Advice on becoming a translator.
September 17, 2009 9:33 AM   Subscribe

I would like advice, suggestions, and knowledge concerning my intention to enter into the field of translation.

Firstly, let me say that I am not doing this alone. My significant other is also a gifted linguist, and we both are planning on embarking on this mission.

First, the rationale:

We both want a good job that pays well and allows us to travel and work at the same time. We do not have a desire to be wealthy. We both have liberal arts degrees, so getting in the door of a corporate entity without specific skills, more education, and with the results we want seems unlikely.

The plan: Learn 5 languages.

The tools: Rosetta Stone Version 3, all languages.

Available languages in that toolset:

Spanish (latin america / spain)

We currently both speak English (native) and Spanish (fluent). The plan is, over the next 1-2 years, to learn 3 more languages to a fluency level. Our hope is that we can both get jobs in some field that allows to travel globally while working.

The appeal: We are both academically minded, and enjoy studying and hard work. We don't want to pay more money for continuing higher education. The concept that we could simply be rigorous in our study of languages over time and then convert that into a travel-oriented career path as a result of nothing more than hard work is very attractive.

The languages: The current plan is to have English, Spanish, French, German, and Mandarin under our belts. We have also considered Arabic and Italian.

The questions: Should we choose different languages? Which ones are in highest demand, and allow us to travel? What kinds of businesses or non-profits could we expect to find us desirable? Is it even possible for two people to get jobs with the same company and on the same assignments? What kind of pay could we expect? Is 5 languages enough? Does adding more increase our attractiveness and pay? I love Rosetta Stone's teaching strategy so far. Should we supplement it with other resources? Any other additional information would be much appreciated.
posted by lazaruslong to Work & Money (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I'm leaving for work, but will be back this evening to answer any questions others may have to properly assess our needs. Thanks, MeFi.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:34 AM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Oh yeah, one additional question, for folks with experience with Rosetta Stone: The program is pretty solo-study oriented, in the sense that you need to speak into the mic and have the headphones on to work in it. What "hacks" or strategies could we use to either change the learning experience into a cooperative one, or supplement it with cooperative learning?
posted by lazaruslong at 9:38 AM on September 17, 2009

I know a very gifted woman who speaks 6 languages who we have hired a few times to speak all those languages, but even she admits that she could not be certified to translate in all of those languages. Have you checked into certification requirements for translation? That's the best way to go if you want to be consistently paid for this type of work. You would need to take exams which may involve a cost.

While you're getting started, look for conferences that have simultaneous interpretation services. Your costs may be covered but you would be a volunteer. This would give you experience in translation.

What type of organisation do you want to work for? I would say the best bet would be to pick the UN official languages - Mandarin, English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic. Unless you have a desire to live somewhere specific, that would cover a great deal and this langauge set is used by many other NGOs (including the one I work for).

I'm working with Rosetta Stone right now (very, very recently started on Spanish). There are different packs and styles, but none are really cooperative.
posted by wingless_angel at 9:45 AM on September 17, 2009

Are you looking to become a translator (that is, written), or an interpreter (spoken)? Or are you open to either?
posted by brainmouse at 9:52 AM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry, should have clarified: We are open to any industry or career that makes use of being multi-lingual, whether it be translation, interpretation, or anything else. As for desirable organizations, pretty much as long as they are not evil or involved with the military, it's cool. The best would be a great non-profit that needs multi-lingual assistance.

And with that, I really have to walk out the door. Please keep the great knowledge coming!
posted by lazaruslong at 9:57 AM on September 17, 2009

I'd be really surprised if you could learn Mandarin simultaneous with French and German in five years, and become fluent enough to translate without actually living in China. Even the most gifted person in language (being gifted as a linguist isn't really the same thing) would probably gain spoken fluency but have a hard time with written translation. Even then without exposure to the various accents of Mandarin in China, I'm not sure how effective your studied fluency would be.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 10:00 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Professional translators work (or should work) ONLY into their native language(s), so if your native language is English you shouldn't be working into Spanish, or between say Spanish and French. It seems rather unrealistic to expect to learn even one new language to working - technical, business, legal, medical, financial - level in two years, unless you were completely immersed in that language, i.e. living in a country where it is spoken and working damm hard. What makes you employable as a translator is NOT the number of languages you speak - anything like five would probably be viewed with a fair amount of suspicion - but your total understanding of your source language, your ability to render that language into flawless target language, competency with translation tools and other software, as well as professional attributes such as reliability, speed, responsiveness, etc. AND, if possible, having a subject specialism such as law, medicine, engineering etc. Pay for freelance translators is generally crap, getting reasonable if you have a. 10 years experience, or b. native Kurdish and Quechua, or c. a Phd in something Hard, or preferably all three, plus non-sweatshop-oriented customers and solid negotiation skills.
A sensible plan might be to concentrate on honing your Spanish, 'cos at least that's a fair portion of the globe you have as customers/can do business in, and spend the couple of years doing either a businessy or technical qualification or an MA in Translation. With the right technology and internet widgets guaranteeing your connectivity and availabilty it should be entirely possible to work from your laptop, I do know one guy who translates pretty much from the beach, but he is available round the clock for the nuts-and-screws catalogues at low rates, etc. You pretty much need to have a bunch of established customers and all your systems and processes in place first, I would reckon.
The articles and how-tos and forums here are good places to start gathering info:

translators cafe

Your aim does sound really cool and I really hope you get to do it, do bear in mind though that translation - especially freelance - is not an easy profession and there's a lot of competition, especially for the half-way cool jobs liek for non-profits.
If you just want to travel and see the world and learn all kinds of different languages, teaching English might be a more much more fun bet.
posted by runincircles at 10:10 AM on September 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

I do know one person who moved to Japan and really immersed herself in a study of the language. After about two years, she was at a point where she could translate professionally. I think that's probably the fastest one could ramp up. I know another person who translates Japanese organic-chemistry patents. He claims not to know Japanese--in fact, his knowledge of Japanese is self-taught, he knows the subject matter like the back of his hand, and his Japanese is so limited that he probably couldn't place an order in a restaurant. He's never been to Japan. So there are clearly a range of capabilities and ways of getting there for translators.

Still. I think getting up to speed on multiple languages simultaneously, in such a short time frame, is very optimistic. A couple of other points to consider:

1. Translation is a skill apart from knowing two languages. There are fully bilingual people who couldn't translate their way out of a paper bag. It probably took me about a year from the time I started working as a translator until I was producing work that wasn't laughably bad.

2. Translations invariably are about something—law, medicine, computers, autos, advertising, whatever. In order to do professional work, you need to be able to understand not only the jargon of the field you're translating in but (at least to some extent) what that jargon really is talking about—you need to know the field, and be able to write about it convincingly. This is why most professional translators specialize to some degree. So you'll need to be acquiring some specialist knowledge along the way.

I don't know anything about Rosetta Stone, but I'd be surprised if it is aimed at cultivating the language skills a translator would need.

Also: Getting a work visa in another country (which seems implicitly to be part of your plan) will be much easier if you have a college degree. Much.
posted by adamrice at 10:30 AM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'd question the assumption about translation work being "well paid". The pay can be decent, but often it's a question of volume. And if you're cranking out a heavy volume of work to meet your income/revenue target, you need to be decisive, accurate and have the ability to produce quality work. It's not easy.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:54 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Adamrice is correct. Professional translation is about more than simply understanding the language. You need to be a specialist in a particular field or fields. Even on the criterion of language alone, a teach-yourself course is not sufficient to get you up to a level that you can use professionally (unless you are exceptionally gifted, I suppose).

You're fluent in Spanish. That's good. If you go into this, your language combination should be ES>EN. I personally do FR>EN and ES>EN. It'd be nice to get my rudimentary Italian and Polish up to the same level, but it's just not realistic.

Pay? At current exchange rates, I earn somewhere in the region of 55-60k (US) per annum. I intend to set my mind to it and improve on that. I get the impression that might be considered low in the US, but it's decently above average here in the UK.

Work while travelling? Yes, possible, but sometimes logistically difficult. Unless you mean going to other countries to live, rather than just visit, in which case that's a whole other kettle of fish and is perfectly feasible.

For the love of Dog, don't try and go into interpreting without professional training. Your brain will explode on the first day.

Also bear in mind that this a proper business you want to get into, and you need to make extensive preparations on the business side of things (identifying target customers etc). If you want to do this well, you need to do it properly.

Good luck.
posted by idiomatika at 11:25 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I must know 100 people who speak some assemblage of 5 or more of those languages, and most of them they've learned since childhood. I speak many myself - actually six from your list, plus English, Serbo-Croatian (my native language), Hungarian and Romanian. Bits of others. Roughly, I'm fluent or close to it in half of them, conversational in the rest. My thoughts:

1) You might, with a lot of work, achieve desired fluency in *one* "easy" (Latinate, for example) language in two years. I've been studying Hungarian for a few years, which has meant spending about three months a year in Hungary. And really, really working it while I'm not in Hungary - 20 to 30 hours a week. This is the first year I'd call myself close to fluent. But still, "jargon" necessary for translation - car parts, economic terms and so on - are lacking for me. Frankly, you're really lacking in language background for people who already have college degrees. I work on my language skills non-stop, I'm great at it, and I could speak four or five pretty well as a teenager. I'm in my mind-30s and I *maybe just* could claim skills good enough to be a translator / interpreter in six - I mean to say, I started a lot earlier than you, work as hard as you think you'll have to, and after 10-15 times as long, "maybe" I'm there. In short, this is an ridiculously unrealistic plan.

2) You will never get there without deep immersion in the culture(s). Rosetta Stone? It's too sad even to be funny. You won't come near the level you need with that. Interpreting / translating requires an in-depth knowledge of attitudes, mores, cultural norms, etc, that nearly have to be learned firsthand - over years. The fact you think that would get you where you want to be worries me more than anything.

3) Your language choices are really weak for interpreting. Most language-oriented Europeans I know speak quite good German, French, English, Spanish or Italian, and at least one other - Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Finnish, etc. Mandarin would be a plus, but the other languages are just a typical grouping of the "normal" languages that people educated in languages in Europe are expected to speak as a matter of course. I know hotel room cleaners who do pretty well in five languages. Where's the money? Typically it's when you have a cluster of three really unusual ones - Latvian, Hungarian, Armenian - plus all the "normal" ones. In fact, I'm writing this from a café in Hungary and I bet within ten meters there are half a dozen people with the skills you're talking about. And few, if any, are making money from that. Do you know how many people I meet every year who are certified interpreters trying to learn Romanian or Hungarian or something like that because the six languages they know aren't enough to give them any security - and we're talking people with deep certifications, too.

4) Translating may be a little easier, but I know loads of people with PhDs in languages who can't make enough money to pay the rent. This is not a really highly paid field for the most part; your competition is from people who started earlier, speak more languages and aren't looking for big bucks.

5) Most NGOs and businesses worth anything wouldn't dream of hiring you without certification in each of the non-native languages you claim to know, except for minimal money and with non-existent possibilities for travel.

6) Your best bet would be to learn two of Pashto or Arabic or Turkmeni or Urdu (etc) and go for an armed forces kind of gig. It's not appealing to me, either. But that's where there is money.

7) I learn languages because I love it! That's where you should start, and let the rest follow from there.

I don't want to discourage you, but this will be harder than you think. Be logical about it - pick one language - a tough one for an English / Spanish speaker (non-Indo-European) - and work on it like mad for four months. I think you'll come to appreciate how it'll take much more time.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:45 AM on September 17, 2009 [4 favorites]

I have used Rosetta Stone in an ESL lab for adult learners. It in no way would provide enough
language skills for you to become a translator.
posted by Linnee at 2:27 PM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to work for a company that did a lot of translation. I didn't do any translations myself, but I know a lot of translators.

(1) The native Spanish speakers used to complain about the elementary mistakes the non-native Spanish speaking translators would make. The one exception, a woman whose native language wasn't Spanish but had lived in Spain and had a masters in the Spanish language from a Spanish university. So, I second that you shouldn't try to translate into a language you're not a native speaker of, but that you'll probably do reasonably well if you have an academic background from a university whose language is the one you want to translate to. (But, you'll note that non-native speakers still got hired. So take that for what it is.)

(2) I second that the industry looks for good translators of a particular language. That's also how you buildup your freelancing contacts. The people who hire you to translate something into Spanish probably have no need for something ever being translated into German. Further, while they could provide a reference for your Spanish skills, they have no idea how you do in German or any other language. It will be hard to get traction if your references can't attest to each other. (And going back to what I said earlier, it would be a much better use of your time to take courses in a Spanish-speaking university than it would be to learn language after language.)

(3) There is no need for you to go anywhere to translate anything. Source documents will be emailed to you or posted on an FTP site. There are no assignments where you'll need to go to awesome places. This means you could travel where you want to that has an Internet connection, but it just won't be for work. (Interpretation can require travel, but it also requires a lot more skills and is an entirely different thing.)

(4) If you're serious about this, you need to get familiar with translation memory software. In academic translation at least, you need to be consistent. Having more than one translator on the same project is a recipe for inconsistency. This help guards against that.
posted by ifandonlyif at 7:12 PM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry it has taken me so long to get back! The afternoon and evening ended up being pretty packed yesterday. I had a jumbo roasted turkey leg and a porkchop on a stick at the fair last night.

I really appreciate all the responses here and when I am done organizing my thoughts about what everyone said I will report back in.

Thank you all so much!

I may MeMail some of you if it seems like the delay has made the thread slip into oblivion.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:35 PM on September 18, 2009

« Older Me no write gud: Where can I find a certain paper...   |   Have the food poisoning gods smiled on me? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.