Translating & Interpreting

Main Information

Linguists keen to use their language skills often consider interpreting and translating as possible careers. Although there are opportunities to work in a role that combines both of these areas of work, particularly for freelancers, many larger organisations, such as the UN and EU, keep the two career paths quite separate.

While many in the field have studied languages, it is open to graduates of all backgrounds who have the required language abilities.

Types of Job

Job titles in this field include:

Translator
Translators are required for written conversion of texts from another language into their mother tongue. Texts can range from conference notes, reports, emails, non-fiction books, websites to advertising and promotional material.

Conference Interpreter
Simultaneous interpreting is typically required at international conferences and formal meetings. Interpreters usually work in pairs in booths, creating live simultaneous feeds to delegates through headphones.

Liaison/Consecutive Interpreter
Usually working for a business setting (which distinguishes this work from Public Service Interpreting), this can involve formal meetings, product launches, factory visits, exhibitions, or interpreting over the telephone. The type of interpretation is mainly consecutive or whispered.

Public Service Interpreter
This covers interpreting for individuals, the police, courts, probation service, solicitors or organisations such as the NHS, social services, local government or non-profit organisations. Work mainly involves consecutive or whispered interpreting.

Lawyer-Linguist
A role for capable lawyers (you need a law degree or equivalent) with strong language skills who work on translating, drafting, checking or revising legal texts, usually for the EU.

Proof-readers and Editors
An editing team focuses on eliminating errors and increasing consistency and ensuring high standards of work. Proof-readers, or copy-preparers will focus on checking the document’s accuracy against the original and maintaining the typographical standards. Editors will work to lead a team around important texts, reviewing work against each other and have responsibility for the finished work.

Literary Translator
Specialist work in literary texts; the literary translators job is to sensitively recreate a work of literary fiction so that it is true to the original, capturing the beauty, mood, and inspiring the same response in the reader.

Subtitler
Written work for film and TV settings, either as live subtitling or recorded subtitling – a relatively small area of work.

Language Analysts
A job title used for language-based roles in the security and intelligence services. It involves reading and analysing foreign language material for its intelligence value, as well as producing translations, and working with those who will use the intelligence gathered.

Skills Needed

Language dictionaries
How many languages do I need?
Translators and interpreters generally work ‘into’; their mother tongue or their ‘main language’.  You can work in this field with only one other language, although lots of people do have more than one (sometimes learning this after their degree through personal study, working abroad or additional language courses).
To work as a translator or interpreter for the United Nations, your main language must be one of the six official languages of the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian or Spanish. You also have to know two other languages from this list of six well enough to translate into your main language. If you just have one additional language from this list of six, you could still work for the UN provided that you have, for translation jobs, a Masters degree or higher in a relevant field for international affairs, or, for interpreting jobs, a main language which is either Arabic or Chinese.
To work as a translator or interpreter for the European Union, you must have perfect command of one European language and a thorough command of at least two others. One of these two other languages must be English, French or German.
To work as a lawyer-linguist for the EU, you must have perfect command of one European language and a thorough command of at least two others.
To work as a proof-reader or language editor for the EU, you must have perfect command of one European language, and thorough command of a second. One of your languages must be English, French or German. For the Court of Justice you must have at least a passive knowledge of French.
What other skills do I need?
As well as your language knowledge, common skills cited across both interpreting and translation roles include:

  • Professionalism
  • Flexibility/adaptability
  • Interest in current affairs and general knowledge
  • Analytical skills
  • Research skills
  • Curiosity
  • Picking up new ideas quickly
  • Good cultural awareness

Interpreting (see the National Network for Interpreting)

  • Empathy
  • Tact and diplomacy
  • Good public speaking
  • Stamina
  • Calm under pressure
  • Initiative
  • Note-taking
  • Teamwork

Translation (see the National Network for Translatio)

  • Networking skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Organisational skills
  • Writing skills
  • Subject knowledge (you could work in a specialist field based on your subject knowledge of law, medicine, etc…)
  • IT skills
  • Love of reading

Entry Points

The most common way to enter the industry is through a postgraduate qualification, although there are opportunities to work as a translator without one.
POSTGRADUATE STUDY
Gaining further qualifications can help you hone and perfect what is highly skilled work, as well as build your employability and/or help you win clients.
There is no ‘accredited’ system for postgraduate degrees, although some are aligned with a particular professional association, and abide by their quality standard. The European Masters in Translation programme from the EU is a ‘quality standard’ mark for universities offering Masters in Translation courses.  The CIUTI also produces a list of ‘member’ courses. Always investigate the content of the course and particularly the destinations of their alumni.
It’s worth noting that a Masters in Translating in no way qualifies you to be, say, a Conference Interpreter. The two are very different skills.  There are some Masters courses in Interpreting & Translating available, which teach both sets of skills, although the majority of students will go on to specialise in one or the other.

PROFESSIONAL DIPLOMAS
The Institute of Linguists offers examinations which prove professional competence, including the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI), Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) and the Diploma in Police Interpreting (DPI). 

It would be unusual to sit these examinations if you weren’t confident in your professional skills, either gained through experience or through further study. The Chartered Institute of Linguists lists a number of preparation course providers for these examinations; if you’re considering taking these exams, familiarise yourself well with the standard required, and examine past papers. There’s a reason prep courses are in existence!
PAID TRAINEESHIPS
The EU offers a variety of traineeship roles, usually paid.

PAID WORK (UNQUALIFIED)
It is possible to work without any further study or experience.  Freelance translation, for example, is often found by working with a translation company or agency. They would give you a ‘test piece’ to translate, and even if your skills weren’t as strong as they might be after more experience, they may well be strong enough for them to send you more basic documents to translate for clients.  There is no guarantee of work when working with agencies, of course, but plenty of people do work without qualifications – there is no regulation in the UK that you must have further study in this field.
Language analysts in the intelligence services, and EU translators, are recruited often without a further translation course or substantive experience.
However, you’ll notice that many permanent roles specify that you need further study and/or professional experience. In particular, it is highly unusual to gain paid work as an interpreter without a professional qualification.

Getting Experience

Getting first-hand experience is a good way to ‘try out’ translation or interpreting activities, and to build your awareness of the skills you might want to develop further, although there aren’t as many formal internships as there are in other sectors. 
Getting Experience at Oxford

  • Research local charities which work, or might wish to work, with non-English speakers (e.g. Asylum Welcome, Refugee Resource, Jacari) and see if there’s a way they can use your language skills.
  • Join Oxford student groups which focus on nationals from a particular country or language. See if you can use your skills to support events, committees or projects.

Getting Experience outside Oxford

  • If you’re looking to build your language skills further, you might want to check out the British Council’s summary options to work/volunteer and improve your languages – (this includes opportunities like the Language Assistant schemes – not just open to third-year-abroad students! – and lots of other opportunities too).
  • ERASMUS+ can offer opportunities to work/study in another European country, and you’ll receive a grant for your time. Erasmus serves more than just language students – see the links for ‘Opportunities for Students’ and ‘Opportunities for Young People’.
  • Language-related internships in the UN.
  • Language-related internships are advertised on CareerConnect – set up a saved search to get email alerts (you might want to use a language as a keyword, as not all the internships will be in the same industry sector). A few are part of our Internship Programme and may involve additional funding.
  • The majority of work experience opportunities are likely to come from translation and interpreting agencies. Use the links in ‘External Resources’ to find organisations in your preferred region. Explore their websites or get in touch with them to see if you can help their work.

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Getting a Job

Freelancing or working for agencies (self-employment) The majority of translators and interpreters are freelance. Freelancers generally find clients by signing up with translation agencies (who assign them paid work as a self-employed contractor). A list of websites on which to find companies and agencies is found in this Briefing under ‘External Resources’). It’s also advised to list your services as a freelancer on websites held by the professional associations – also listed under ‘External Resources’.
‘Competitions’ – for EU and UN permanent work The word ‘competition’ may seem an unusual term! It refers to an opportunity which is held only once every few years for each official language. When a competition for your language is open, you can put yourself forward to be assessed. Successful candidates are then held on a list, from which departments can invite you to interview for a specific post; it can be a matter of months before you’re invited to interview, or sometimes years! Stay up-to-date online with EU competitions and UN competitions.
Civil Service Much of UK public sector translation and interpreting work has been outsourced to Capita. All translators and interpreters must have at least two references from previous projects, be professionally qualified and, for translators, have previous experience in the type of material they will work on. There are a few freelance roles still in place (e.g. in Visas and Immigration) and permanent roles (e.g. in security services). See the ‘External Resources’ links for more.
Translation/Interpreting companies (employed roles) Use the links in ‘External Resources’ to find companies in your preferred region. Explore their websites for job links or get in touch with them to see if you can help their work – many companies will also employ freelance staff – remember that the majority of roles are freelance.
Internal roles Businesses generally use agencies, freelancers or translation companies; it’s quite rare to find an internal role that is purely translation/interpreting. However, there are often roles which involve using languages – search generalist job sites (see ‘External Resources’) by language keyword.
Can I be a ‘sworn translator’ or ‘certified translator’? This concept exists in civil law countries, but not here in the UK. If a client needs a ‘certified translation’ here in the UK, the equivalent would be a translator who has met the conditions for membership of the Institute for Translating and Interpreting and who can attach a ‘seal’ provided by the ITI to the translation. If this is accepted, no more needs to be done for it to be considered a ‘certified translation’.

If further certification is required, the translation can be ‘sworn’ before a solicitor or notary. The legal professional does not check the translation itself, but confirms the translator’s identity and credentials for the task. For more on this see the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Equality & Positive Action

A number of major graduate recruiters have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting graduates from diverse backgrounds. To find out the policies and attitudes of employers that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.
The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

OUR RESOURCES

ONLINE INTERVIEW FEEDBACK
Our Interview Feedback Database contains hundreds of accounts of interviews, submitted by Oxford students and graduates. The database can be searched by sector and by organisation.
OXFORD CAREERS NETWORK (OCN)
The OCN on CareerConnect is a database of over 1000 Oxford alumni volunteer mentors who are willing to be contacted about their career.  Read their case studies for behind-the-scenes insights into an organisation or occupation, and contact them for more advice and information.

External Resources

CAREERS ADVICE

PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS

  • Chartered Institute of Linguists – Membership provides professional ‘status’, inclusion in the ‘Find-a-Linguist’ service for freelance work, cheaper professional indemnity insurance, training opportunities and a ‘Code of Conduct’ which can provide clients with assurance as to your suitability.
  • Institute of Translation and Interpreting – Similar general benefits to membership of the IOL, plus the ability for members to use ITI seals to produce ‘certified translations’. Use the ‘advice for newcomers’ and ‘Event reports’ section to see their resources which are designed for those not yet in the field. The local ITI group is Thames Translators.

There are other professional bodies and services which you may wish to explore, including:

COMPANIES AND AGENCIES

FREELANCE DIRECTORIES

UN/EU/SECURITY SERVICE WEBSITES

LANGUAGE JOB SITES (NOT NECESSARILY TRANSLATION OR INTERPRETING)

WEBSITES FOR LANGUAGE STUDENTS

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