Translating and Interpreting

The career paths for each are separate as the leading organisations and employers in the sector (eg: the UN and EU) view the two areas as requiring different skill sets.

Whilst many in the field have studied languages, translation and interpreting careers are open to graduates of all backgrounds who have the required language abilities.

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Language skills

Main/target/source languages

Translators and interpreters generally translate ‘into’; their “mother tongue” or their ‘main language’ (although there are of course exceptions, depending upon the circumstances.) This is their ‘target’ language, into which they will translate material from the ‘source’ language. So, if you have studied French, but are a native English speaker, you are likely to work from the source language of French into your “mother tongue” or “main language – English.

A/B/C languages

Some institutions such as the EU categorize languages as “A/B/C/” languages. A is your ‘main language/mother tongue’, B is the second language of which you have an excellent command. You might occasionally interpret/translate into this, but only from your main language/mother tongue. C is a passive language (you are expected to have a high level of proficiency in this language, but may not have the same levels of fluency as in your A and B languages) which you could use as your source language.

Which language skills are required?

Many translators learn additional languages after their degree through personal study, working abroad or additional language courses. It’s often said that once you’ve learnt the skill of translating, it’s more straightforward to add more languages, and it’s a way of developing your professional skill set.

For the UN

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.

For the EU

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.

Other general skills

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
  • Strong cultural awareness

Additional skills for Interpreting

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

Additional Skills for Translation

  • 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 working with texts and language

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 and 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.
  • If you are interested in trying out interpreting, an alumnus who is a conference interpreter suggests the following exercise to experience what it’s like:

Listen to a short piece of source language (a ‘speech’ from TV or radio delivered at a reasonable pace, of about three minutes duration) and then try to deliver a summary of it in your target language (mother tongue). Record your attempt and listen back – did you include the main points? Were you clear? Did you “um” and “ah”? Was there any clumsy English?

Getting Experience outside Oxford

  • If you’re looking to build your language skills further, you might want to check out the British Council’s options to work/volunteer and improve your languages – (this includes opportunities like the Language Assistant schemes.
  • Language-related internships are also sometimes advertised on CareerConnect.
  • 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.

Will I get paid?

Internships and summer jobs are governed in the UK by National Minimum Wage law, which means that if you are carrying out activities that class you as a “worker” by the employer, then you should be paid. Full details of Employment Rights and Pay for Interns are published by the government.

If you are undertaking a learning and development opportunity such as a micro-internship, or volunteering for a charity or statutory body, or shadowing or observing, then you may not be eligible for the National Minimum Wage. The organisation may reimburse you for your travel and/or lunch expenses, but they aren’t obliged to do so.

A common way to enter the industry is through a postgraduate qualification. Although there are opportunities to work as a translator without a qualification, it is viewed as essential for interpreters.

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 CIUTI  produces a list of ‘member’ courses. Always investigate the content of the course and particularly the destinations of their alumni. Students assessing options for further study should ask the following questions:

  1. Who are the trainers/lecturers with my language combinations, and do they work in areas in which I would like to work?
  2. Are the trainers/lecturers practising as interpreters/translators, or have they had a professional career in this world?
  3. What destinations data is available for graduates of the course with my language pairing – what typical roles do they go on to, and where in the world are they working?

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.

After taking a Masters in Interpreting, or similar, many interpreters begin their careers by taking freelance work to build up their skills further.

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 were not 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 Traineeships for Linguists – range from 10-12 weeks to 3-12 months. The interpreting traineeship is for newly qualified translators and interpreters only.

Entry level work (without qualification)

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. 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 often recruited without a further translation course or equivalent experience.

However, you will 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.

Freelancing or working for agencies

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). ProZ publish a summary of standard and minimum rates of pay per word which might be helpful in determining a rate to expect from an agency – but speak to different agencies to compare and contrast rates. To find translation companies and agencies and to apply for freelance work, use the list of web links collected under ‘External Resources’ below. It’s also advised to list your services as a freelancer on websites held by the professional associations, listed in the same place.

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.

‘Sworn translators’ / ‘Certified translators’

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, Diversity & Inclusion

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information, visit the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s webpage on the Equality Act and the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

If you are working abroad, ensure that you check relevant Equality/Anti-Discrimination laws.

Try the following to discover more about the policies and attitudes of the organisations that you are interested in:

  • Read their equality, diversity and inclusion policy
  • Search their website to see if they have any specific staff networks
  • Explore what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages
  • Look for external accreditation and whether they partner with organisations focused on Equality, Diversity & Inclusion. 

Useful websites

General language job sites

(Not all directly related to translation and interpreting).

Literary translation prizes

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