We live in a changing world. Because of the Internet, global trade
and immigration, our societies are more diverse than ever. This diversity
means there is a lot of work for translators and interpreters.
Translators work with written words and may change something written in
English, for example, into another language. They can translate documents,
books, websites, manuals, software, etc.
Interpreters, on the other hand, deal with the spoken word. They must be
able to follow conversations in one language, determine what is being said,
and then communicate those thoughts in a second language.
So if you are already fluent in two languages, you can become a translator
or interpreter, right?
"Not at all," says Kevin Hendzel. He's the national media spokesman for
the American Translators Association. "Does having two hands make you a concert
pianist? Not by a long shot. You need your two hands, but it's just the barest
What else does it take to have a career in this field?
"Translators and interpreters must be bicultural," Hendzel explains. "They
must have the ability to write fluently in their languages (translators) or
maintain complex thoughts in memory for long periods (interpreters). They
must be trained and mentored, have extensive experience and be able to convey
complex subjects across cultural boundaries.
"Above all, they need to know a lot about the world. Translation and interpreting
are about things -- politics, law, technology, physics, engineering.
You have to understand these subjects to translate them. It's not about words.
It's about what the words are about."
Marco A. Fiola agrees. He is an associate professor in a department of
French and Spanish. As a language expert, Fiola understands that translating
and interpreting go beyond simply speaking another language.
"Being fluent in two languages is the minimum requirement to learn how
to translate," he says. "Translation can not be summed up as mere bilingualism.
To assume that bilingualism is sufficient to translate is to underestimate
grossly the enormity of the task at hand."
This is also a broad field. There are employment opportunities in many
different areas. These areas include the government or military, commercial
businesses, and the legal or health systems, among others. All are experiencing
job growth -- that growth isn't expected to slow down.
"There are three reasons for the higher-than-average demand in translation
and interpreting," explains Hendzel.
"The first is rapid globalization of business, which is driving demand
across all industries and languages. This is reinforced by increasing requirements
that products and services be delivered in the local language. The idea that
English is the global language of business is long gone. Chinese, Japanese,
Korean and the European languages are on the rise.
"The second reason is U.S. national security. This is by far the greatest
change in the last several years. Languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Uzbek,
Kurdish, Korean, Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia and many others are driving demand
in the U.S. military, national security agencies and even private companies
involved in reconstruction and development.
"The third reason is domestic demand for translation and interpreting
for U.S. citizens with limited English proficiency. This population has been
on the rise for the last decade, and recent rulings have required foreign
language support in the court system, hospitals and other public settings
for such individuals."
With such demand, one might think finding employment would be easy. But
this is actually a competitive field which requires extensive training, experience
In addition, most people specialize as either translators or interpreters.
According to Hendzel, only about 20 percent of professionals work in both
areas. And even those people who do both tend to be more capable in one of
Be prepared to undertake extensive schooling in order to stand out from
the pack. Many post-graduate training programs are available for translators
and interpreters in the U.S.
Specialized translators often identify a field of interest and then develop
an expertise with time.
"Lately, many translation students are in fact bilingual people who have
been practicing another profession for some time," Fiola says. "But these
people have chosen to change their career path to capitalize on their bilingualism
and their specialized knowledge in their former field of practice."
This group includes teachers, military members, nurses and computer specialists,
among others. They work to get the required training and become specialized
translators in their former field of practice.
The benefits of working as an interpreter or translator cover many areas.
While compensation may be average to start (mid-$30,000 to $40,000), workers
have the advantage of seeking full-time, part-time, in-house or freelance
employment to suit their current needs and situations.
In addition, salaries can climb to over $100,000, particularly for conference
interpreters, specialists in the national security languages with security
clearances, and those who specialize in difficult fields such as international
banking, commerce and technology.
"The majority of professional translators work as freelancers," says Hendzel.
"This allows maximum flexibility to work where the demand is the strongest.
Also, the translation and interpreting industry is very much a global industry
"Translators and interpreters from all over the world compete for commercial
work on the market every day. But the market is very large and diverse, and
there are many potential areas for employment."
Fiola also mentions that a large number of translators are independent,
freelance workers. He points out that many can work from home, which is ideal
for those who don't want to sacrifice their career for their family, or vice
versa. This might also help explain why there are far more women entering
the profession than men despite equality of access to training.
"Translation and interpreting are growth industries," says Hendzel. "But
it's important to have the skills to succeed. Seek out training or an advanced
degree or a mentor to help you against the competition. The best translators
and interpreters also have a significant amount of training in another technical
or business field -- it's not just about language."
American Translators Association
The ATA maintains a directory of professional training programs
Lots of glossaries, dictionaries, articles and more for linguists!
International Federation of Translators
An international federation of more than 100 associations from
around the world