Tips for Translators and Interpreters

This is a tough industry to break into and it is not for everyone. With the right skills, work ethic and strategies, it can be an exciting, fulfilling and lucrative career. There are several things that you should keep in mind if you want to be a successful translator or interpreter.

Pay Your Dues

You need to spend LOTS of time reading, writing, speaking and listening in your languages. It is easier to do this abroad but not absolutely necessary. While your native language probably needs less work, don’t neglect it. People who are raised bilingually often have a false sense of confidence. I have never met a perfectly bilingual person. No matter who you are one of your languages will be significantly stronger than the other. Interpreters should focus on having easily understood accents and translators should focus on their reading and writing skills in both languages.

Translating and interpreting are skills so you will need to practice a lot before you get fast. University degrees are nice but are insufficient and not always necessary. Spending some time doing work for free or for a very cheap price is one way to get this practice. However you get it, you need to get it before you can expect to become good and start supporting yourself/family on being a full time translator/interpreter.

Stretch Yourself

You are probably better than you think. Push your limits! How else can you know where they are? You may surprise yourself on your first job. You may feel horrible about it. As you push yourself you will see how you need to improve. This is a simultaneously painful, exhilarating and necessary part of becoming a good language professional.


Being fast and accurate is not enough. There is very little need for translating novels and interpreting for movie stars. Those jobs are nice but they are scarcer than jobs for pharmaceutical companies, cell phone companies, oil companies, etc. Specialized knowledge will set you apart from the incompetent and the amateurs. It will give you more regular and better paying work. It also may be totally necessary if you have a language pair that is common or not needed much.


Websites like Proz and Translators’ Café are a good place to start. You may also want to contact businesses directly and try to undercut the agencies. Whatever you do, you are going to need to do it a lot. You are generally going to need a lot of clients to keep yourself a float. Remember, turning away work is a better problem than not having enough.

Treat Your Clients’ Trust as Sacred

Few people are as trusted as interpreters and translators. Whatever the job is do it as well as you can. If you don’t know what is going on or you need time to look up a term, ask a question to clarify or look up the word. While you may look less competent than you would like it is better than making things up when you don’t really understand. This trust extends itself to your relationship with translation agencies. If you have been hired to represent an agency do not give the client your business card and tell them to call you directly next time. Cheating your clients will earn you more money in the short run but will kill your career in the long run. Nothing will hurt your career as badly as a former client saying to a present one, Who do you have translating your Thai? I’d stay away from her. I’ve worked with her and she can’t be trusted. Conversely, no advertising is as effective as a present client saying something like this to a potential client, You need a Portuguese interpreter? Oh, I have someone great who takes care of that for me. Let me get you his contact information.

Translators and Interpreters: What’s It Like?

To start off I’d like to clarify a couple of things. Interpreting deals with conveying information between spoken languages and translating conveys information between the written form of languages. Translating and interpreting are as different as writing magazine articles and public speaking. Some people are good at both and some people have a hard time doing one or the other. We find the same thing in translation and interpretation.

How Is Translation Different from Interpretation?

Translators are expected to be very exact and thorough. They usually get paid per word. The faster they can translate, the more money they can make. This means that the more time you spend on a translation, looking up words and editing, the less money you make. Consequently, more and more translators are becoming specialized in only one or two fields. Many find it boring but it is efficient and profitable. They are also buying more and more software like TRADOS. TRADOS, and other programs like it, remember the way a person has translated in the past and automatically translates similar or identical texts. This can cut down on translation time considerably.

How Is Interpretation Different from Translation?

Interpreters usually have almost no time think so they are given more leniency than translators.  Interpreters get paid in a variety of ways: per hour, per day, per half day, etc. There are two main types of interpreting: consecutive and simultaneous. I had a professor who called consecutive interpreting “ping-pong” interpreting. The client says a sentence or two and waits for the interpreter to repeat the information in the target language before speaking again. Simultaneous interpreting is usually done with an interpreter sitting in another room watching and listening to the speaker through a TV and earphones. The interpreter then repeats what is said in the target language into a microphone so certain listeners (usually in the meeting room with the speaker) can listen to the speech while wearing earphones. The term “simultaneous” is a bit of a misnomer because it is usually impossible. To interpret simultaneously you would have to be able to read the speaker’s mind to know what she was going to say to be able to say it right when she said it.

How Are Interpretation and Translation Similar?

The obvious answer is that they both act as a bridge between languages. Apart from that, they both require regular learning. You need to keep up with the times and know how to say things like smart phone, IP address and other such words. That is in addition to keeping up with the terms of the industries which you work in. Medical translators need to keep up on new drugs and procedures and legal interpreters need to study up on new laws.

They are also similar because they are mostly freelancers. Fewer and fewer organizations hire people just to be translators and/or interpreters. They are expensive and not always needed for full time work. Translation and interpretation agencies are often the gatekeepers because translators and interpreters usually don’t know where to find regular work and the organizations that need them are clueless about hiring competent language professionals.

Their industries work in the same way: It’s either feast or famine. One month you may make $12,000 and next month you may make only $3,000. Some language professionals work around this by specializing in two or three areas. Another way around this is to find a niche so you are always in demand. How many good Japanese/Hindi translators are there who have a knowledge of computer programming?

The more specialized a language professional’s knowledge of a certain subject, or subjects, is the more he can charge. Then there is the issue of demand. For example, certain languages, like French and Spanish, have a high demand but also have a high supply (lots of people who know those languages plus another). Other languages, like Chinese and Arabic, have a high demand but disproportionately small number of translators and interpreters.

Free Tips
Before moving on to talk about working with languages as an academic, businessperson or technical professional, I’ll follow up soon with a post including tips for translators and interpreters.