You'll need a good command of the written word along with excellent language skills to become a successful translator

As a translator, you will convert written material from one or more 'source languages' into the 'target language', making sure that the translated version conveys the meaning of the original as clearly as possible. The target language is normally your mother tongue.

Transcreating may also be part of the job, which is a mix of translation, localisation and copywriting, where the text is culturally and linguistically adapted to suit the reader.

You typically need an excellent command of two or more languages. Those most in demand are the official languages of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).

You can translate a variety of content, including:

  • commercial
  • educational
  • legal
  • literary
  • scientific
  • and technical documents.

Most translators work freelance from home, either for translation agencies or directly for clients, although some organisations employ in-house translators.

Responsibilities

You will need to:

  • read through original material and rewrite it in the target language, ensuring that the meaning of the source text is retained
  • use translation memory software, such as Wordfast, memoQ, Across, SDL Trados and Transit NXT, to ensure consistency of translation within documents and help efficiency
  • use specialist dictionaries, thesauruses and reference books to find the closest equivalents for terminology and words used
  • use appropriate software for presentation and delivery
  • research legal, technical and scientific phraseology to find the correct translation
  • liaise with clients to discuss any unclear points
  • proofread and edit final translated versions
  • provide quotations for translation services offered
  • consult with experts in specialist areas
  • retain and develop knowledge on specialist areas of translation
  • follow various translation-quality standards to ensure legal and ethical obligations to the customer.

Salary

  • Salaries for translators in the UK vary widely and freelance rates are often calculated according to the word count.
  • Translation of highly specialised texts, from or into unusual languages, demands higher rates than general translation.

Working hours

Working hours for in-house translators are usually 9am to 5pm. If you work as a freelance translator, your hours can be flexible but you'll need to organise them to make sure you can meet fixed deadlines.

Part-time work is possible and short-term temporary contracts are available. You may need to juggle several freelance projects at one time.

What to expect

  • Expect to work to an average daily output of 2,000 to 3,000 words.
  • In-house roles are usually office-based where you will work independently. Working as part of a small team is possible in translation agencies or companies in large cities. Contact with clients is limited and mostly by email or phone.
  • The majority of translators are self-employed. As a freelance translator you'd work from home and enjoy flexible hours, although work flow may be unpredictable. It can be helpful to build up experience and client contacts by working as an in-house translator before going freelance.
  • More regular interaction with clients is usually helpful if you're a freelance or literary translator, particularly for seeking commissions for work.
  • The work involves intense concentration and pressure to submit translations to deadline.
  • Travel within the working day and overnight absences from home are rarely required.
  • It can be useful to visit relevant countries from time to time to keep up your command of the language.

Qualifications

You can become a translator with a degree in any subject, providing you are fluent in two or more languages. However, certain degrees may increase your chances of securing work and these include:

  • translation studies with languages
  • modern European and/or non-European languages
  • business, law or science with languages.

For staff translator posts in European Union (EU) institutions, a degree is essential, as is a thorough knowledge of at least two European languages in addition to your mother tongue. All three languages must be official languages of the EU.

Postgraduate qualifications in translation are available and are expected by many employers, especially international organisations. They may be particularly useful if your first degree is in an unrelated subject. Search for postgraduate courses in translation.

It is also possible to study for the Diploma in Translation (DipTrans), which is available to those without a degree. You must have a very high level of language ability and will need to study a relevant course before taking the exam, which is run by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL). Find out more, including a list of training providers, at IoL Educational Trust.

If you have no relevant qualifications but a proven record of excellent language skills it may be possible to gain translation work. Whether you have official qualifications or not, it's beneficial to have specialised knowledge of the area in which you may wish to translate, e.g. medical or business.

Skills

You need to show evidence of:

  • fluency in two or more languages
  • a good understanding and in-depth knowledge of language/country-specific cultures, known as localisation
  • subject matter knowledge specific to the content you'll be translating
  • excellent writing skills and command of grammar
  • attention to detail combined with the ability to work quickly to meet deadlines
  • the ability to use initiative in a commercial context
  • proficiency in the use of a range of computer packages - knowledge of translation-oriented applications and software is helpful, though not essential
  • self-motivation, particularly if working as a freelancer
  • eagerness to acquire new knowledge.

Work experience

Although pre-entry experience is not essential, it is useful when applying for work. Any examples of translation projects carried out, even if on a voluntary basis, will be useful, as will work you have done which involves languages.

If you have a particular sector in which you'd like to translate, such as healthcare, community work, technical or law, it is useful to have some work experience that demonstrates your skills and knowledge of the area. Administrative experience is also helpful.

Employers

The number of translation agencies and companies is increasing, but the majority of translators are self-employed. It is likely you will secure work through agencies, by advertising your services directly to clients or by networking.

There are opportunities to work in international organisations but they may be limited as work is often out-sourced to translation agencies and freelancers. Organisations include:

  • The United Nations (UN) and its specialised agencies: employing British translators mainly working with the six official languages of Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
  • The institutions of the European Union (EU), including the European Commission: covering 24 official EU languages.
  • Other international organisations: such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which have occasional opportunities.

The Civil Service also recruit translators. Success depends on the languages you can offer, your qualifications and experience, and time spent overseas. Civil Service departments such as Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Security Service (MI5) are now advertising more freely on their websites.

Digital subtitling (for DVDs and computer games) and website translation and localisation (i.e. adapting websites to local cultural contexts) are also growth areas. Audio-visual translation is expanding in response to disability legislation.

Look for job vacancies at:

As a freelance translator, you can advertise your services on databases held by professional bodies and translator networks, such as:

Try writing speculatively to translation companies, bureaux and agencies to find out about opportunities.

As a beginner, it may be difficult to secure enough work to support yourself financially through freelance translation alone. You'll probably need to do other part-time work until you have built up sufficient clients and contacts.

Professional development

Traineeships at the European Commission are available for those interested in gaining professional translation experience within European institutions. It lasts for five months and you will receive a grant of around £1,159 Euros per month. Places are extremely limited.

Although it may not lead to permanent employment, the scheme provides a valuable opportunity to learn something of the organisation and work of the EU institutions, as well as giving a first taste of translation in an international environment. Find out more at Traineeships in the European Commission.

Translation agencies and companies can vary in terms of what support is available for staff. You may get the opportunity to specialise and become a legal, technical or literary translator. Occasionally, there are also opportunities to train in more foreign languages.

Many translators become members of professional bodies such as the CIOL or Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI). Both offer training, including seminars, workshops and networking days, which all help towards continuing professional development (CPD). Find out more at

The CIOL also offers the Diploma in Translation (DipTrans), which you may wish to study for if you don't already have a postgraduate qualification. This may aid career development as it shows you can work to a certain standard. More information is available from the CIOL website.

Career prospects

You may start your career working as an in-house translator for a translation agency or company and could then move to a more managerial in-house role or to freelance work. Translation agencies and companies offer varying prospects for promotion. If you have membership with a professional body, you'll get good support in career development.

Promotion prospects are good within international bodies, such as the institutions of the European Union (EU). Government departments and EU institutions have a clear career grading system and the further you progress, the more managerial work you take on.

If you work freelance, career development often depends on how many commonly used modern languages you know, the number and type of clients you work for, and the rates of pay you are able to command.

If your expertise is in a less commonly used language, you will need to develop a specialist client base through networking and will then be able to charge higher rates than translators working in the more common languages.

With several years' experience it may be possible to set up your own translation agency. Some translators who do this also include interpreting services as part of their business, drawing on the services of translators and interpreters to meet client needs.

There are limited opportunities to work in academia and teach translation skills and theory if you have completed a postgraduate degree.