Translators convert written material from one or more 'source languages' into the 'target language', ensuring that the translated version conveys the meaning of the original as clearly as possible. The target language is normally the translator's 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.

Translators usually 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).

Translators work on:

  • 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

The translation process usually involves a combination of the following:

  • reading through original material and rewriting it in the target language, ensuring that the meaning of the source text is retained;
  • using Translation Memory software, such as Wordfast, memoQ, across, SDL Trados and Transit NXT, to ensure consistency of translation within documents and help efficiency;
  • using specialist dictionaries, thesauruses and reference books to find the closest equivalents for terminology and words used;
  • using appropriate software for presentation and delivery;
  • researching legal, technical and scientific phraseology to find the correct translation;
  • liaising with clients to discuss any unclear points;
  • proofreading and editing final translated versions;
  • providing clients with a grammatically correct, well-expressed final version of the translated text, usually as a word-processed document;
  • using the internet and email as research tools throughout the translation process;
  • prioritising work to meet deadlines;
  • providing quotations for translation services offered;
  • consulting with experts in specialist areas;
  • supplying subtitles for foreign films and television programmes;
  • retaining and developing knowledge on specialist areas of translation;
  • following various translation-quality standards to ensure legal and ethical obligations to the customer;
  • networking and making contacts.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for translators in the UK vary widely and freelance rates are usually calculated according to the word count.
  • Translation of highly specialised texts, from or into unusual languages, demands higher rates than general translation.
  • The best paying employers of senior translators are the EU and the UN. Translators for the EU are recruited at grade AD5 or above and start on around 4,384 Euros a month.

Income data from the Directorate General for Translation. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours for in-house translators are usually 9am to 5pm.

What to expect

  • You should 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, phone or post.
  • The majority of translators are self-employed. Freelance translators 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 in the case of freelance and literary translators, 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.
  • Many translators will have lived in the country or countries whose language they translate and it can be useful to visit relevant countries from time to time to keep up your command of the language.

Qualifications

his area of work is open to all graduates with fluency in two or more languages, but a degree in the following subjects may increase your chances:

  • business with languages;
  • law with languages;
  • modern European and/or non-European languages;
  • science with languages;
  • translation studies 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. For more information see the Directorate General for Translation.

The need for qualified and skilled translators has grown recently due to the increasingly important role scientific and technical communication plays in commerce and industry. As a result, a postgraduate degree, for example an MA or MSc in translation or translation studies, can considerably increase your chances of employment, especially with international organisations. For details of courses see the Association of Translation Companies (ATC).

Skills

You need to show evidence of the following:

  • fluency in two or more languages;
  • a good understanding and in-depth knowledge of language/country-specific cultures, known as localisation;
  • subject matter knowledge;
  • 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;
  • eagerness to acquire new knowledge.

Work experience

Although pre-entry experience is not essential, work experience in a technical, legal or administrative setting is helpful.

Employers

The number of translation agencies and companies is increasing, but the majority of translators are self-employed, securing work through agencies, by advertising their 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.

Capita Translation and Interpreting (Capita TI) provides translators and interpreters for Ministry of Justice work.

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:

Freelance translators can advertise their services on databases held by professional bodies and translator networks, such as:

You will stand a good chance of gaining freelance work if you have specialist knowledge in the fields of finance, science, engineering, law or other sought-after areas. Try writing speculatively to translation companies, bureaux and agencies to find out about opportunities.

When contacting an agency, tell them the languages you know, the subject/s in which you have expertise and how you gained that knowledge, the equipment and software available to you, plus your personal rates.

Be aware that much agency work involves translating quite uninspiring documents, such as bills of lading and product user instructions. Be prepared for the fact that, as a beginner, you are unlikely to secure enough work to support yourself by freelance translation alone. You'll probably have to do other part-time work at the same time.

General recruitment agencies rarely handle vacancies but an internet search will reveal numerous translation agencies such as:

Most, but not all, are registered with the ATC.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Traineeships at the European Commission are available for graduates wanting to get professional translation experience within European institutions. It lasts for five months and you will receive a grant of around 1,000 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 DG Translation Traineeships.

Translation agencies and companies can vary in terms of what support is available for staff. The opportunity to specialise in one area of translation and become legal, technical or literary translators may be offered. Occasionally, there are also opportunities to train in more foreign languages.

The ITI offers seminars and workshops aimed at developing the business, linguistic and technological skills of translators, as well as networking days.

Many translators become members of the ITI. There are several levels of membership but becoming a qualified member is a mark of professional recognition. For this level of membership, you would typically need:

  • a degree or equivalent qualification;
  • a minimum of three years' relevant professional experience (or six years' experience if you do not have a degree);
  • a successful assessment of work as indicated with a Pass in the ITI Membership Examination.

Find out more at the ITI.

Experienced translators may choose to work towards the Diploma in Translation (DipTrans), which is run by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) and is equivalent to a postgraduate-level qualification.

Membership of the CIOL may also be helpful and can provide professional recognition as well as the opportunity to network at events, courses, seminars and conferences.

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. Those with ATC membership have a good reputation for support in career development.

Translators who are employed by international bodies, such as the institutions of the European Union (EU), stand a good chance of being promoted. 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.

Some freelance translators set up their own translation agency after several years' experience and often include interpreting services as part of their business, drawing on the services of translators and interpreters to meet client needs.

A limited number of translators who complete a postgraduate degree in translation studies work in academia and teach translation skills and theory.