Should You Become a Translator?

Ah, the question of whether or not it’s even worth it to become a translator.

But first, a story.

When I was in the first year of my undergraduate translation degree program, we had to read a story about a mom and her two grown sons. The mom was explaining to a neighbor friend what her two sons did for a living. She gushed about her oldest being a doctor.

Then, when it came time to talk about her second son, she hesitantly described his profession like this:

“He’s something like a translator.”

Maybe that story was a sign of things to come, or maybe in fact it was the catalyst, but after two years in the program, less than a handful out of 20+ students actually became full-time translators.

So why would someone go through all the study, testing, and work to be accepted into a university translation program, and then not have anything to do with translation upon graduation?


Why Translator Expectations Are Off Base

What that professor was informing of us that day as we dreamed of becoming world-renowned translators was that many people do not understand the value that translators have.

Therefore, in order to be successful as translators, we would have to focus on two areas during our studies:

1) becoming better translators
2) becoming better advocates for translation

When a graduate gets the title of doctor, or lawyer, or accountant, for example, he or she doesn’t have to advocate for the value of that title. Most people understand the value that these professions bring to the world.

However, when someone takes on the title of translator, the intrinsic value of that title is not as deep or as well-known to most people. As such, translators have to justify who they are and what they do to those people that don’t understand.

And that can be daunting on a 20-year old trying to validate his or her career choice to parents, peers, and ultimately oneself.

So, the majority of the would-be translators in my program took one of two paths:

1) dropped out of the program altogether, or
2) used the program as a stepping stone to a career that was already understood to have perceived value (usually the career was in law or business)

In essence, that story and the subsequent discussion we had in class that day boiled down to five essential questions every potential translator needed to ask before knowing whether or not it would be worth it in the long run to become a translator.

Become A Translator? Four Questions To Ask

1) How do you cope with the need we all have of receiving validation from others?

We all have a need to feel validated. We want to know that what we are doing is worth it to someone. It sometimes isn’t enough to know that what we are doing is worth it to us. We want other people to recognize our talents, our drive, our passion, our contributions.

Translators often have a hard time receiving those validations. Other people who aren’t involved in the language industry don’t quite understand the value that translators bring to society. That’s why many of my classmates decided to drop out of the program or leave the language field as soon as they graduated.

How do you deal with the need to be validated in what you’re doing? Can you live without it, or less of it than maybe your peers? If not, translation might not be worth it for you.

2) Do you enjoy language enough to learn about it?

I’m not going to talk about having a passion for language. The idea of having a passion is so overrated and abused these days it makes me nauseous. You don’t have to be passionate to be good at or enjoy what you do for a living.

Mike Rowe, popular TV host of Dirty Jobs famously answered a question about passion:

When it comes to earning a living and being a productive member of society – I don’t think people should limit their options to those vocations they feel passionate towards. I met a lot of people on Dirty Jobs who really loved their work. But very few of them dreamed of having the career they ultimately chose. I remember a very successful septic tank cleaner who told me his secret of success. “I looked around to see where everyone else was headed, and then I went the opposite way,” he said. “Then I got good at my work. Then I found a way to love it. Then I got rich.”

Here’s a simple matrix to see how this relates to translation:

  • Are you passionate about translation but suck at it? Find another career.
  • Are you passionate about translation and good at it? Translation could be a good career.
  • Are you not passionate about translation but good at it? Translation could be a good career.

Podiatrists don’t have to be passionate about feet. They just have to be like feet enough to learn about them and stay on top of all the new medical research and techniques related to feet.

You don’t have to love translation to the exclusion of everything else. You just have to like it enough to keep learning about it.

3) Do you have an aptitude for language?

I’m a big proponent of the idea that we can all learn. Most of us have the ability to learn new things if we decide to put in the time and the effort.

But there are some things we just can’t pick up. I’m smart enough to know that I have a real struggle with computer programming.

When I was in college. I thought that it would be a good idea to learn how to program computers because everyone was hiring programmers. So I took a beginning Java programming class.

I failed it. Twice.

After failing it the second time, I decided that computer programming just wasn’t my thing. Sure I could have banged my head against the wall and tried three more times to understand the class, but it would have been torture.

Instead, I gravitated back over to the Humanities building where I excelled at language and translation.

I found something that I did well and concentrated on that.

If you struggle to learn a foreign language, translation might not be the right career for you.

If you have a hard time understanding grammar rules or don’t know how to write an understandable sentence, becoming a translator is not the right career field for you.

A lot of people I talk to don’t like this advice. They’ve been told for so long that they have the freedom to become anything they want to become. Who am I to tell them that they can’t become a translator just because they suck at language?

If you’re’ one of these people, it’s time for a reality check.

4) Are you more attracted to being a translator or the idea of what you think a translator is and does?

Some people get so enamored by the idea of what a certain career is like that they don’t realize what it actually involves.

How many people do you know are attracted to the idea of becoming a movie star or famous singer or professional athlete?

Yet, how many of those people know what it takes to a) make it to that elite level and b) what kind of life those people have to live in order to maintain that career.

Why do you want to become a translator? Are you drawn to the idea that you can stay home in your pajamas and work two hours a day making thousands of dollars a day?

That’s not the life of a translator. There are those translators that struggle with finding clients, marketing their services, dealing with unhappy or clueless customers, and making enough money.

It takes work to become a successful freelance translator. If you are only attracted to the idea of what a translator is and does, but not to the work that a translator has to put in to become a success, then becoming a translator is not going to be worth it to you.

Question then:

If you are a translator, or want to become one, what makes being a translator worth it to you?

P.S. If it’s worth it to you to become a translator, become a successful one by reading my book.

8 thoughts on “Should You Become a Translator?”

  1. Anneliese

    Great article. Very true.

  2. Victor Andrade

    good article, i’m looking into doing this. I grew up speaking spanish and english. I applied for an interpreting job and failed the simulation test. I didn’t study at all though. it actually takes more work than i thought. I’m ok with the first 3 things you talked about. The forth thing is what i’m not too fond of but i dont know if theres any escaping that feeling of dreading work for any type of job.

    1. Anyone that says becoming a translator is easy doesn’t truly understand what it takes to become successful. However, if it’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Good luck!

  3. I didn’t originally want to become a translator, but really loved the thought of being multilingual and kept that sort of ‘dream’ for years, waiting for my parents to put me in a language school. Eventually, I got into Korean Dramas, Kpop, and thought “Why should I keep waiting for others to tell me to start learning another language when I have all the resources right in front of me?” so I started learning, and loved it! Now I’m at a pretty high level, still rusty in some places, but I think translation would be a good job for someone as crazy and patient as me.

    However, I have faced the possibility of going insane some days because at the end of the day, what I do would be my ‘work’ and no one really likes working at times, but overall I’m good at communicating, understanding, excel in linguistics more than anything and am still standing after tossing notebooks around my room and ‘quitting’ multiple times.

    (I just hope I feel like this once I actually get started lol)

    1. Great story and good luck! Just know that just because you earn money from doing something you enjoy, and it might technically be “work,” doesn’t mean you automatically have to dread doing it. It’s a myth that you can’t enjoy what you do. You can and many people already do.

  4. Lionel Cheah

    Hello! I intend to take a B.A in Translation with ICT. Now I’m still in high school, so i’m not sure where i should go. Should i go to a polytechnic and specialise in a language course and get some work experience, or should i go to a junior college, where i can have a general education.

    1. Hey Lionel. Thanks for commenting! In terms of answering your question, it all depends on what you want. What is your language level? If its needs improvement, it makes sense to study and learn more (although it would probably be more valuable to use that money you would invest in a polytechnic and instead go live in a country where the language is spoken). If your language skills are good, get some work experience now if you can. Always ask yourself, “what will my next step help me accomplish that I can’t already do right now?” That should help you decide what you want to do next.

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