What Does A Translator Do, And How Do You Become One?

Translation is everywhere, even if it’s sometimes invisible.
Translator represented by a close up of a hand writing in a notebook with a pen, with an iPhone placed directly in front of the hand and a cup of tea off to the side.

At first glance, the task of a translator seems simple: they shuttle information from one language to another. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Translation is one of the most important tools for global communication, but much of the labor behind it is invisible to the average person. When you look at the various things a translator actually does, you’ll quickly realize how vast their jurisdiction is, and how important translators are for the ability of our world to function.

Here, we’ll cover the different types of translators and the process required to become one. Whether you’re considering the career for yourself or you’re just curious about the topic, this will serve as an introduction to the most important parts of translation.

Types Of Translators

Translators work with written language, rather than oral. Admittedly, the word “translation” has been used to describe any kind of communication, but technically oral and signed languages are handled by interpreters. In professional contexts, “translator” almost always refers to working with written languages. There are two main types of translators.

Literary Translators

Literary translators are possibly the first type you think of when you hear the word “translator.” What sets this group apart is that they work on artistic writing, whether that’s poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction or anything else. The job of a literary translator is to convey not just the content of the original text they’re working with, but also the form.

This kind of translation is regarded as an artistic form in its own right. While sometimes people like to think of translation as neutral — that there is such a thing as a “perfect translation” — the reality is that a translator is making hundreds of choices. That’s why a single text can create several different translations, and why people can debate over which translation of, say, The Odyssey is best. One translation might try its best to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter of the original, while another might ditch the rhyme scheme all together and try to maintain as exact a translation of each individual word as possible.

These types of translators often tend to be writers themselves. While not a requirement, being a good writer in the target language is helpful. Some work closely with the author of the original text — especially if that author has some knowledge of the language it’s being translated into — and others work entirely separately (which is always the case if the author is dead). While it’s hard to make any overarching statements about literary translators, they all contribute in various ways to the larger literary world.

Informative Translators

Informative translators differ from literary ones in that the form of the content doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the most important thing is making sure that the content is as clear as possible. While literary translation is more talked about, informative translation is far more common. In any community that isn’t purely monolingual, informative translation is necessary in every facet of life.

This category is broad, and there are many other types of translators that fit within it. Often, a translator will have a specialization that they work in: business, law, medicine, finance, technical or something else. These require extra training because they have a vocabulary that a layperson might not encounter on a daily basis. 

There are many different ways an informative translator might work. There are some regular, nine-to-five jobs in which a person translates for a specific company or institution. These tend to be jobs in the more specialized fields of translation, like legal translators who work for a single law office. It’s just as possible, however, to work for an agency that provides translations for many different clients, or even freelance. Sometimes a company just needs a website fully translated once, while other times they need ongoing translation services.

Becoming A Translator

The first step to becoming a translator is maybe obvious: master a second language. In some cases, this may be considered sufficient (especially if it’s the only option available). In many cases, however, there’s more to be done before a translator can reliably find work.

Once a person has a handle on the two languages they’re translating between, the next step is receiving specialized training. While this doesn’t require a four-year degree, many universities and institutions offer courses and certificate programs in translation.

One thing to note is that translators often only work one way, with the target language being their native language. That means if one person’s focus is Spanish to English translation, they wouldn’t necessarily do English to Spanish. It may seem like going back and forth would be easy — and there are certainly people who work with multiple languages in different ways — but it’s best not to assume someone works both ways unless it’s explicitly specified.

Once a person has received adequate training, the step after that depends on what the local standards for translators are. The United States, for example, has the American Translators Association certification, which requires passing a test. While this is not always a requirement for a job — and not every language combination is available for certification from this group — receiving the certification is a way to boost one’s resume.

Even after receiving a certification, many translators will go on to receive more training in the specific field they plan to work in. As mentioned above, informative translators will often specialize in a field like medicine or law, and to do so requires a decent amount of knowledge about those respective subjects.

From there, becoming a translator depends on local job markets and opportunities. An informative translator might get a job at a specific company that requires translations or start at an agency that works with several different companies. There are often many cases where translation and interpretation are lumped together in a single job listing. Outside of regular employment, many translators freelance, and you can find many translators on gig economy sites like Fiverr and Upwork.

Things work slightly differently for literary translators, especially newer ones. They sometimes have to find books they themselves are interested in, and then pitch it to various publishing companies along with a translation sample. Once a person builds connections in the industry, it is easier to be assigned work, but there’s no single path.

Translators And Artificial Intelligence

In the past few decades, machine translation has changed the field of translation. Within a single generation, computers have gotten much, much better at translating from language to language. While still imperfect, machines are an impossible to ignore part of the translation process.

Are robots replacing humans in this field, then? Well, not exactly. While it’s true that the ability to translate websites instantaneously likely has some effect on the translation field, it’s not reliable enough for companies or institutions to use regularly.

What is becoming more popular is hybrid translation, which means humans and machines work together. Usually, a text is put through a machine translator and then is proofread by a human after to fix any errors and address problem areas. This speeds the process of translation quite a bit, allowing the human proofreader to get through much more text. With a growing demand for translation services both in the United States and around the world, hybrid translation is a way to meet needs.

The reality today is that professional human translators are necessary, particularly in specialized fields. The possibility remains that someday machine translation will improve to such an extent that it will begin to replace humans. Still, language is complex, and it’s also likely that the need for professional translators will never go away.

More About Translators

There is so much that could be said about translation, we thought it would be worth it to include some of our favorite resources on the topic. Depending on where your interests lie, you should check out some of these links.

  • Is That A Fish In Your Ear? — If you’re looking for a light, fun look at the many ways translation is used around the world, this David Bellos book is perfect. Different chapters look at humor in translation, how the United Nations works and how matters of global legal precedent can come down to a fluke of translation.
  • Words Without Borders — This online magazine is one of the best sources of literary translation for works from all over the world. Whether you’re interested in interviews with translators or simply want to diversify the writing you read, it’s worth exploring what this site has to offer.
  • American Translators Association — Depending on where you live, the proper translator group will differ. For Americans, though, the American Translators Association is a good place to start. They offer webinars on various topics, resources for people in all different stages of their career and (as mentioned above) a certification test.
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