How to Become a Translator: What You Really Need to Know

Being a translator is awesome! Thanks to globalization and the Internet (and other technological advances such as CAT tools), translators today have many new opportunities and can enjoy a degree of freedom and wealth that was not even thinkable until now. I myself enjoy my work and am proud of what I do and how I live. However, for those who are not familiar with this field, there are so many misconceptions about being a translator. Furthermore, even some translators do not realize that they are, first and foremost, business people, which is a critical self-understanding to be a successful freelance translator. In order to help those who want to become a translator, this post first explains some common misconceptions about being a translator and then presents the skills people actually need to become a successful translator.



Part I: 15 Common Misconceptions That Even Some Translators Have About Translation and Translators

Because translation is a unique job and most people rarely have the opportunity to even bump into a translator, it is no wonder there are so many misconceptions about being a translator. However, it surprised me to see these misconceptions not only in people distant from translation, but also from people who work with translators, people who want to become translators, and even people who themselves are translators. I’ve summed up these common misconceptions in 15 ways.



1. “Translation is changing a word in one language to a word in another language.”



Translation isn’t simply changing the language of a word, but also understanding the meaning behind the word and then expressing it in the target language. Changing words to create a translation isn’t often possible even between the European languages, and it’s even more so between language pairs like English and Korean where the sentence structure as well as the method of thinking and culture are so fundamentally different.


[bctt tweet=”Translation isn’t just changing words.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



2. “You can become a translator if you just have a dictionary.”



A dictionary is just one of the tools that helps you figure out the meaning of a text. The translators of today need many more tools. There’s a post where I summed up the basic tools necessary to a translator (see the The Tools You Need to Have as a Translator).



3. “You can become a translator if you just have a computer and a couple of pieces of software.”



People who think this way at least know a little more than the people with the second misconception (that anyone can become a translator if they have a dictionary). But what is clear is that computers and software don’t know how to translate. At the end of the day, computers, the Internet, and the various software that help a translator are all just work tools of the translator who ultimately does the translation. Therefore, without linguistic aptitude and ability, you won’t be able to produce a usable translation even if you’re equipped with a supercomputer and advanced software.



4. “With translation, there’s nothing more to do after you finish.”



This is like saying a novelist or musician doesn’t have anything to do after blazing through making a piece of writing or music. Even after editing your writing a dozen times, you’ll still find something you don’t like or something to fix the 13th time you read it. Translation isn’t the process of finding the correct answer like solving a mathematical problem, but is rather closer to creating art where the creator’s individuality and passion are reflected in the piece.[bctt tweet=”Translation isn’t like solving a math problem but is rather closer to creating art.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



5. “Translation will yield the same results whether you commission a skilled translator or just any other translator.”



If you give a single English sentence to 10 different translators, it’s very possible that you’ll receive 30 different (but all correct) translations. Of course, if you consider the context or the audience, you’ll be able to pick the most appropriate translation out of the 10 different ones. However, even if you pick using those standards, there might still be multiple valid translations at a similar level. This is because each person has a different style, a different philosophy in approaching translation, and a different understanding or assumption regarding the needs of the client. Therefore, translation must be based on close communication between the translator and the client; the closer it is, the better the translation will correspond to the purpose. This is because it’s not a matter of setting a certain standard and deciding whether a translation is right or wrong, but that a good translation depends on the purpose, usage, and situation. If you work with a client or an agency that doesn’t really understand this, you as a translator will get frustrated and won’t be able to yield satisfying results.



6. “In order to become a translator, you need a foreign language degree, must be taught translation, or must have translation qualifications.”



Thinking that you can completely learn a foreign language at school is a misconception in itself, and it’s also a misconception to think that you need to have majored in a foreign language or that you need some special degree or qualification to become a translator. You might have been tricked into thinking that you do. There is currently no specific way to become a translator, and that is likely to be true in the future as well. The same is true whether you’re in Korea or North America. Aptitude and continuous effort make a translator, not some degree or qualification.



7. “Translation is a cold and hungry profession.”



This is an opinion found on some Korean websites. I’m sure there are translators who are poor regardless of their skill. However, in today’s explosively developed translation market, the translator no longer needs to play second fiddle. The translator who is dragged around by the translation client in a low-price market and accepts whatever rate he’s given as if he’s an employee at some translation company will go cold and hungry, but the translator who holds a good place in the market and develops his translation into a profitable knowledge business will make, although not a fortune, at least more money than a decently paid employee at a company (see How Much Do Translators Make?Analysis of the North American Language Industry).



8. “Translation is intellectual work that you must do alone in solitude.”



You’re correct to think translation is intellectual work. However, it is not a solitary profession. While translators do spend a lot of time working alone, they have a lot more interactions with many different people during work than people think. Translators sometimes directly meet clients and other translators, and they work while continuously interacting through the phone, email, or online. Whether the translator meets other people or enjoys solitude during the time that he/she isn’t working is purely a matter of personal choice.



9. “A translator is someone who translates foreign books.”



Because people’s language needs aren’t limited to reading books, translation is needed in every field that language is used, not just in translating books. Fields that require translation include business, government documents, medical, IT, legal, education, tourism, academic, science, the arts, entertainment, religion, NGO activities, and the list just goes on and on. Furthermore, as the internet stated to replace printed media such as newspapers and books, the translator’s work is rapidly expanding to much wider and more diverse areas, using new technologies and methods.



10. “It’s difficult to make a living off of translation when you know only one foreign language, so you must know several.”



Not at all. One language pair is enough. In fact, a translator who translates multiple foreign languages should think about whether he/she really has a deep enough understanding of even one of those languages. In order to go above simply understanding the meaning of a sentence to knowing the culture and history and building up your knowledge by continuously reading magazines in your field of translation, you must focus on an extremely small number of languages. And a foreign language isn’t something to be so underestimated as to think you can arrive at the level of a translator from learning grammar and vocabulary at school. I’m not saying that you have to be extremely smart to learn a foreign language. However, it is true that it takes a really long time to get very good at one (see How to Learn a Foreign Language). Therefore, even if you know multiple foreign languages, it’s much more sensible to focus on just one foreign language pair to become a translator (see How Many Languages Should a Translator Know?).



11. “People who know how to translate can interpret, and people who know how to interpret can translate.”



This may or may not be. While translators and interpreters definitely share the fact that they need knowledge of a foreign language, the work of a translator and interpreter is as different as the spoken and written word are different. Just as not everyone who can fluently speak Korean can become an author, a translator must be able to express thoughts into words. Although it’s an over-generalization, broadly speaking, interpretation changes spoken language into spoken language and translation changes written language into written language. So the difference in work environment is huge as well. While the interpreter must be present at the scene, translation can be done anywhere you have a computer. While you need creativity and speed for interpretation, you need accuracy and detail for translation. (Of course, I’m not saying that accuracy and detail are not needed in interpretation. I’m just saying there’s a difference in the emphasis.)



12. “I’m pretty good at a foreign language, so I’ll probably be able to translate.”



Just because you can converse in a foreign language does not mean you can become a translator. That is not enough to make a living off of translation. Even if you have a perfect understanding of a foreign languages, that does not mean you have the qualifications to be a translator. The ability to express the understood meaning into your native language fluently and accurately requires aptitude as well as humble efforts and persistent practice. Therefore, no matter how good a person is at a foreign language, translation will be difficult if he/she isn’t good at their native language. No, to be honest, it’ll be almost impossible. So rather than a smart person, a person good at taking standardized tests, or a person who understands a foreign language well, it can be said that a translator is someone with an aptitude for language who likes language, continuously works hard, and has a very good command of their native language.


[bctt tweet=”To express meaning into your native language requires aptitude and persistent practice.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



13. “These days, translation tools have been developed so well that translators have an easy job of translating, and there will come a day when the computer can translate by itself.”



While it’s true that translation tools have come a long way, the fact is that the computer ultimately can’t understand context even with its exceptional memory. And translation is all about context, context, and context. That’s why the computer can’t replace people. It’s true that the computer aids the work of the human translator to make it easier. That’s why productivity has increased so rapidly. However, translation is work to be done by a person, not a computer (see Could Advanced Machine Translation Spell the End of Human Translators?).



14. “Translators probably have great memories since they have to remember so many foreign words.”



While knowing and remembering a lot of words might increase the speed of translation a bit, translation is essentially work that requires knowledge of the sentence unit, understanding the meaning of a paragraph and the entire text, and even knowledge about the relevant field. No matter how hard you study words, translation will be difficult if you lack the conceptual understanding based on intellectual curiosity. For those of you who are trying to become translators, what you really need isn’t memorization of words but extensive intellectual curiosity, good reading comprehension, and above all, the ability to accurately and fluently write in your native language. You can rely on the memory genius, the computer, to remember words. If you use a CAT tool, the computer acts as your external hard drive. (It seems to me that language study in Korea makes you memorize rare words, phrases, and countless exceptions, and various tests seem to encourage that as well, but I think it should escape that trend as soon as possible and switch to a direction that emphasizes the basics properly.)



15. “If you want to succeed as a translator, all you need is language proficiency.”



I can’t really say anything about this since the idea of success is different for everybody, but if that idea of success includes some level of financial stability, the above thinking is wrong. As a translator, even if you have amazing skills, if you don’t understand the market or lack some level of business insight, you might end up doing something that only benefits others while you remain unable to reach even the most basic level of livelihood stability. While translators are in some respects similar to artists, translators in today’s world need to be equipped with considerable business senses as well. You must also understand the market and improve productivity through IT. You must know how to think and live like an artist, but you must also know how to work like an accountant.



Part II: 4 Skills You Really Need to Become a Translator


Now that we are pretty clear about what translation involves and what translators do, we now turn to the next topic: what you really need to become a translator. Needless to say, translators are not created overnight. This is because there are many skills that a person needs to have and they can’t be obtained over a short period of time.


In this section, I am going to be answering the question, “To become a translator, what skills do I need to have and to what extent do those skills have to be prepared?” Of course, continuing to study and making an effort even after becoming a translator is the translator’s path. It is not at all the kind of path where you can just take a bar exam and pass. However, at the beginning stage, it’s definitely necessary to check, “Is this enough to consider myself prepared? Am I sure I’m not prematurely trying to rush into this?”


Although there’s no clear-cut answer to this kind of question, I will present the skills necessary to a translator in order to provide at least a rough map for those of you preparing to become translators and to help those of you trying to start translating to check your own level of readiness.



1. Native language skills



I’ve stressed this point elsewhere, but to emphasize it one more time, translators must by all means be very good at their own native language. The reason is as follows. Usually, translation is the process of changing a document written in the source language to the target language, which is in most cases the translator’s mother tongue (there are, of course, exceptions). In this case, the source language is used to understand the document, but the target language goes above understanding and must be used to “write with”. This is the reason you have to be much better at the target language than the source language. So, if your native language is Korean, that means your command of Korean must be much better than your command of English, for example. The skills that I’m talking about here are specifically “writing skills”, that is, the ability to express a thought in your native language and the ability to formulate a good sentence. People who don’t have this ability should never become translators regardless of their understanding of foreign languages.


Let me give you an example using my own language pair. English to Korean or Korean to English translation is very difficult. This is because the two languages are so extremely different. I don’t know much about linguistics, but this seems true to me based on many languages that I’ve studied so far. If there were distances between languages, I think the Korean and English pairing might be the farthest apart out of the many language pairings. Korean is extremely different in structure and way of thinking compared to the Indo-European languages, so there are many times when you have to do some radical reformulation when translating or interpreting. If you consider the differences in culture, customs, and ways of thinking on top of that, translating is quite a formidable task. This is why you shouldn’t even dream of doing English to Korean translation if you don’t have a solid command of Korean sentence formulation. (The same is true if you translate from Korean to English. If your English writing skills are not exceptionally good, you can’t do it.) If you received good marks in your foreign language class during school and are thinking, “I’m pretty good at foreign languages, so maybe I should try translation,” you must seriously think about your writing skills in your native language first.


Of course, this, too, can be improved. Because life as a translator is a life of training and improving yourself, if you widely read good writing, write often, and build up knowledge of relevant fields, your native-language writing skills will definitely improve. However, the goal of this post is checking your readiness, which is why I said those of you with poor writing skills in your own native language are not ready. [bctt tweet=”Those of you with poor writing skills in your own native language are not ready.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



2. Foreign language skills



A foreign language isn’t something that’s acquired easily. Perhaps that’s the reason so many translators and interpreters have special circumstances in their personal backgrounds. For example, there are cases where they were the children of immigrants or missionaries or foreign expatriates who grew up in a bilingual environment since they were young, or special cases where they had no choice but to learn a foreign language (such as love and marriage). Even when they originally learned a foreign language in school, it’s often the case that they later went abroad to study or work for a few years, walking a special path that others don’t follow, and end up being good at that foreign language as a side perk. So, when you meet with people who translate or interpret, they will often tell you that they didn’t plan to take that path from the beginning but rather found they’d gone some distance down that path without even realizing it, like “Huh? I’ve come to be so good at this foreign language!”


The reason I’m talking about this in such detail is because I’m trying to answer the question of exactly how proficient you have to be at a foreign language to be able to translate, nay, to live as a freelance translator. I’m hesitant to say this out of fear of hurting some of you reading, but I must tell you that you have to be VERY good at it. You don’t have to brag to other people, but at least you must think you’re actually very good at it; if not, you still have a long way to go. (Of course, everybody has different personalities, so I’m worried that some of you might think, “I still have a long way to go!” even if you’re actually at an amazing level. Remember, no one is perfect.)


I promise that those of you who only have the good marks you received in English (or other foreign language for you) class at school to back up your translation skills still have quite a way to go. Translation isn’t simply changing the words in the source document into words in the target document. If you don’t know the culture, you won’t actually even be able to properly understand the source document. And culture can’t simply be learned in a classroom. [bctt tweet=”Culture can’t simply be learned in a classroom.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


So I’ll muster up the courage to say this: if you want to become a translator, go to a country that uses English (or another language that you want to master) and go to school or work there for at least a few years. I understand very well how terrifying that is to actually put into practice. That’s why I needed quite a bit of courage to say this. But if you do this, your foreign language skills will increase definitely and tremendously. They will increase above the level of just words and sentences, and you will naturally start to understand the mindset and culture as well. Without such a comprehensive and deep understanding, translation is no different than a blind man touching an elephant.


[bctt tweet=”Without such understanding of culture, your translation is like a blind man touching an elephant.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


Staying in a foreign country is a big financial burden and will be a tremendous adventure, but try to devise a plan and make an effort to have that kind of experience. Isn’t there a saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”? Through this kind of adventure and effort, you have to feel, “Oh, the people in this country say this in this kind of situation, they think like this, they live like this!” And through that time, your listening, speaking, and writing skills will develop to a considerable level. You have to do that much to be prepared.


I’m feeling pretty exhausted after talking about this relatively difficult topic. Phew… But listen, even a cowardly person like myself was able to do this. I didn’t do it for the goal of translating, but it was an adventure nonetheless. At first, it felt like I was pouring water into a bottomless jar, but it actually turned out to be a very effective method. Now just a few more words for caution’s sake. You have to be significantly prepared before coming out to a foreign country. You must do so to see any effect. What I’m saying is that you will not be able to develop the amount of skills to translate by thoughtlessly going to a foreign country and messing around. Come out to a foreign country after doing a lot of preparation in your country. Also, when you come, don’t speak Korean (or your native language), and live solely using the foreign language. Even though it’ll be difficult and lonely, you have to do this to see results. If you do this, the moment will come when you think, “Ah, I think I’ve got it!” (I’ve told you about this method because it was the best method for me and I am by no means saying that you can’t acquire enough skills to translate unless you do this. How can I have the authority to say such a thing? This is just advice from my own experiences, and you should make the ultimate judgment for yourself.)



3. Translation skills



I bet you find it a bit odd seeing a sub-header entitled “translation skills” after such a long talk about your native language skills and foreign language skills. However, being good at two languages doesn’t automatically make you good at translation.


[bctt tweet=”Being good at two languages doesn’t automatically make you good at translation.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


A translator is born the moment he/she actually translates. Whether or not you can make money off of it is a business matter, and regardless of that, you can try translating as much as you want. Concern yourself with questions like, “what’s the best way to translate this?”, try changing your words and phrasing around, and try reading it from the audience’s perspective. Read and get angry at nonsensical translations, then try fixing or improving it.


[bctt tweet=”Read and get angry at nonsensical translations, then try fixing or improving it.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


If you’re good at both your native language and a foreign language, in other words both the target language and source language, I’m sure you will be able to do well. However, you still need to continuously practice actual translation. If you do English to Korean translation, for example, try translating an English newspaper article or some text in a field of your specialty. Then, show that translation to someone who’s already working as a translator and get an assessment. That is the most comprehensive and definitive method of evaluation. There’s no need to be disappointed when your proofreading translator gives back your translation with a ton of red lines through it. The important thing is not the number of red lines but the comprehensive opinions and comments of that translator. There are many reasons to draw a red line. You could draw a red line because the basics were all wrong, but you could also draw a red line on a good sentence simply to make small adjustments or improvements. Translation is different from mathematics or science, so the same sentence can be translated in many different ways and there’s always room for a translation to be improved. That’s why it’s good to ask an actual translator to check your readiness and provide a comprehensive opinion.


Also, you can’t think that you should be able to translate every type of text at this stage. No one in the world can do that. There is no need to do that, either. It’s enough to be able to provide a good translation in the field you’re confident in. You can start from there. (I will write about this in more detail later on, but it’s much better to focus on translation in your field of specialization.)

[bctt tweet=”It’s enough to be able to provide a good translation in the field you’re confident in.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



4. Business skills



Some of you preparing to become translators might be thinking, “Huh? I need to have that skill, too?” Yes, this is also obviously necessary. In North America, where the language industry is very developed and operates on a large scale, there are so-called “in-house translators”. These are translators who are actually employed and working as translators for the government, a company, or a translation agency but most translators are freelance translators. A one-person company! Some people might find that scary, but if you read my blog posts from the beginning, you will know just how awesome this actually is. I can understand temporarily becoming an in-house translator in order to build up your skills and connections, but to have such a great ability (being able to translate) and to continue to work for someone else seems like you don’t understand the real value of your precious skills and are thus not using them to their full potential. Anyway, I recommend thinking about and pursuing freelance translation. However, to do that, you’ll definitely need some business skills.


But don’t worry too much about it. Your language skills are your core competence and business skills are subordinate to that.


[bctt tweet=”Your language skills are your core competence and business skills are subordinate to that.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


When I first started translation, I had no idea about this business side of freelance translation. I thought that I could make money just by translating. :D I gradually learned about marketing skills, time management, investment, long-term planning, specialization, technology-assisted productivity improvement, etc. and read about ways to get much more money for the same work. Of course, it’d be nice to be good at all these things from the beginning, but just because you don’t have these skills, it doesn’t mean you can’t start. You can slowly master them. However, if you keep in mind that a freelance translator is a businessman/businesswoman while you are at the beginning stages, you will be able to stabilize your business much more quickly and continue to develop it further.


[bctt tweet=”A freelance translator is a businessman/businesswoman.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


Today’s post has been quite a burden to write. I started this blog to give hope and courage, so I hope I didn’t disappoint anybody today. If it seems to those of you who are preparing like you’re not ready in light of the above standards, don’t think too rashly, set your sights far ahead, and continue to run steadily toward your goal.


Now, if you would like to know more about the translation market and want to participate in it, read this post: Translation Market: Where It Is and Why This Is a Good Time to Be a Translator.


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