a seriously bilingual and bicultural lad or lass with several years of work experience in absolutely any one field who writes great emails and loves crosswords, anagrams and the like.

Language proficiency is about feeling comfortable in two wordworlds: have you got it or are you prepared to get it by spending at least two years in a country that speaks your source language (i.e. the language you want to translate out of)? Specialization is about hands-on knowledge of anything from basketweaving and meatpacking to phased array radar technology and offshore oil services. Writing skills is about how many different ways you can express the same thought in properly spelt and punctuated sentences.

But there’s more. Documents arrive in different formats: how much of Microsoft Office can you exploit? Some terms are special to an industry or even a company: how deep are you willing to dig to find the right match in the target language (your mother tongue)? A touch of masochism helps: are you deadline-drive and able to work under pressure? Being a bit of a neatness freak helps too: are you a perfectionist about layout, spelling, carriage returns, numbering, spelling, grammar and, just before you do the final SAVE, can you go through a document to remove all the extra spaces after the periods and all the extra line feeds on the last page? Yes, the spell/grammar checker will help lots, but it suggests the occasional howler too—you have to have some personal judgment now and then.

Finally, translation is as much as business as hamburger retailing: how much managerial, bookkeeping, advertising and networking skill have you got? Or willing to cultivate? Some clients studiously avoid immoderate honesty: can you go after money folks owe you like a Strella locking in an MH-47 Chinook? How easy is it to browbeat you in believing your work was gibberish unfit for printing on dried but used nappies? Some clients freak out when you use terms they’re not comfortable with: are you willing to adjust your impeccable prose and wordchoices down to someone’s expectations? Some clients feel alienated and dispossessed of their ideas when they see the reflection of their thought in the mirror of a foreign language: are you open to nurturing folks beyond their any vaguely defined concerns they fret over? Most clients will cheerfully acknowledge that it’s OK for you to know their business less well than they do but get justifiably heated up when your translation reads like pure fudge: are you brave enough to commit to paper exactly what you’ve understood in plain language, flag it as a question and cheerfully appreciate the frowns, feedback and corrections? Or are you tempted to hide your ignorance behind vague, ambivalent terms and syntax?

Language Proficiency

This is far more than speaking one language at home and another in your environment or pocketing a degree in a given second language. Not only do different folks use different words and grammars, they also think differently, their emotions respond to different stimuli and they have different moral value systems, e.g. the French read women’s liberation along a scale of values that goes from traditional to modern lifestyles while Americans read it along a scale from slavery to freedom; chrysanthemums are suitable gifts only for dead girlfriends in France; a smaller share of European women consider adultery is grounds for divorce than American women.

Your immigrant parents probably taught you such distinctions only incompletely because they’ve been adjusting their native standards to the country you were all brought up in. Moreover, languages are like flesh: they are subject to the law of birth, growth, old age and death. Immigrant parents lose contact with the evolution of their native tongue by living outside their native culture: you have to go back there for at least two years to get the hang of how folks think, act, feel, talk, gesticulate and generally operate. Or you have this degree in Tibetan from the University of Hintertupfingen that didn’t teach you any of the Chinese loanwords in the terminology of ATM maintenance training in Lhasa: you have to go there for at least two years too—who knows what China will be exporting next! But the baseline is about becoming bi-cultural: learning the mindset behind the words.


You get these agencies that list every discipline and language they can think of and polish off both lists with “and others”. So you sit there and do a piece of dumb arithmetic: you take the 40 languages they list, multiply it by the 40 disciplines they list and infer that they have 1,600 translators. And that’s only if they do all 40 only into English: double the figure because they are implying they work both ways and serious translators only translate into their mother tongue. Start raising that figure by a few dozen powers because the ad also implies they can mix ‘n’ match any which way: like Swahili and Urdu or Greek and Samoan and this is before you factor in the specializations. In short, get really focused, ideally, by listing one foreign language, one target language and one area of expertise. Choose the area of expertise from your job history: a smart bilingual bookkeeper should be able to translate accounting, a smart factory worker should be able to do industrial user manuals. If you’ve got a degree, check with friends with family—you have convenient, readymade mentors all around you: if dad’s a psychopathologist, if mom’s a sex worker or if your spouse is anybody’s combat diver, they are walking dictionaries and encyclopedias (fields: psychology, police/legal and military respectively). They have detailed knowledge of a trade, know their trade literature and can find out who publishes their mindfood. Target their trade literature for your ads—go down to the publishers, talk to someone who can identify which issues to advertise in: some issues are far more widely read than others. Relatives and friends with expertise can also explain the fuzzy parts of any sentences you are translating, which is critical to minimizing mistranslations. You WILL make mistakes: we only murder virtual doc files but by analogy, the more patients a surgeon has killed, the higher her/his skill levels

Writing Skills

You have to enjoy writing. You have to enjoy playing with words and figuring out the meaning and intentions behind the words: some brilliant specialists write terribly but clients and readers will be judging you by the clarity of your translation. Although the Internet and websites like Translators Café are enabling the creation of social and professional networks whose potential is still early in the curve, translation is a lonely job and it helps if you can get playful about the words you handle: can you stop and wonder why aircraft have no wing nuts? Or why they have cosmonauts, official state atheism and censorship while we have astronauts, separation of church and state, and news management? If the Hebrew original uses the word “terrorist”, does your bent of mind translate it as “freedom fighter”? If you do that, you probably just blooped big time. Or did you add quotations not found in the original: you blooped bad anyhow.

PC Skills

Translators are keyboard warriors: you need all 10 trigger fingers. Take touchtyping lessons with a bunch of bowheads for big bucks if you have to. Documents come in different formats based on different software: pirate or buy it and learn it (buy the real thing as soon as you can for the tech support—crashes ALWAYS happen somewhere towards the end of your document on the eve of your deadline and the lost business will erase any savings you made using pirated software). You have to have reasonably state-of-the-art versions: Windows 3.0 and Word 2.0 will not do; Windows 98 and Word 97 can maybe still get by for the output (as at July 2005) but you may have problems importing documents into Word 97 that were generated under later versions of Word and the lost enrichments may cost you repeat business. You have to have, and regularly update, your anti-virus and spyware software. Though most clients won’t ask for it, you may need encryption software—all documents from any client are confidential by definition. Even a client’s name is confidential: if your combination is Hebrew to Chinese and I know your field is electronics, give me the name of a client who just commissioned a translation system for you, I can find out what the company makes, look at which China is likely to want and perhaps become able to infer that, say, Israel is selling China another advanced air defense system that will have Washington seething, causing your client’s deal to fall through.

You may also need a safe: the loss or leakage of any classified material will leave you with many-many time-consuming questions to answer, sometimes by two interrogators, one nice, one nasty. They take turns and do shiftwork on you. Room and board will be free but you may not get a window or have any control over meal times, menus, air temperature, humidity, noise levels, type of music and volume, WC/shower access or even the light switch. They take away your cellphone, MP3 and gameboy too. You will not like that.

But this is very unlikely to happen to you: classified material usually gets translated in-house or goes to colleagues who already have security clearances that cost tens of thousands of dollars to get.

Living With Your CAT

Also relevant are CAT tools, or computer-assisted translation software. You can still survive without it for the time being but if you have it, your chances of securing commissions improve nicely. That said, increasing numbers of agencies and clients expect you to buy that software and then use it against you to pay you a lower word rate. However, once you establish your reputation on the marketplace, you become immune to such practices: nice quality is a jewel that many clients and some agencies are prepared to garnish with at least the standard rate for your language pair(s).

Business Skills & Setup

You have to know what a purchase order is: you are a light bulb and the purchase order is what operates you: when you have one, you turn ON, without one, you sit tight in the OFF position. If you have a duly completed p/o, you stand a good chance of securing payment, if not you fall prey to the mercy of your client plus that of your unpaid landlord, heartless utility companies, unfed children, wailing housepets and various bailiffs or Federal marshals—some traditionally-minded countries do not have such officers because they send you straight to debtor’s prison.

Next contact a bill collection agency or smart business owner to find out the right contents of a p/o, its various forms and how to collect payment from folks with creative payment practices. You will also feel more comfortable knowing all the rules and, if necessary, making an appointment with someone who did his best to charm you into using their services.

You need to do bookkeeping. You have to invoice and track payments. You have to advertise; to advertise you have to write up the ad copy and do the graphics to sex it up. You have to socialize on the Internet, join voluntary associations—many are sponsored, patronized and frequented by prominent figures with oodles of connections to paid work: 40%+ of salaried recruitment happens through personal contacts. I don’t know the figure for freelance translations but I do know that word-of-mouth will get you the clients who pay the best rates and stand the best chance of becoming loyal customers.

If you are bookkeeping drives you up the wall, you can farm that out but you have to understand it anyhow, otherwise you’re leaving yourself open to all sorts of fraud and embezzlement.


See a smart accountant before going into business—incorporating as a physical may not be the way to go. The consultation may be expensive but it will save you more money than you can imagine ever even earning when you’re all inexperienced and scared about taking the leap.

Power & Humility

You incarnate the skills to package content in polished form; your client has the content. Most clients realize a good product depends on an alloy of both skills. If you can’t find a term, flag it and ask. If a sentence is unclear, flag it, translate it in the plainest way you can, add an alternate translation if you have one using the NEW COMMENT function of the REVIEWING toolbar and ask the author. There is no shame in not knowing something but everybody suffers if you try to pass off fudge for real substance. Stand your ground on style as gentle-firmly as possible but bow gracefully to client choices on terminology and, even if it means a clumsier final wording, rephrase anything s/he is not comfortable with: remember that the author has to feel confident about your product.


Hire one as soon as soon as you can afford it. Have separate phones with HOLD buttons on each. You may be able to find cut-price interns from secretarial schools. They can be better than fresh graduates with translation diplomas. But talk to each. At regular points in time, ask different friends to phone your assistant, inquire about services and ask for quotes. Have them ask your assistant ask you to call them back. Then see what happens.


You have to be reachable in as many different ways as possible: email, voice & fax landline, cellphones and mobile messaging. Handwritten faxes remain the most secure medium of generally available transmission today. Telephone answering machines are only for use between bedtime and breakfast; if you sleep lightly and fall back asleep easily however, spare yourself that investment. Buy an email address: Yahoo, Hotmail and even AOL are for fly-by-nighters. Choose the account name carefully: or bubbleboobs@whoopeeword.alt will not do. Invest as much money as you can in a professionally-designed, maintained and updated website.


Deadlines are sacred: miss one and your market value falls to that of a monolingual kindergartener holding a freshly opened box of brand new crayons. Baby’s upset tummy that diverted you to the clinic for a whole afternoon or the broken collar bone from the morning’s football match mean the same thing: you have missed a deadline with a great excuse but just lost the customer anyhow. Agencies will invoke breach of contract and not pay: they just lost their client, right? One marketing study reports that every unsatisfied customer talks to at least 11 potential customers; another study says the 11 is 15. You may whine about their heartlessness but your name will be moaned around the office and over their professional networks. If you followed the advice to specialize, the grim news will soon start sinking in.

Negotiate the longest deadline you can, but once you’ve committed to a date, honor it. Before you commit to a date, make sure you have all the assurances you need on your end to get the job done.

Help Clients Help You

Ask for background papers, glossaries, earlier editions of the same document, the purpose of the document and its context in the processes that spawned it; also inquire about intended readerships and formatting needs, e.g. pdf, doc or rtf and line numbering. Figure out your client’s personality to spot insecurities and unexpressed needs. Unless absolutely impossible, deliver your first translation in person or arrange for a personal appointment on the day of delivery when negotiating the deadline—this gives the two of you to identify problems neither of you had foreseen and to correct them on the spot. Make notes of any special needs you discover for future reference. If the client is happy when you part company, s/he is very likely to become repeat business, if only because you took a personal interest in her/him.

Free Translations

‘Pro bono’ or ‘voluntary’ translations are a good way to start off. Contact your town hall and surf the Internet to identify local non-profit organizations (also called NGOs, PVOs and INGOs) that may need your services. Because they are local, you can get detailed feedback on the quality and presentation of your translations, secure job references and build up a network of professional contacts that way: all of them can connect you to paid work and they will out of gratitude sooner or later. Non-profit translation agencies are actually part of profit-driven translation agencies and they get to keep the precious contacts to paid work all to themselves—go to them only if you expect never to need to earn a living from translation. Or if you cannot use a telephone directory and PC. Moreover, you might be able to get tax breaks for free translations.


The perk is working for yourself with freedom to manage your time as you see fit, within the limits of your deadlines

The perk is being able to live anywhere in range of the Internet. You can live in Siberia and translate for Miami or work for Hintertupfingen and live in the Himalayas.

The perk is inside insight to leading-edge research, business deals, technology and whatever—and a peek at how these things are interconnecting to shape daily reality and the world around you.

The perk is developing a binocular vision of the world through a deeper understanding of contrasting mindsets and value systems—the more you understand them, the more aware you become of your own.

The perk is sharpening and expanding your natural curiosity.

The perk is doing something you love.

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