I might be a little biased, but being a translator is the best job ever. Not only do you get to read and write all day, but you learn about so many interesting and varied topics from the research you conduct for your projects. Plus, what’s better than working closely with the languages you love? And when you can help your clients grow and reach their goals of cross-cultural communication, I’d call that a successful day.
But translation is not an easy profession, and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to achieve success. It has been estimated that 75% of translators work as freelancers, which means they are self-employed contractors who provide services to a range of clients, including both translation agencies and direct clients. Because of this, professionals in the field must stay up-to-date with the latest development and technologies as well as continuously upskill to remain a competitive actor in the market.
I have been fortunate enough to reach some significant milestones over the past eight years I’ve been working in the translation industry. While these reflect my personal journey as a freelance translator, they may be helpful to any professional in the field. Hopefully, these seven milestones can provide emerging translators with a bit of guidance on what to anticipate for their future career. Please keep in mind that there is no “right” way to achieve success and that the order of these milestones may change according to your own path.
So, read on to discover the seven milestones in a translator’s life!
There is a big difference between studying a language in high school for a few years and having the linguistic and cultural know-how required for a career in translation. We all learn at different paces, but there is something to say about experiencing a language in all its forms before you can move on to accurately and appropriately relaying it. This entails not only understanding the grammatical and lexical complexities of the language, but also its slang, idiomatic expressions, and related cultural references.
For example, it took me over thirteen years of formal study and three years of living in a francophone country to feel I had enough of a command of French to begin translating professionally. And even after that, with a graduate degree in translation in hand, I realized I had so much more to learn!
It should also be noted that no matter how fluent you might be in the source language, you should always translate into your native tongue. Many agencies will insist upon this, and the leading institutions that employ translators (think the UN or NATO) won’t budge on the matter. Of course, translating into your first language means you also need to understand its intricacies and have a good grasp on spelling, grammar, and literary devices.
One day, I was talking to Ofer Tirosh, the CEO of Tomedes, and he told me the story about his very first translation order. It was $0.19. But it didn’t matter how much the project cost; the excitement lied in the fact that he was one step closer to accomplishing his goals of connecting communities and creating a globally recognized translation agency.
I like that story, and I think it really represents how every emerging translator feels when they get their first paid project. Many linguists do complex translations throughout their studies, but these are exercises assigned by professors, not a client with the potential to build one’s professional network. Securing your very first paid project–whether it ends up being $1 or $1,000–brings about an incredible feeling of pride because it is concrete recognition of your skills and linguistic talent.
As an additional guide, watch this quick video:
Mastering specialized tools like computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools and machine translation software is a significant milestone in a translator’s career–especially if you are far from being tech-savvy, like me! It can take some time to get a grasp of these technologies and all their helpful features, but once you’ve reached the stage where you’re comfortable integrating them into your workflow, you can increase your productivity and level up your game as a translator.
CAT tools, like SDL Trados and MemoQ, are software platforms designed to help translators by providing a range of features such as translation memories, terminology databases, and automatic quality checks. These can sometimes be confused with machine translation (MT) tools like DeepL and eTranslation, but the differences between them are quite significant. MT uses advanced AI technology to provide instantaneous translations, which then requires something called machine translation post-editing (MTPE) by human translators to ensure the final text flows naturally and maintains the original message’s context and nuance.
Because the translation industry is continuously evolving, with new technologies emerging regularly, learning to adapt to these changes and incorporating new tools into your work is crucial. But that’s part of the excitement of being a translator: there’s always a new challenge to conquer, which enriches the whole experience. Remember, every new tool you have under your belt is another milestone you’ve reached in your translation career.
Translators who specialize in the medical, legal, or technical fields may never see the final result of their work because these types of translations might be used for internal purposes or sent off as documentation to another country. However, linguists working in academia, publishing, or marketing are likely to come face to face with their own words from time to time, whether that be via digital format or hard copy.
In fact, in many countries, literary translators are considered artists and have copyright over their work, which means their names should be cited alongside their translations (this is known as “moral rights”) and they should receive financial compensation every time their translations are used (this is known as “economic rights”). For more information about the rights you are owed as a translator and how you can protect them, read our article here.
As someone who specializes in the creative and media sectors, I can say from first-hand experience how exciting it was to see peoples’ direct interaction with my first publicly available translation. But one of the high points of my career was when I received copies of a book I translated from a publisher I worked with and saw my name in print on the inside jacket. That recognition acted as a significant milestone in my career because it was tangible proof that my professional endeavors came to fruition.
Many linguists come to the field of translation with specialty knowledge already in their pocket thanks to a previous career in law, medicine, engineering, or any other specialized field. This expertise offers them a head start when they pivot to translation since it enables them to specialize in translating texts in their field of knowledge. On the other hand, some translators start with a more general knowledge base, gradually specializing over time through experience, professional development, and continuous learning in a specific domain.
However, whether you started as an expert or grew into one, a pivotal moment arrives when you become recognized in the industry for your subject matter expertise. The moment a new client reaches out to you, not just because you are a competent translator, but specifically because you were recommended by a previous client for your expert knowledge in a particular field–well, that’s certainly a milestone to cherish.
It goes without saying that all translators are interested in and dedicated to language and languages. However, some translators are primarily engrossed in the intricacies of a single source language, and others are deeply passionate about learning multiple languages. Of course, the two are not separate from each other. A polyglot linguist can also dive deep into all the languages with which they work; a translator who employs one language pair in their career can also explore new languages for fun.
But one thing is for certain: adding new languages, either to enhance the study of singular source language or as an expansion into new linguistic territories, undeniably enriches a translator’s career. This journey of language learning enhances cultural understanding, sharpens cognitive abilities, and broadens professional opportunities.
For example, I translate exclusively from French but have also studied Spanish and Italian, and I am currently learning German. Though I don’t have the level required to translate professionally from these languages, their study has enriched my linguistic skills and broadened my perspectives, which helps my work as a translator. Therefore, each new language, whether it becomes a working language or not, marks a significant milestone in a translator’s professional development and is something that should be celebrated.
Aristotle could not have said it better: “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” One of the most significant milestones in a translator’s life is getting to the point where you can share your expertise with others.
Regardless of the languages you speak or the industries you work with as a translator, the knowledge and expertise you possess can have a significant impact on your colleagues and the translation community as a whole. Once you have established yourself as an expert in your field, your insights and experiences become valuable resources that can guide and inspire others in the profession.
As an established translator, your role as a teacher and mentor is not limited to formal classroom settings. Through professional networks, online forums, conferences, or even informal discussions, your willingness to share your expertise and support others can make a meaningful difference in their journeys as translators. Embracing the role of a teacher allows you to contribute to the growth and development of your fellow linguists to create a stronger and more knowledgeable translation community.
The milestones in a translator’s life are as diverse and unique as the individuals themselves. That’s why it is essential to remember that there is no universal path to success. What matters most is setting personal goals that align with your professional interests and remain attainable, allowing you to continually grow and evolve in your translation career.
We would love to hear about your own milestones and experiences as a translator. Feel free to share them in the comments below! Together, let’s celebrate the diverse journeys and achievements within the vibrant community of translators.