How to become a translator

04. May 2016

One’s passion for foreign languages is sometimes so strong that it may result in serious thoughts of turning it into a real job. Many have thought to use their linguistic knowledge to become a translator! Easy to say: is it really that simple to reach this stage?

It’s not. Being a translator is not only about creating a target text in one target language from a source text in a source language, especially in the digital era, where nothing can be thought of outside the technological and networking fields. The process involves culture, specific knowledge of specialized sectors and contact with the other parties involved (clients and colleagues).

This is a brief overview of the first stage in the process of becoming a “professional translator”.

Choosing a university course

Luckily, there is no fixed rule for this: many translators and editors didn’t attend a faculty related to languages or translation, but still they managed to become professionals in this industry. In fact, translation skills can be developed in a number of different ways; moreover, knowledge of specific fields is extremely useful in translations for the specific purposes industry. One could have studied veterinary medicine, and could still imagine a career as a translator, with the right amount of knowledge of a foreign language. Just follow your passion in choosing a university course and, if need be, improve your fluency in a foreign language by attending languages courses or studying independently, preferably abroad.

Don’t underestimate the importance of technology

Today, translators spend the whole working day in front of a computer screen. So, translating necessarily involves certain technological skills that can’t be snubbed, even if you are a Luddite. If you don’t feel so confident when it comes to using a computer, or even if you think that you may be a more expert user, try to set aside a couple of hours each day to practise your technological skills. The important thing is to immediately familiarise yourself with translation software: the so-called CAT (computer-aided translation) tools. You can easily familiarise yourself with them during your studies, if you chose a translation course, or you can download them from the web and explore all their functionalities on your own. The most common programmes are memoQ, SDL Trados Studio, Wordfast, and Xbench, which need to be downloaded; alternatively, you may experience a smattering of their main features by first using Google Translator Toolkit or MateCat, online tools that have the same basic features of the professional tools mentioned before. It is a good start to training as a newbie. Doing this while still studying could be a great idea, so as to create an unbreakable bond between the mental process of translating and the actual translation process. In doing so, by the time you actually start working, CAT tools will have few secrets left to hide.

Writing a successful CV

When writing your CV, it is undoubtedly important to mention all your studies in the “education” section, and if you don’t have much translation experience, it is a good idea to write down other jobs that will show that you have acquired certain abilities (such as communication skills or organizational skills). In particular, highlight any language courses or certificates, any interests that prove knowledge of specific fields, and above all those that show your passion for languages and translation (you might be a “free walking tour” guide, or a TV series subtitler on the web, or you follow a translation blog or language news site). If you do have some translation experience, then be as specific as possible about your previous work: mention the fields of knowledge, the number of words translated, the names of your key clients, etc. Presenting your understanding of the translation field in general will guarantee that your resume will be distinguishable.

Entering the labour market

When starting out in the translation labour market, it’s impossible to be completely prepared for it. Actually, this applies to all labour sectors in general. So, don’t postpone your entry into the market, don’t wait until you feel completely self-confident, because otherwise you will never take that first step. On the contrary, a good idea could be to start sending out CVs while still a student: firstly, it will give you a clearer idea of what is good and what is bad when it comes to searching for a job in the translation field; secondly, if the search is successful, working as a freelance, part-time translator or as a trainee in a translation agency will increase your linguistic, technological and social skills. Especially in the case of the latter, you will greatly improve your chances of getting a job as a full-time translator – either freelance or in-house – at the end of your education period. Yours will be a privileged position, compared to others.

‘Send’ with awareness

You don’t just send a CV; you send it to the right person! Otherwise it may sink into oblivion and you will never get a reply. A little bit of searching on the Internet, or maybe a call to the company or agency you want to work for, will reveal the precious name of the Hiring Manager. Sending him/her your CV with an enthusiastic and customized cover letter will at least guarantee you a reply. Exercise caution when it comes to determining what requirements and qualifications the Vendor Manager and the company consider fundamental. Research the company and the person; it will give you an idea of what they are looking for and how to represent yourself to them. In the case of Interlex, the person responsible for hiring is Kärt Prede, the Vendor and Quality Manager. For professionals who want to apply for a job, the procedure is the one described above, and it’s very similar for every translation agency. For students or young people that want to apply for an internship, it is important to mention very precisely any requirements, such as references to the period or areas of interest, and the language combination(s) studied (see point 3). An easy way to apply is to send us your application through our online Vendor Portal, so that we can acquire your information more easily and quickly. You data will be saved into our system and it will be easy to track your application process.

“Vendor Manager and Quality Manager”: Who are they?

The roles of a Vendor Manager and Quality Manager are complex and vital for a successful company, yet sometimes very little understood by translators. In most cases, the positions of Vendor Manager and Quality Manager are filled by two different individuals or teams. In the case of Interlex, both roles are combined, with one experienced language specialist taking care of both roles. The majority of people don’t even know that these positions exist, and if they do, they are unaware of their importance, because most of the time the work Quality and Vendor Managers do is not seen or felt directly on a daily basis.

The Vendor Manager hires translators, tracks their work and measures quality, while also helping the translation company to ensure its clients that the service they buy is top notch. The Quality Manager is the person in charge of making sure that every part of the translation agency meets the necessary requirements for producing quality work, from checking all the internal documents for the audits to obtaining the ISO quality certificates, to checking that all the employees meet the requirements needed to be an expert; in one line, examining that every link of the chain stays strong. If every customer is satisfied, if every member of the translation team is happy and has the appropriate expertise, if all the paperwork and internal documentation looks good, it means that the Quality Manager and Vendor Manager are taking excellent care of all these things.

Time for a “test”!

So, you have finally received a positive response, your CV and cover letter has sparked an interest to work with you! Now you will be asked to demonstrate your translation skills. We will send you a test translation according to the language combinations you have chosen. This test translation will assess different abilities: the linguistic ones, the technological ones, the ability to meet deadlines, and the skills to research the topic. This will clearly be a specialised translation, meaning that it will cover a certain area of specialization: working inside a specialized field of knowledge suggests always remembering to follow the style of that field and the rules of specialised translation, which can often be very rigid when it comes to word combination and text organisation. This translation will be evaluated by a senior translator or editor from the agency, who will fill in an evaluation form. This form is the summary of all the mistakes found and general comments on the translation, and according to very precise parameters the evaluator is able to determine if the candidate has passed or failed the test. This evaluation, in case the test is passed, also has great meaning in the long term: this test is assigned a mark (from 1 – fail to 5 – very good) that will serve as a reference for the reputation of the translator in the agency’s database. The minimum required by Interlex is 3 (average), and depending on how their future translations will be evaluated, this mark can vary, as well as the reputation and, after some time, the rates of the translator. You will receive the feedback to your test translation within a week or two, at which time you will be able to freely comment anything you like.

Do you know how much money you are worth?

Let’s say that you have reached the point where you have received at least a 4 (good) for your test translation. If you and the agency are both in agreement, it’s time for a contract. Discuss this carefully with the person in touch with you from the agency, and get some information in advance about the position, working methods, the type of contract and your rates. The better your test result and the greater your previous experience in the field, the stronger your chances are to negotiate a higher rate. Remember, agencies pay higher rates to translators whose work is very good. If you are a beginner translator, your best way to get there is to practise a lot, learn quickly from your mistakes, and be cooperative and active.

You’re in!

Eventually, everything has worked out fine and you have signed a contract with the agency. Depending on your language combination, the number of jobs you are assigned can vary. Sooner or later, you will receive your first project that you will need to accept. These projects are often assigned by the Project Management system that we use. We send out automatic e-mail requests to many translators with similar skillsets, usually the first one to confirm will get the job. In the beginning, don’t expect to receive a heavy workload: because the project managers who assign the jobs don’t know you yet and have not established a smooth working relationship with you. It might take some time to get used to our working methods. In case both you and our agency enjoy working together, the amount of work usually increases over time. If you don’t receive any requests, please send us reminders that you are available and ready to take new projects. This small nudge usually works, and our Project Managers will start to send you more job requests.

When all is said and done…

We have outlined pretty much everything there is to know in order to join our team. Everybody has started from the beginning, we know that it is not easy and sometimes it’s frustrating or confusing. Whatever your plans, we hope that at least we gave you some good suggestions for planning your career. If you have any further questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us at