Can a gringo or a laowai make it as a translator?
June 24, 2011 4:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm sorta multilingual, in Spanish and Mandarin. I don't have many other skills. How good would I need to get before I can make a living from this ability? What jobs could I get if I were to improve in one or both languages?

I'm looking for a career, and having recently given up on law school for now, I'm considering my options. Right now I teach LSAT prep classes and make a decent living but there's not much of a future in it.

I have a BA in Philosophy and Spanish, several years of teaching experience in high schools in China where I picked up conversational level Mandarin. My Spanish is better that my Mandarin, but I'm not fluent in either, and I'm basically illiterate in Mandarin.

It seems to me that there are so many native speakers of both Spanish and Mandarin that it'd be tough to make a living doing any kind of translating or interpreting. I've heard of non-native court interpreters, medical translators, etc, but don't know how realistic that is; would I have to have near native speaker fluency to do this?

I think if I took a couple months to practice, I could make a big jump in my Spanish ability, my accent is pretty rough but my comprehension is pretty good when listening to TV, reading newspaper articles. Mandarin improvement would take a huge investment in time; I'd estimate my speaking ability to be a 2+ or 3 on the 5 point scale used by the State Department. I'm thinking of maybe doing the summer program at Middlebury next year if I think the investment would be worthwhile. I could also afford to go to a Spanish school in Central or South America for a couple months to focus on Spanish.

I was thinking of maybe trying to become a high school Spanish or ESL teacher, but I hear that there's a glut of teachers these days.

Any suggestions for jobs I might not have considered? Any success stories that didn't involve in moving overseas for several years or marrying a native speaker in the target language? Any guidance or suggestions would be very helpful.
posted by skewed to Education (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're going to need better Spanish skills than you imagine. Interpreting jobs almost always involve jargon, words you probably don't know, or at least couldn't explain even in English. I would start looking into a career or at least an environment you are interested in, beef up your language skills and be an asset rather than "the interpreter". I've worked quite a few places where there wasn't a full time need for an interpreter but it is really beneficial to have someone on staff who can.
posted by boobjob at 4:57 PM on June 24, 2011

Where are you located? Here in LA, there are so many native speakers of both who are also more than fluent in English, you'd have a lot of competition. Now, in Fargo, you might stand out. Of course, how much need there is in North Dakota for a Mandarin speaker/translator might be moot.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:58 PM on June 24, 2011

There are many Spanish and Mandarin native speakers, but there are not many that speak both languages, plus English. I'm thinking tour guide or assistant for a business person who travels a lot between countries that speak such languages. However, to be an assistant you'd probably need to read and write in Mandarin, too.
posted by clearlydemon at 5:06 PM on June 24, 2011

You need a Bachelor's degree, several years' native exposure, a specialist subject, and an accredited postgraduate diploma to become a translator. Once you had those things you could translate as a side business on top of your day job.

Other than that you could become a bilingual secretary if you can touch type at a reasonable speed and are a good end user of MS Office products. There will be bilingual temp agencies in every major city near you. They will have a range of jobs and will test you at the registration stage.
posted by tel3path at 5:24 PM on June 24, 2011

Best answer: You've admitted that you're nowhere near fluency in either Spanish or Mandarin, but let's assume that you dramatically improve your skills and hard credentials in both. Investing a couple more years getting another BA in both of those languages would be ideal.

You have two things going for you:
a) Spanish-Chinese is a very uncommon language pair.
b) the business crowd in Latin America* is incredibly awed by the economic rise of China, yet even more incredibly ill-equipped to tap the Chinese market.

Are you a good networker? Do you have a tiny bit of entrepreuneurial flair? If so, then you could do quite well assisting Latin American businessmen learn about China. I have friends in Mexico City and Sao Paolo who have built very successful businesses doing exactly that.

* yes, Latin America is a big continent. Let's assume that we're talking about the handful of major economies -- i.e. Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.
posted by wutangclan at 5:37 PM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not just oil - manufacturing as well. My company has two offices in Mexico (where most of our product is sold, and the rest in South America) and all our parts come from China; we have one liaison who is Chinese and lives in Mexico*. Mexico and South America have exploding middle classes and a huge demand for consumer electronics and household goods, and a lot of those pieces-parts come from China but are assembled on this side of the world.

*A previous product development company I worked for in the US with no Mexico ties hired pretty much exclusively Chinese employees for our purchasing group, but that doesn't seem to be as common in Mexico.

Learning to read Mandarin would definitely be a bonus there, but really all the nitty-gritty happens in the lawyers' offices, so a key factor there is simply being able to *talk* to the vendors in China. Also, the trade fairs in China (the Canton fair is, I think, still the big one, but there are others in Shenzen and other manufacturing cities) draw businesspeople from all over the world and lots of them are native Spanish speakers. You might be able to find a niche there as a liaison or escort for those groups as they travel in China.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:04 PM on June 24, 2011

Best answer: Translation (transforming a written text from one language into another) and interpretation (oral work) require quite different skill sets. With a BA in Spanish and a law degree, you could, tomorrow, launch a career as a Spanish legal translator.

The translation (as opposed to interpretation) business wants translators who are reading-fluent in the "source" language and native speakers in the target language. For specialized translation (technical, legal, medical, and business being the 4 main categories of specialization), you're also expected to be "fluent" in the specialized jargon of your field. You don't actually have to be that good at producing the source language. For example, I am a professional Spanish/Portuguese-into-English translator, and while my spoken Spanish is passable, my spoken Portuguese is basically non-existent. I never, ever, ever translate into Spanish or Portuguese, yet after 4 years in the business, I have far more work offers than I can handle most weeks.

For Spanish, there are lots and lots of native speakers of Spanish who do English>Spanish, but a somewhat smaller number of native speakers of English who can handle Spanish>English. tel3path's long list of requirements for becoming a professional translator do not jive with my experience. Most translators are not certified, have not taken specialized coursework in translation, and no one really cares how you acquired your language skills, either. With an undergrad degree in Spanish, you are on as solid a footing as most translators I work with. With 6 months' time, you can familiarize yourself with the translation industry (sign up for an account at and start reading the forums and articles) and spend a lot of time reading in Spanish, and particular reading Spanish legal documents and familiarizing yourself with the boilerplate, legal system, stupid hard-to-translate concepts like amparo, etc.

Like any freelance business, it takes a while to build your experience, client base, and income, but especially if you are good at it and maintain a specialization in legal work, the pay is quite good. It's not uncommon for SP>EN legal translators to break into 6 figures with a few years of experience.

Feel free to memail me if you want more pointers.
posted by SomeTrickPony at 7:08 PM on June 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

Perhaps it is different in the US. I have a BA in two languages and am a software engineer. I have worked as a trilingual secretary for UN-affiliated organizations. Despite this, I am not qualified to be a translator in the UK with no postgraduate diploma and until I get a diploma will never be hired for translation work of any kind anywhere.
posted by tel3path at 1:59 AM on June 25, 2011

As an anecdote, a certain person i know worked for the legal team of a big latinamerican company, and when making big deals with the japanese they would take with them a white guy that understood japanese so that he could snoop in on what the guys were discussing without them knowing.

So maybe you can keep going for the law degree and do something like this, but in chinese :P

Not very helpful, i know.
posted by palbo at 6:56 AM on June 25, 2011

tel3path, there may also be a difference between getting "hired" as a translator and working as a freelancer. Although I am based in the U.S., I have done many projects over many years for many translation agencies based in the U.K. (and elsewhere in Europe--about 1/3 of my client base is overseas). You may not qualify as a certified translator, but there is plenty of work out there that does not require certification (and if you're interested in doing work that requires certification, you can often replace educational requirements with years of experience). Not the most recent data, but polls on indicate that most translators are not, in fact, certified, and that certification is nice to have, but not essential.

Note to skewed: sorry I misinterpreted your comment about "giving up on law school"--I read that as "giving up on law" and thought you had a law degree. Regardless, translation could still be a viable option for you if you are a quick study.)
posted by SomeTrickPony at 7:04 AM on June 25, 2011

SomeTrickPony, thanks for that. All the translation agencies I've applied to in the past have completely ignored me. Admittedly I didn't try very hard because I assumed I was on a loser from the very beginning. I'm going to look into this more.

At any rate, I would reiterate my point to the OP that there are bilingual agencies that will take people on for secretarial or other work with a far lower barrier to entry. I imagine they would at least tell you what you need in order to reach their standards.
posted by tel3path at 7:19 PM on June 25, 2011

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