Translators and interpreters around the world seem to fall into two groups: those who think a degree in languages is a must to work (successfully) as a translator/interpreter, and those who consider that anyone with the right amount of work experience can make a career in such fields.
What Is the Purpose of a Language Degree?
To begin with, credentials are proof that you have the skills required to translate or interpret professionally. Even though translation-specific degrees are relatively new in most countries (they started a few decades ago), a degree in languages is usually as useful. The reason? You learn how to master the target language. In other words, you undestand the nuances of its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. As a consequence, your final product -in that language- is of top-notch quality and accuracy.
Moreover, if you want to work for a public institution -like a government agency or a hospital- as a linguist, you basically always need to present some kind of certification. The purpose is making sure that the linguists hired have had enough training to perform well in certain sensitive situations.
Medialocale’s website describes a situation that paints a clear picture of the importance of getting training in medical and legal interpreting:
Willie Ramírez, an 18-year-old, was admitted to a Florida hospital in a comatose state. At the time of admission, an interpreter made a mistake and translated the Spanish term “intoxicado” which means poisoned or having an allergic reaction as: “intoxicated”. Willie, who was suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage, was only treated for an intentional drug overdose. As a result, he was left quadriplegic. The law suit resulted in a settlement over Willie’s lifetime of approximately $71 million, assuming he lives to age 74.
Do All Translators Hold a Degree?
A survey we conducted in April 2018 showed that not all professional translators hold a degree. Our survey included questions about rates and specialisation fields, but also about training. We wanted to get a general picture of the translation industry worldwide, for which we gathered 400 answers. The respondents include translators and interpreters from every continent, field of specialisation, and level of experience.
Take a look at the graph below, which illustrates the answers to the question “Do you hold a degree in languages/translation/interpreting?”
As you can see, 13% said they didn’t hold any degrees. In addition, 3% of respondents said they studied but dropped out.
Some people who grew up bilingual or who have learned a second or third language very well may still be able to become successful translators/interpreters. One of the reasons is that we are dealing with a fairly unregulated industry. They can start by learning the rules of grammar and syntax through relevant books and other materials. Then, they might gain experience by doing internships or voluntary work. Finally, they can get tested in their language pair of choice. Proficiency tests of the sort include the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) or the Diploma in Translation.
Misconceptions about Translation and Interpreting
Whether you choose to follow the academic path or the self-training one, preparing to work as a translator/interpreter is no piece of cake. Many people think it’s just about being fluent in two languages, but there’s a lot more to it. Or can anyone play the piano just for having two hands? You get the metaphor. Particularly offensive are websites recommending taking up translation as a part-time easy job. We are not kidding: it’s full of them! There are even apps designed to get non-professional translators to do freelance work for pennies. The danger of this is that these people undercharge and drive prices down in the whole industry. However, most clients soon find out the difference in quality between translations produced by a professional and translations by an amateur. And they come back to us, the trained ones!
I Have the Training but Lack the Experience: How Do I Start Off?
We get asked this question a lot. We asked it ourselves to experienced colleagues back in the day as well. That is why we wrote the following article, which we recommend you check out: “Freelancer? This is How to Kick-Start a Successful Career” (Part 1 and Part 2).