If you’re studying a language (whether that’s in school or on your own) you might be thinking about a career in translation.

Whatever the language and whatever field you’re interested in, there are a few things you can do to get a step ahead and start training your translation skills.


Just Because You Know Two Languages Doesn’t Mean You Can Translate

Sadly, just knowing two (or more) languages does not make you a translator. Translation isn’t just changing words from one language to another, it’s about understanding the cultural context and audience expectations behind what you’re translating, knowing the appropriate terminology, being able to understand subtext, and conveying all of that in your translation.

These are a set of skills separate from knowing the language itself. It’s important to be aware of these additional skills so that you can start developing them to hit the ground running.

The biggest skills that you need to develop beyond just knowing the language are;

  • strong comprehension in your source language,
  • good writing skills in your target language,
  • understand the field you’re working in,
  • understand the medium you’re working in,
  • learn about translation,
  • written and verbal communication skills in both languages,
  • good time management.

There’s also the ability to market yourself and how to find work in the first place, but we’ll get to that.


How Can You Hone These Skills in School?

Let’s go through these skills one by one and look at how you can work on improving these skills before you graduate. (And if you’ve already graduated these tips still apply!)


Strong comprehension in your source language

The best way to improve your comprehension in your source language (the language you will translate from) is reading. Read, read, read, read all the books!

Read novels in different genres, non-fiction, essay collections, books that teach you subjects you’re interested in—read everything.

Language exams are all well and good, but nothing is better for improving general comprehension than extensive reading.


Good writing skills in your target language

Similar to the above, read in your target language (the language you will translate into)!

Focus on books, blogs, and articles on subjects you’re interested in, especially if they’re in the field you’re interested in. If you want to be a creative translator then read a wide variety of novels and other creative works.

Reading a lot in both your source and target language will help you internalize different writing styles used by native authors in those languages.


You should also study writing in your target language. There are lots of resources on how to write in English (if that’s the language you plan to translate into), so I highly suggest researching books that cover the fields you’re interested in.

If your target language is English then these books a great place to start for general writing skills:

If your target language isn’t English, there are sure to be similar books in whatever your chosen target language may be.

Writing Tools 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer book


Understand the field you’re working in

Strong language skills (both source comprehension and target writing) are no good without a good understanding of the field you want to work in.

If you don’t know what field you want to work in, try answering these questions.

– What do I enjoy studying?

What kind of subjects do you like learning about, even if you’re not required to? Translation involves a lot of research, so it helps to be interested in the topics you’re researching.

– Do I prefer working with people in class, or by myself at home?

This can help determine if you would be better in an in-house environment, or freelance.


Understand the medium you’re working in

Every field of translation has its own writing styles and mediums for how information is presented.

Take legal translation, which could involve translating legal documents for a company, certificates, patents, or (if you prefer speaking over writing) court interpretation. Legal writing also has a set style and format.

In business environments you might have e-mail correspondents, bug reports, technical documents, presentations, etc. Different regions and languages also have different styles of formal language.

Or we could look at entertainment translation, which might cover translating novels, TV shows and movies, comics, YouTube channels, blogs, etc.

The medium of the translation, how the text will be presented, who the target audience is, etc., impacts how you translate a text. I suggest reading Translation is a Spectrum to learn more about this.

Otherwise, you can hone your skill in medium comprehension by reading and studying more of that medium.

If you’re interested in patent translation, research how patents are written in your source and target languages. Look at some translated patents and judge what you think was done well or not well.

If you’re interested in novel translation, read a lot of novels in both languages, including translated novels (from different languages), and see how they’re each handled differently.

If you’re interested in video game translation, play a lot of games in different languages, but also study UI and system text translation as well as modern game translation conventions (how developers translate their works, not how fans want them to translate them).

The translation spectrum


Learn about translation

Learning about translation and practicing it is also helpful while you’re still in school. Look up and read blogs, articles, and books on translation, especially in the language and fields you’re interested in. These can help you learn about the translation process, writing styles, common mistakes, etc.

These articles focus on Japanese to English entertainment translation but lot of the advice can be applicable to different languages and fields:


Written and verbal communication skills (in both languages)

One thing worth training up on while you’re in school is how to communicate effectively in both your source and target languages.

How to write cold e-mails, warm e-mails, business communication e-mails. How to communicate your thoughts and clarify information professionally.

This is something you tend to learn on the job, but it can’t hurt to look for online seminars on business communications for translators. There might even be talks and seminars at your school!


Good time management

If you’re at school, then you should already have a pretty good idea of how to manage your time. If you don’t, then that’s a skill you absolutely need to work on before you start a career in translation.

Whether you’re working in-house or as a freelance translator, time management is essential for a long-term, healthy career in translation.


Getting Your Foot in the Door

The job market is incredibly volatile, especially in translation. The languages you work in and your field of interest might have lots of work available to a budding translator, or none at all.

It’s also important to be aware that many translation agencies try to hire talented new people because they can pay them almost nothing. Many translators first jobs are for incredibly low-rates with bad working conditions. It’s not an easy field to break into, and machine translation and “AI” translations are becoming more and more common as companies try to cut corners to boost profits.

Machine translation might seem like a good idea to an aspiring translator, but this won’t improve your translation skills, and may in fact teach you bad habits and negatively impact your language skills. As I mentioned before, translation is more than just exchanging one word for another, understanding the subtext and audience expectations is something only a skilled human translator can do.


If you’re still interested in a career in translation despite all the doom and gloom, then here are a few things you can do to help you when you graduate.


Write a blog or articles covering your field of interest

I highly recommend you create a blog or write articles about the things that interest you. Bonus if you can do it in your second language! This combines learning how to write with showing off your skills and knowledge to prospective clients/job opportunities.


Volunteer in your field of interest

Depending on the area you want to work in, there may be volunteer or intern experience available. This doesn’t have to be translation volunteer/intern work (although bonus if it is), but any experience in your chosen field in general makes for good experience.

I warn, though, if you volunteer or intern make sure you’re getting something in return for it, even if it’s just training in the field or in translation project management. If you’re expected to work like a regular experienced employee without pay, then that’s not good. Make sure you do your research when looking into places to volunteer.


Get involved with a translation community

Networking is important in any field, but not because it can lead to work. Networking is great for meeting experienced people who you can learn from.

You can connect with people in your field on LinkedIn or other social networks. Or in field-specific translation associations.

There are even online and summer classes in different translation fields which are great ways to meet new people, while also working on your translation skills.


You should also check out the book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator by Corinne McKay for additional tips on succeeding as a translator. McKay also has a blog and courses for translators called Training for Translators which is worth checking out.

How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator by Corinne McKay book cover

Finding work is a mixture of skill and luck. But you can increase your luck by writing about the things you love, volunteering, and getting involved in the community.

Translation is not an easy career to get into, and it’s getting harder and harder for experienced translators to justify staying. But if you can find a niche and work hard to be an expert in that area, then it can be fulfilling.


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How to Make Entertainment Translation Entertaining!


Top Tips for Language Students Interested in Translation
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