The quick and easy guide: Part two

As promised, here’s part two of my beginner’s guide. You’ve decided you want to get into translation, now what?

Assess your skills!

As you might guess, being a translator means you have to speak at least two languages. You might assume you need to be absolutely fluent, but that’s not entirely true. ALL professional translators (or all the ones worth mentioning) translate into their mother tongue only. I speak pretty decent German, but would never dream of translating into German. No matter how good I am, I would be sure to make the odd mistake, or just use a word or phrase that isn’t quite what a German would use. So, if you’re an English speaker, you’d be translating from another language you speak into English. So what are the key skills you’ll need?

  • Excellent skills in your native language. By this I mean: Impeccable grammar, spelling and punctuation. A reasonable flair for different textual styles. An interest in writing and a good writing style. Ability to re-read texts you’ve written and make sure they sound right. A good vocabulary, including technical vocabulary in your subject area. This is MORE important than your foreign language skills, in my book.
  • A high level of ability in your source (foreign) language. In most cases, this will mean around C1 level. It isn’t necessary to be native standard or 100% perfect at the other language.
  • Some idea of the skills of translation…

If you’re hazy on your writing skills, you might want to consider a short course in improving your English, or reading up on grammar and style. If your foreign language skills aren’t quite up to it, then consider enrolling on an advanced course, or working on your language in your spare time.

If you’re pretty confident in your mother tongue and source language(s), you can move on to step two.

To qualify or not to qualify?

When I decided I wanted to translate for a living, I enrolled on a degree called Translation and Professional Language Skills at the University of Bath. This was a one year MA course that gives me the honour of being able to call myself a professional translator. This is handy, but do you really need a degree? The answer is: there are pros and cons – but it’s up to you. I would recommend it, as opposed to launching yourself out there if you’re not sure what you’re doing (this is bad for everyone!), but it’s not 100% necessary. I hire translators without formal training sometimes based on factors such as rarity of language, other qualities or qualifications they may have, or based on recommendation. Some companies or agencies may simply prefer to use a test to see if you’re good enough. It’s possible to get work without a formal degree.

Pros of gaining a degree / diploma

It automatically looks more professional – you can put it on your CV and people will rate you higher than without.

You’ll gain valuable training and insight into how to be a good translator.


It’s expensive. My MA cost me £6000 which I’m still paying off. It was worth it for me, but might not be for everyone.

You may be able to get by without it.

So it’s up to you. Make sure you look up a respected and worthwhile course, such as the University of Westminster, University of Bath or University of Surrey and check the course specs to see if you feel like it’s worth the money.

If you’re already qualified, or decide not to study…

What now, you might ask? Well, it depends on whether you want to get a full-time role or freelance. I’m focussing on freelancing, as if you want to work for an agency, institution or large company, the process is pretty similar to that of getting any other job. It’ll depend mainly on the application procedure of the organisation.

So here are the main steps to getting your foot on the ladder as a freelancer:

  1. Register as self employed. Ok, you can probably do this after you get your first piece of work, but make sure you do it within 2 months of starting freelance work. This is 100% necessary or you’ll be in big trouble later on. Register at (UK)
  2. Decide on a specialism. This is important. Sure you can say ‘I translate everything’, but this is kinda vague and no one really knows whether or not to hire you. If I wanted someone to translate my medical records, I’d want to be fairly sure they were specialised in medical translation. If I wanted legal documents translated, I’d really prefer you were specialised in legal translation. Get my drift? My specialism is ‘business’. This is because I studied business studies at IB, worked for an agency with a business and IT specialism for my internship and have a general interest in the business world. Also, having worked in it for 18 months, I’m pretty familiar with most stuff that’s thrown at me. If you specialise, people are simply more likely to choose you for that type of job, more likely to trust you, and you’re more likely to get work that doesn’t leave you tearing your hair out wondering how to translate specialised neuroscience terms. You can pick a specialism based on other qualifications you may have, strong interests or prior knowledge in a certain area. Or just pick on, research it to death and stick with it until it starts making sense.
  3. Set up an online profile. Get your CV up to scratch and post it on a few sites – try and for a start. Simply set up a free profile (or you can pay for more features) and you can start applying for jobs or sit back and hope for offers of work.
  4. Register with stacks of agencies. As many as you can. This often depends on your language combination, but Google around for appropriate translation agencies and companies. Most of them have a ‘join our team’ or similar tab somewhere where you fill in a form to get on their register of possible translators who they may send work to.
  5. NETWORK! I can’t stress this enough. This is where a course comes in handy, because it gives you a premade network of translating buddies. They might know someone who needs a translator. They might be able to get in a good word for you with their agency. They might be able to suggest a company that’s recruiting… If you don’t have translator friends, try to network via proz or other websites. JOIN discussion groups or other networking sites and go crazy. A network is great for getting work and for asking questions about tricky terms. I got hooked up with a great agency via a friend from my degree when his agency was in dire need of a German translator for an urgent last minute project and he was kind enough to drop my name. I still get regular work from them 18 months later.
  6. Tout for work. You also need to be proactive and apply for jobs. Proz etc can send you lists of them every day – although I’ve had little success like this. Or websites like list individual jobs you can apply for. I hire translators from here. Also try LinkedIn. I’ve advertised jobs on there AND looked people up spontaneously for languages like Burmese and subsequently hired them. Do not underestimate the power of simply making yourself visible online, making it clear what you do that’s special and waiting for business to come to you!
  7. Get au fait with your finances and invoicing. If you don’t know what an invoice is – find out NOW. For every company you get work from, you’ll probably need to send a monthly invoice to state what work you did and what they owe you. If you’re not sure, simply Google for an invoice template and fill in the correct details.Keep record of EVERYTHING (income and outgoings; invoices sent and paid; taxes due…) It’s a good idea to save 20% of your incomings every month in a separate account for the taxman 🙂
  8. 7. Keep improving, learning and branching out. Attend online or real-life seminars, courses or training/networking events. Proz is good for these, as are some universities or translation memory companies like Kilgray or Trados who do seminars on how to best use their software.
  9. Find out about translation memory software! Gone are the days of translating with paper and a pencil. You’ll hear a lot of people banging on about Trados. Trados and co are pieces of software called ‘translation memory’ software because they are capable of storing a sophisticated ‘memory’ of previous work which can then help you out with future translations. It also has a bunch of other features such as preserving the formatting of the original text (VERY useful), spell-checking and QA (checking figures etc), suggesting possible translations based on it’s own machine translation feature, or past ‘memories’ and packaging your translation in the right format for agencies. Trados especially is de rigeur and unfortunately many agencies expect it. They’ll send you files in a poxy Trados format and you’re simply stuck with owning Trados or not getting work. Trados and other TM software packages are expensive (upwards of £600), difficult to use and generally a nuisance. But they are often required to get work in the first place, and do have various useful features. The best alternative to the Trados hegemony is MemoQ which is what I use. It’s a small bit cheaper and easier to use. Don’t get me wrong, some people love Trados, so at least try it, but I prefer MemoQ. You can open all the same files in it and package things up to be opened in Trados anyway. You can use other people’s translation memories (sometimes helpful, sometimes not) and get all the handy formatting and checking features. It’s worth the investment, and you can get a 45 day free trial to make sure you love it as much as I do.

Ok there’s probably more, but that’s enough for one blog post. If you have any questions about any of that I’m always happy to chat!

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