Translators use their language skills to translate one written language into another, retaining the meaning of the original text as closely as possible

As a translator, you'll 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.

Transcreation may also be part of the job, which is a mix of translation, localisation (taking into account factors such as cultural nuances) and copywriting, where the text is culturally and linguistically adapted to suit the reader.

Types of translation

You can translate a variety of content, including:

  • commercial
  • educational
  • financial
  • legal
  • marketing and advertising
  • medical
  • political
  • scientific
  • technical.

You could also work as a literary translator, translating works of fiction, or as a subtitler, translating dialogue on films, TV programmes and video games.

Responsibilities

As a translator, you'll 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, Trados Studio 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. Your income will depend on a range of factors including your experience and qualifications, the nature of the work you're translating (general or specialist) and the level of demand for the languages.

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

  • 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.
  • In-house roles are usually office-based where you'll 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.
  • More regular interaction with clients is usually helpful if you're a freelance or literary translator, particularly for seeking commissions for work.
  • There will be some periods of intense concentration and pressure as you near deadlines.
  • You will usually spend time visiting, living or working in relevant countries to keep up your command of the language and to develop your understanding of the culture.

Qualifications

You can become a translator with a degree in any subject, providing that you're 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.

Although you don't necessarily need a postgraduate qualification, a Masters in Translation or a professional qualification such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) Level 7 Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) can be useful as competition for jobs and freelance work is strong. A postgraduate qualification may be particularly useful if your first degree is in an unrelated subject. Research courses carefully to make sure they meet your career aims.

Search postgraduate courses in translation.

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

Skills

You need to have:

  • fluency in two or more languages (source and target)
  • a good understanding and in-depth knowledge of language/country-specific cultures (localisation)
  • excellent writing skills and command of grammar
  • subject matter knowledge specific to the content you'll be translating
  • attention to detail and accuracy
  • time management skills as you may be working with different clients at one time
  • 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
  • enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge.

Work experience

Some translation agencies offer internships and work placements, which is a good way of getting experience and finding out whether you would enjoy the career.

Other useful experience includes language and translating projects from your undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications, examples of how you've used your other language(s) in practice, or any other work you've carried out in a foreign language.

It may be possible to undertake voluntary translation work for organisations such as Translators without Borders and UN Volunteers.

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

Living or working in your source language country is very beneficial as it will improve your knowledge of the country’s culture.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

Employers

The majority of translators are self-employed. You may work as a freelancer or for translation companies and agencies.

Various government departments recruit translators and linguists. These include:

There are also some opportunities to work for international governments, institutions and organisations such as the United Nations.

You may also find work within the public sector, for example with the police.

Other opportunities arise with commercial and industrial companies that need business documents translating. These can include contracts, business proposals and marketing and advertising campaigns

Success depends on the languages you can offer, your qualifications and experience, and time spent overseas.

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:

Specialist translation and interpreting companies also have opportunities for translators. These include:

Companies that have accredited membership of trade associations such as the Association of Translation Companies (ATC) must undergo background checks and comply with a Code of Professional Conduct.

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

Professional development

The type and amount of support offered to staff at translation agencies varies. You may get the opportunity to specialise and become a legal, technical or literary translator. Occasionally, there are opportunities to train in more foreign languages. Training and development opportunities with large institutions and government bodies may be more structured.

Becoming a member of a professional body such as the CIOL or Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) can help your professional development as they offer a range of training and networking opportunities. Find out more at CIOL Training and ITI Learn and Develop.

You may decide to do further study at postgraduate level, such as The CIOL Level 7 Diploma in Translation (DipTrans). Although you don't need a degree to sit the exam, you must have a high level of competence in both the source and target languages, the ability to translate at professional level and good writing skills. Preparatory courses are offered by a number of providers. Find out more, including a list of course providers, at CIOL Qualifications.

You should also keep your written skills up to date by reading newspapers, journals and subject specific publications in both your source and target languages. You could also take courses in copywriting, grammar or technical writing, for example, to hone your skills.

Career prospects

Career development can be quite varied, depending on the sort of work/life balance you would like.

Developing a successful career as a freelance translator requires a proactive approach to networking. This means keeping in touch with key professional bodies, translator groups and potential employers, both nationally and internationally. You should also try to attend workshops and seminars to find out more about sources of work and work providers.

There are various factors that can affect your career prospects, such as how many commonly used modern languages you know, the number and type of clients you work for, the specialist area you work in, and the rates of pay you are able to command.

Developing AI technology and improving machine translation software means that there are some different opportunities available to translators who now edit and refine work that has been translated initially by a machine.

Increasing globalisation has meant there is more demand for transcreation and opportunities to combine your translation and copywriting skills to provide material appropriate for audiences in particular countries.

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.

Some limited opportunities exist in academia for teaching translation skills and theory if you have completed a postgraduate degree.

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