Our guide to translation
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to translation

First published date October 29 2013 Amended date April 22 2015

Translators need to enjoy words. No, forget enjoy – they need to absolutely thrive on words. They need to develop a huge vocabulary in at least one foreign language as well as their native language. They need to have an instinct for the nuances of language, and for the way language is used in certain professional (and less formal) contexts. They need to know the cultural touchstones of the languages they work with. They need to love spending time ferreting in dictionaries, glossaries, databases and thesauruses. They need to be willing to do research and be perfectionists, but also work quickly if they’re to make any money at all!

A translator’s job involves reproducing a written piece of text or document in another language in a way that is clear, accurate and stylistically appropriate.


Myth buster

Myth 1: ‘Translating’ and ‘Interpreting’ are often used interchangeably, but translators focus on the written word while interpreters work with the spoken word. Translating is conveying a ‘source’ language into a given ‘target’ language. The target language is usually the translator’s mother tongue.

Myth 2: In a world that has such things as Google Translate, why study translation at all? Why do we need translators? Well, because machines (and computers) are fallible. Machine translation almost always requires an actual human linguist to revise its work, because translators (as human beings) have a feel for things like idiomatic expressions, tone and mood. Computers (as far as we know!) do not. Ask a machine to translate a phrase like, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’ Result: someone reading the target language won’t necessarily understand that it’s raining heavily!


Reasons to study translating

It’s intellectually stimulating. It allows you to combine your passion for foreign languages with other professional experience or interests. There’s a huge demand for scientific and medical translators, as well as those able to unravel complicated legal terminology.

If you wish to work as a professional translator – whether you’re starting a new career or starting afresh as a graduate – employers will usually expect to see evidence of a recognised qualification in translation on your CV.


Careers using translation

Translators can work for agencies or work in-house for companies.

Freelance translation is an option favoured by many who are looking to supplement their day job with a little extra income. Others are full-time freelance translators. It’s been said that the most important thing for freelance translators is not a qualification in translation, but relevant industry experience. So if your degree is in engineering, you could choose to specialise in this area. If you have a background in finance, you are more likely to find finance-related work than any other. Play to your strengths.

Some translators specialise in literary translation, translating prose and poetry into their target language. This is a highly competitive area of translation.


Careers further afield

The British Army looks for skilled linguists to train as part of its Intelligence Corps. You don’t need any formal training – recruitment includes an aptitude test to see whether you’re skilled in picking up new languages. If you pass, you’ll train as a member of the Intelligence Corps before specialising as a linguist. Languages you could learn include Pashtu and Dari (both spoken in Afghanistan). Translation here is often strategic: for example, you would be translating intercepted communications and information for Signals Analysts.

The United Nations (UN) and the EU institutions both employ translators, although they do not have regular recruitment rounds. To work for either organisation, you’ll need to pass a competitive exam and an interview. Potential EU translators need to be a native speaker of an EU language and have achieved fluency in three others. For the UN, you would need to speak two of the official UN languages, aside from your mother tongue – so either Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian or Spanish.


What to expect

Translating can be studied as an online, full or part-time course. Check that your preferred course provider allows you to work with your particular language combination.

An undergraduate degree in modern languages will usually be required in order to take a postgraduate qualification in translation. These include Postgraduate Certificates (PgCert), Postgraduate Diplomas (PgDip) or an MA. Some masters degrees combine interpreting and translation; others allow you to specialise in certain areas of translation, such as legal translation, financial, scientific or subtitling.

Some courses prepare candidates to sit the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL) Diploma in Translation, a demanding exam and one of the most prestigious translation qualifications.


Best translations of all time

Some of the most important texts in English are actually translations – here’s our tip picks:

1.    The Bible. Originally written in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, this has to be one of the most disputed and (fascinating) translated texts of our times.

2.    The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. Original language: French.

3.    Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales. Original language: Danish. 


By Kate Wilkins

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