So you’re thinking of becoming a translator?

by Nathanial Gardner

Like most who have studied a foreign language, early on I seriously considered the idea of becoming a translator.  

I didn’t know any translators personally, but I imagined the work would be fascinating: reading loads of interesting books and sharing their inspiration and knowledge by translating them.  

I was lucky enough to have been an undergraduate at Brigham Young University, a US university with a strong Modern Languages department. So much so that it was (and continues to be) one of the few in the English-speaking world that offers Spanish Translation as an undergraduate degree programme. The earliest you can enroll for a degree in translation at most universities is in graduate school.  

It’s perhaps not surprising that, at my university, undergraduates at the end of their second year had to pass a rigorous exam to measure their Spanish and English grammar knowledge and writing abilities. Only a small percentage passed. Those who did not would complete their degree in Spanish without the translation focus. Those who did made up the select group that went on to learn the principles of translation and hone their skills as young translators.  

I took the test and passed it. However, after some serious consideration, I decided to continue on a different Modern Languages pathway as I felt that was more suitable for me.  

Despite this decision, translation has sought me out repeatedly, teaching me lessons on every single occasion. I have taught translation by invitation at undergraduate and graduate level in England, Scotland, New Zealand, Spain, and Mexico. I have been a visiting academic in la Facultad de Traducción, Interpretación, y Documentación at the Universidad de Salamanca. I have translated some books and many documents. Most of my published work has been translating Spanish into English; though I have, on occasion, translated the other way around as well. Several of my friends are professional translators, one of whom has won prizes for her translations. When I decided one summer evening as an undergraduate student that I was not going to study translation, I never imagined that I would nonetheless engage with it as much as I have thus far.  

Part of this is due to the changing way we study languages. During my undergraduate days those who studied translation were seen as specialists. Now my alma mater requires all those enrolled for a degree in Spanish to study at least one introductory course on the principles of translation. As universities continue to create graduate programmes in translation, more undergraduate programmes introduce courses on translation as part of their degree plans, partly because students seem more interested in translation, and partly to allow them a taste of the field before they commit to a graduate programme.  

I also think that translation has sought out linguists like myself because our globalised world requires more translation to keep it connected. Automated translation is improving every year, but humans seek a human voice and understanding in their conversations (which is why the study of history and culture are so key to being good translators).  

As someone whose livelihood and personal interests are so closely connected to languages, I have learned that translation is not all about translating great literature. Translation occurs in the media, marketing, technology, politics and entertainment, to name but a few. Each field has its own nuances, specific vocabulary, and exact ways of expressing ideas. This is why translators always specialise in certain areas. 

Translation is not always about translating like for like. Sometimes you work across mediums, for example when you turn spoken into written language. Subtitling television and film, translating information for important pamphlets, reading and digesting reports in one language to create effective summaries for those who need to make quick and informed decisions are just some of the many calls upon translators. All of these require different skills and have different levels of demand and remuneration.  

While some translators, especially in more technical fields, tend to have a steady flow of work, others are less constant. This means that some may need a second or third job to maintain a steady income.  

I always imagined translation to be a solitary task, with the translator working away in their favourite location for inspiration. This is broadly true. You mostly work on your own until your project hits a bump in the road. That is where friends and colleagues become invaluable sounding boards and sources of inspiration. Some of my friends have moved out of translation because they wanted to work more closely with colleagues and because they found the ebb and flow of translation work too unstable for their liking. 

Translation is often low-profile work. We tend to notice only the translator’s mistakes or absence. The best translators are practically invisible. Poor translation is more conspicuous through its clunkiness: something about it doesn’t seem quite right. Excellent translations flow as if they were first written in the new language by a skilled writer. 

Studying translation requires the student to think deeply about language and possess a strong command of it (which is why strong translation programmes want the highest quality students). It demands the ability to read closely, understand nuances, comprehend complex ideas, navigate cultural clues, identify cloaked intentions, and reproduce all of these effectively and with crystal clarity. These are not easy tasks. Happily, every one of those skills is needed in the professional world. This means, of course, that if you study translation earnestly and then decide not to pursue it, you will have developed many qualities needed by employers.   

So, what is my number one tip if you are thinking of becoming a translator? Never stop improving your language skills. Immerse yourself deeply into the areas that interest you most and learn and practice all that you can. Languages are living elements, you have to keep stretching yourself to keep up with them