So, You Want to Become a Translator? - Translation Skills Training

So, You Want to Become a Translator?

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“Interpreters work with oral language. Translators work with written texts. While being bilingual is obviously essential to both, the skills they need, and therefore the requisite types of training they need, are different.”

Most everyone can recall seeing interpreters working at the United Nations or have seen films of the famous Nuremburg Trials after WWII. It indeed is an impressive sight to behold the numerous interpreters, each dedicated to a particular pair of languages and focused on their assigned speakers whose words required translation into numerous languages, simultaneously. To some who watch these events, seeing everyone in the room, whether at the UN or at the trials, wearing headphones in order to understand in their own languages what others are saying in theirs, may bring to mind scenes of either Babel or Pentecost. To many young, bilingual people, this may seem like an easy job and one that they already have a head start on. They may say, “I want to be a translator when I grow up” and, unless they have someone to guide them, they have already made an error in distinguishing two very vital, but fundamentally distinct types of work that bilingual people may learn to do.  

Interpreters work with oral language. Translators work with written texts. While being bilingual is obviously essential to both, the skills they need, and therefore the requisite types of training they need, are different. As an anecdotal aside, most people who work in either profession often report that they just sort of fell into it, by a series of circumstances and then honed their skills. This is true of some of the most skillful, successful, and often famous translators and interpreters I have known or become acquainted with over my past 35 years as a literary and technical translator. While this loose approach to becoming an expert was feasible in decades past, nowadays, the competition is fierce. The requirements of clients are often so specialized, that would-be interpreters or translators need to clear professional goals in mind and consciously pursue relevant and professionally recognized training – which usually leads to the appropriate certifications.

Returning to our young people, if becoming a bilingual language professional is their goal, and they are still young, the distinction between interpreters and translators is not terribly important. After all, they first need to become experts in the two or more languages that they know. People who are bilingual from a young age are generally referred to as heritage speakers, because their bilingualism is usually acquired in the home where more than one language is used habitually and by native speakers. There are exceptions, such as children of monolingual homes who are continually exposed to other families who speak another language, and thus grow up alongside another language. In either case, being bilingual from a young age is a clear advantage, but such people are not any more prepared to jump into one of the interpreter’s booths or sit down with their laptop and begin translating a document of some kind than a monolingual person is able to become a radio broadcast journalist or a reporter for a print or online newspaper. Let’s explore what they need to do, as soon as they decide that they want to pursue a career that depends specifically on their bilingual abilities. 

Since my own experience is as a translator, not an interpreter, I will focus on what, in my experience, best benefits a bilingual person who wants to become a translator.  Even more interestingly, I will show how to enhance even those skills by further training to become an Analytic Linguist through the online, accredited program of Translation Skills Training, LLC™ (TST).  

At some point, preferably as young as possible, would-be translators must become consciously and actively aware of how their two languages work. By “how a language works,” I refer to the nuts and bolts of grammar (also known as syntax), morphology (how words are formed), orthography (spelling), phonology (pronunciation), and lexicography (vocabulary) – and these are just for starters. Would-be translators also need to know that no matter how much they know and can handle the complexities of the areas just mentioned, they will never be finished learning! This recognition isn’t needed because of some requirement to be humble. It is a simple fact. So, they must be happy to commit themselves to being lifelong learners of more complex areas of learning. These include rhetoric, stylistics, prosody and poetics, proverbs, Culture (with a big C, meaning literature, art, music), and historical and political contexts as well as current events and popular culture of all kinds, such as movies, magazines, pop music, and current trends of all kinds.

Now let’s explore where and how to pursue the basics. Certainly, even in many high schools, there are great programs for heritage speakers, but unfortunately, there are not enough of them. Here is where Mark Twain’s famous saying comes in handy: “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” One can find good classes and programs, with dedicated and capable teachers and professors who teach the nuts and bolts of grammar, teach students the mechanics of writing and spelling, and push their students to new heights with challenging works of literature, which improve learners’ depth and breadth of vocabulary. If the young people I had in mind at the beginning of this blog begin this process in high school, and continue it through college, they will have a strong foundation for beginning to become a capable translator. Some colleges and universities offer courses in translation, usually focused on legal and medical translation, since those are two professions that frequently require translators to document their interactions with patients or clients. (Although this blog is about translation, there are also university programs for training interpreters.)

It must be pointed out that while a university degree in Spanish, for example, which has included a class or two in translation, is a strong foundation, it is only that – a foundation. What should recent college graduates do if they have obtained a B.A. in a foreign language and want to become paid translators and, particularly, if they want to make a living doing it as a freelancer? The answer is to pursue certification with the American Translators Association (ATA). This prestigious organization has been around since 1959 and certifies translators via examinations in which examinees work in a particular language pair and direction (i.e., English into Spanish or Spanish into English, but not both in the same certifying exam). One recommendation even prior to taking ATA’s practice exam is to get practice by volunteering with school and community organizations – but be careful not to be doing translations that really should be done by certified professionals unless you know one who can check and certify your work under his or her relevant credential. All too often, community organizations or even local governments will call a local university and ask if students could translate materials that could be sensitive and where errors could lead to injuries, and even to death – and liabilities for well-meaning translators. Be glad to volunteer, but be sure you have a certified expert to sign off on your work. This will also help you build your résumé and get recommendations and references in the future, after you are certified. Being a freelance translator can earn you a good living, but it is a tough road to travel. That is why becoming an Analytic Linguist should be so attractive to people who are bilingual in English and Spanish. It is a full-time job. It has health insurance, a retirement plan, and vacation time! Best of all, it pays as much as $80K per year and is in high demand at the federal, state, and local levels. 

So, what are Analytic Linguists and what do they do? Analytic Linguists are highly skilled, elite language professionals who work in support of law enforcement as monitors, transcribers, and translators of court-ordered oral communication intercepts. They work out of public view, in special rooms set up for this form of surveillance, 24/7, 365 days a year, in shifts that one can compare to those of health care professionals who work in emergency medicine. Since this blog has only addressed translation and how one can become a certified translator, the skills of translation per se are transferable, but the types of language that Analytic Linguists translate have almost nothing to do with the types of language found in neat, clean, and predictable legal documents or medical records. 

Analytic Linguists work with the language of the streets, as spoken by members of criminal subcultures. They must be able to understand it and, in their role as monitors, summarize it. As transcribers, they must be able to produce a verbatim record of conversations (including other details, such as one might find in a playscript). Finally, they regularly are required to translate the transcriptions of conversations into an equal form of U.S. English, so that law enforcement, lawyers, judges, and jurors can understand it. Strange as it may seem, there are currently no other programs anywhere other than TST that offer this training. If you are bilingual and this blog has you interested, you should explore this possible career path at our website, where you can also send an email to inquire further.

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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