Good translating skills are required to be either a translator or an interpreter.
Many people in this field do both jobs, although they may choose to specialize:
- Translators translate written documents from one language into
their mother tongue. These written documents can be anything from legal and
government documents to literature and poetry.
- Interpreters listen to people speaking in one language and try
to repeat exactly what they say in another language. Interpreters may work
for governments, international businesses and international agencies like
the United Nations.
Translators work on their own, using dictionaries and language guides to
help them produce a document in another language. Interpreters work with people,
allowing people who speak different languages to communicate right on the
It can be a stressful job. Interpreters have to think on their feet because
they have to provide immediate translation of someone's words. This can be
difficult when someone uses a word or concept that has no equivalent in another
"[For example,] the welfare system is something difficult to translate
because it either doesn't exist in other languages or it means something completely
different," says Sylvia Nagy. She is an interpreter from Washington.
"It's very stressful because there's always a chance you're going to hear
a word you don't know, especially in technical translations. You can't just
pick up a dictionary," says Katarzyna Gonnerman. She is a translator and interpreter
of Polish from Minneapolis.
While translation is a little less stressful than interpreting, it also
"Translation is a very time-consuming occupation and it can be frustrating
sometimes," says Hilma Espinoza. Espinoza is a Spanish translator and interpreter
from New Mexico who has done work translating banking terminology.
"Even with 20 years [of] experience, I've found myself completely helpless
and have had to turn to friends in different states until I'm satisfied with
Many translators and interpreters enjoy their work because it gives them
the opportunity to meet and talk to people from all over the world.
"I've really enjoyed it because it's allowed me to meet a lot of interesting
people and experience other cultures," says Nagy. She speaks Hungarian, Spanish,
English, French, Italian and Portuguese.
To work in these professions, you'll need more than the ability to speak
two languages. That's a start, but there's a lot more involved.
"Interpreting and translation are skills that have to be learned, like
anything else. It's not something you're born with," says Gonnerman.
In addition to learning the technical skills of interpreting and translation,
it's important to be familiar not only with a country's language, but also
"In order to do a good job, you have to be familiar with a country's culture.
And the best way to do this is to spend as much time there as possible. Cultural
signals must be understood," says Nagy. She has spent time living in Europe,
North Africa, Venezuela and North America.
Physical requirements to be a translator are minimal. But an interpreter
must be mobile.
Once you've learned another language, you'll need to maintain it. That's
because you have to keep up with current expressions and vocabulary. You'll
have to read newspapers in your second language and converse with other people
who speak that language.
"Don't assume you know everything because you're fluent. I've made this
mistake before," says Gonnerman.
Many translators and interpreters work as freelancers. They set up a business
and accept contracts from various people and agencies. This gives them a lot
of freedom, but freelancers rarely make as much money as translators and interpreters
who are employed full time.
Ann Macfarlane is president of the American Translators Association. She
says it is easier to find work independently than it is to find work with
She adds, however, that translators have to be skilled. While there's lots
of opportunity out there, only the best translators will beat the competition
from foreign countries with equally skilled translators.
"You have to be at a really high level," says Macfarlane. "It's harder
for Americans to get to that level because we don't teach language as seriously
as foreign countries do."