One of the questions I hear the most about being a translator is whether you need a translation degree to do it professionally.
If you search online, you’ll come across a considerable number of translation-related university courses all across the UK. So it’s fair to ask: do you really need one to start a career in translation?
The plain answer is no, you do not need a degree to become a translator. BUT… there’s a catch!
Having worked as a project manager for a number of years, I’m entirely familiar with the admission criteria most translation agencies in the UK set for their linguists. Having some sort of qualification is a typical requirement, with university degrees in translation (or related studies) being the most common.
Since nowadays agencies make up a substantial share of the translation market, the majority of linguists end up working for them one way or another. Holding a degree is likely to give you an advantage here.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an absolute must. Indeed, there are full time translators who’ve followed a different route. Most linguists who fit this description fall under one of the following two categories:
- Translators who don’t have a degree in translation, but do have one in another field (economics, law, politics, education, sociology, philosophy, etc.)
- Translators who’ve never completed any undergraduate programme, but have sought alternative ways to specialise in translation (including other types of qualification or courses outside university.)
Is it more difficult to make it without a degree in translation?
Generally speaking, yes, it does tend to be tougher without a degree in translation (and it’s getting harder and harder…)
If we are to rank the 4 main routes to becoming a professional translator from the
easiest less difficult to the hardest, this how it will look like:
- Degree in translation studies (potentially less difficult)
- No degree, but with some sort of level 7 qualification in translation
- Degree in a field of studies unrelated to translation or linguistics
- No university degree or alternative qualification at all (typically the most difficult route)
But there are other factors to take into account, so this is not always set in stone. The exact level of difficulty will also depend on things such as:
- Your language combination(s): the rarer they are, the fewer competitors you’ll have (with or without a degree). Your unique position on the market is likely to work to your advantage.
- Your fields of expertise: specialising in highly technical fields will also work to your advantage.
Knowing how to go about is normally the main challenge people face… so I’ve decided to give you a hand.
This post will cover a number of ways you can increase your chances of becoming a professional freelance translator without ever taking a degree in linguistic/translation related studies.
Quick disclaimer: I must stress the ‘increase your chances‘ part, for in this industry nothing is ever guaranteed… even if you do have a degree! However, these are some of the practices that will surely help you become more employable and potentially guide you to success.
Also, here’s a spoiler: it’s important that you are prepared to put some hard work upfront, for the real holy grail in the translation industry, more than any degree, is experience!
For a broader step-by-step list on how to become a translator, make sure to also read through my other post on the subject:
Continue Reading: How to Become a Translator
Get a Qualification Outside University
A lot of people don’t know this, but there are other types of qualification outside the academic sphere that are specifically designed for translators.
While not necessarily cheap, these are substantially more affordable than an MA.
The best example is the DipTrans Level 7 diploma, offered by CIOL. This is probably the highest qualification a translator can get in the UK outside university.
Keep in mind that this sort of qualification, just like a university degree, is also not a compulsory step. It should make things easier for you down the line, but you may also decide you first want to try without it.
Start Getting Experience (Pro Bono)
If you want to become a translator without a degree, you have to be a translator. Simply put, you need to translate and gain experience at it.
The experience paradox is a problem every new starter has to face. After all, how are you supposed to get work experience when your lack of experience is precisely the main hurdle that prevents you from getting work?
Luckily, translation is an area with plenty of opportunities in that regard, largely thanks to the internet.
Building a Translation Portfolio
There are many ways you can start translating content online on a plurality of subject matters. And the best thing is, you can start doing that today.
However, you need to be prepared to put a great deal of work and effort upfront. It may take you 1 to 2 years to build a decent translation portfolio that will convince clients to trust you.
Note that a ‘translation portfolio‘ need not be an actual document or folder where you ‘pile up’ all the translations you’ve done. It’s more of a concept: it accounts for all the experience you’ve acquired as a translator.
Eventually, it will allow you to play your cards with an ace up your sleeve. You’ll be able to approach potential clients as someone who:
- has been translating for X years
- has translated X thousand words from language A to language B
- has experience in translating content in subject matters X, Y and Z
It’s very unlikely you’ll manage to get any paid work at this early stage. Remember, your goal for now is to build experience as a translator, so you need to be prepared to work pro bono for a while.
Where can I start gaining experience?
As mentioned, translation is a field with plenty of opportunities for those who want to start gaining experience. There are many places where you can volunteer for translation work.
Some of the most well-known include YouTube, Wikipedia and TED Talks, but there are countless other options.
To make things easier, I’ve put together a very complete (though far from exhaustive) list of places where you can volunteer as a translator, so make sure to check my post below:
Continue Reading: Best Websites For Volunteer Translators
You can register on any of the suggested websites from the above list. Have a look, decide which ones are the most suitable for you, and just start translating!
Keep an Eye on Workshops and Short Courses
Professional associations organise a number of courses, webinars, training sessions, workshops and other events every year. There may be some good opportunities for you there.
Some of the places to keep under your radar include:
These courses tend to be very skill-oriented and focused on the acquisition of practical knowledge, which is a great thing.
Note that not every event is free, but many are. Even the paid ones, if you find the topic interesting, may be worth a shot.
Despite being an activity one can only excel at through years of practice, having a solid level of theoretical knowledge is also extremely important for professional translators.
While you practice your skills and build up your translation portfolio, make sure you also dedicate some of your time to a bit of self-study.
This will give you a clearer understanding of how translation works and ultimately make you a better professional.
Two introductory books that I recommend for beginners are:
- Translation: The Basics, by Juliane House
- Fundamentals of Translation, by Sonia Colina.
Both are great for learning the principles of translation, common challenges, useful strategies and so forth:
Note: Both the above are affiliate links (Amazon Services LLC Associates Program). You may read my affiliate disclosure here.
Self-studying may also include other sources, not just academic textbooks. Having the technical knowledge is essential, but you also need to get acquainted with how the industry works.
Imagine a lawyer who knows all the theory, but has no idea how to deal with clients nor how to behave appropriately in the courthouse. Their chances of success are meagre, to say the least.
It’s more or less the same with translation: you must understand what clients (including agencies) expect from you, how to communicate with them, what’s appropriate and what’s not.
As someone who’s been working in the industry for years, here on Translation & Interpreting I try as much as possible to share my inside knowledge with other linguists and new starters, so following my blog can definitely count as part of your self-study programme. 🙂
Get Acquainted With CAT Tools
In case you’ve never heard of CAT, it stands for ‘computer-assisted translation‘.
To explain in one sentence what a CAT tool does, it’s a piece of software that helps translators (and project managers) in the translation process by making the whole process more efficient.
CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) is not ‘automatic’ or ‘machine translation’ (MT)!
Most premium CAT tools do include at least some sort of plugin to incorporate MT, but that’s only about 5% (or less) of what the software is designed to do. Their main purpose is to assist the translator, not ‘replace’ the translator.
Given the current state of the translation market, CAT tools are no longer merely optional. New translators in particular will have to learn how to work with them sooner or later.
Nowadays, a good university degree must include a CAT tool module. But since we’re covering how to become a translator without a degree, you’ll have to incorporate that into your self-study schedule.
The most important thing for now is that you acquire functional knowledge. You need at the very least to understand their fundamentals and know how to use them for standard translation tasks.
You don’t need to become an absolute expert at this stage. Having a clear understanding of how these tools generally work is already a great start.
What CAT Tool Should You Learn?
There are several CAT tools on the market, but the 2 main players are SDL Trados and memoQ.
The problem with them, apart from the learning curve, is their price point: both cost hundreds of pounds.
As an absolute beginner who’s not going through university (where you’d normally get a 1-year student license while learning the tool), that may be too large an investment at this stage.
So what can you do?
If you’ve got the money sitting around and you’re 100% sure translation is what you want to do for a living, then go for Trados or memoQ.
I always recommend one or the other because that’s what most translation agencies in the UK use, which makes them an industry standard.
I’m also yet to be convinced there is any better on the market at the time of writing (although that’s always subject to change over time.)
If you are still not 100% sure translation is your career of choice, I don’t recommend you to make such an investment yet. You can still learn how a CAT tool works either for free or at least at a substantially lower cost.
Some of the things you can do include:
- Check my CAT Tool section, I’ll be sharing tutorials there over time.
- Check ProZ’s training page, they’ve got plenty of CAT tool training materials.
- Download and install a trial or demo version for some practice. For instance, memoQ lets you download a trial version on this page.
- Check whether the developer offers any free training materials.
- You may also buy training courses and certifications directly from the software developer (e.g., SDL offers many options to learn Trados and become a certified user.)
What About Free CAT Tools?
There also free CAT tools available out there, but they tend to be substantially less powerful when compared to Trados and memoQ. Some are even notoriously clunky and no longer in line with the industry standards
Of all the free tools that I’ve tested to date, I suggest checking the free version of Smartcat. It’s a browser-based CAT tool that also works as a platform to get paid translation jobs, so it’s definitely worth a try.
Start Getting Some Paid Projects
Once you’ve completed a decent amount of practice and self-study, you may want to consider attempting some paid work too.
Note that you should still carry on with your volunteering at this stage. The goal here is to gradually start making some money on the side.
Remember: if by this time you’ve got experience (the more, the better) and know how to use a CAT tool, make sure you let your potential clients know. Translation is a seriously competitive market, so use everything you’ve got as a selling point.
Here are some platforms and websites where you can start advertising your services:
It’s always a good idea to create a profile on ProZ, as it’s one of the largest communities for linguists. It’s also a place where clients and translation agencies tend to go to in order to find suitable candidates for their projects.
There’s a free, basic membership as well as a paid, premium one. The paid version is guaranteed to give you more visibility on the platform, thus increasing your chances of getting work. However, it may be too soon to take such a step if you’re just starting.
You may still be contacted by clients even if you have the free membership, although that tends to happen only rarely (unless your language combination is also rare.)
Creating as complete a profile as possible while maintaining the free membership is still highly recommended. You can always refer to your ProZ profile just like many professionals refer to their LinkedIn to present their skills and services.
Translator’s Café is another directory for linguists where you can create a profile, apply for open projects or be directly contacted by potential clients.
Once you’re done with creating your profile (again, make it as complete as possible), you can start applying for any projects that are posted on the job board.
A hands-on approach is important here. You should check the board regularly and be persistent, for it may take some time until you start getting some orders.
A professional platform that needs no introduction. Creating a good LinkedIn profile should always be part of your strategy.
As someone who for many years has been on the LSP (language service provider) side of the market, I can safely affirm that translation agencies are actively checking LinkedIn whenever they need to find new linguists.
Just like with ProZ and Translator’s Café, make it as complete and detailed as possible.
This one has already been mentioned: in addition to a web-based CAT tool, Smartcat is also a community for linguists, clients and agencies.
Make sure you learn how to use Smartcat before attempting to get any work. There’s a learning curve, but it’s better if you go through that and come out as a knowledgeable professional than coming across as clueless.
Fiverr has amounted a great deal of bad rep among freelance translators over the years due to a perceived tendency for rate depreciation and low quality.
I remember years ago coming across dozens and dozens of dodgy-looking gigs selling 1000-word translations for $5. Needless to say I quickly gave up the idea of advertising my services there.
Thankfully, things appear to be slowly changing for the better ever since they’ve introduced two things:
- They’ve moved away from the strict $5 gig logic. You can now charge realistic prices your services.
- They’ve also created Fiverr Pro. They are now verifying freelancers and giving a ‘pro’ certificate to those who meet certain quality criteria.
These much needed changes are slowly recovering Fiverr’s credibility as a source of quality freelancers. You should not expect massive orders from corporate clients, but smaller projects from privates – which is fine to start getting some paid work.
To make sure your application is successful, follow their instructions here.
Prepare Your CV
Finally, grab all the experience you’ve accumulated, add all the qualifications, courses and certificates (whatever you’ve taken) and create a good CV.
Your next step is to approach a number of translation agencies in order to get registered to their database.
Be prepared to be rejected by some. They may claim you won’t meet their admission criteria unless you have a degree (or at least a DipTrans).
If that happens, don’t be sore or defensive! If they sense you’ve got an attitude problem, they’ll never give you another chance. Instead, follow this ‘script‘:
- Start by politely thanking the vendor manager for their time.
- Then, even though you don’t have a degree (and therefore you totally understand and respect their policy), ask whether there would be any chance you could be considered for a test piece.
- Remind them you’ve been translating for X amount of time on projects such as Y and Z (refer to your translation portfolio) and, should there be any opportunity in the future, you’d be willing to prove your skills by volunteering for a test piece.
- Close the email by thanking them once again and reiterating that, should a test piece also not be possible, you still totally understand. You’ll remain at their disposal in future nonetheless.
A Test Piece is a mock translation project to test a linguist. These are normally unpaid and have the goal of determining whether the linguist is suitable for a particular project or type of project.
This strategy may or may not work, but you’ve surely left a good impression and demonstrated you are a serious professional.
Move on to the next agency. Try, try and keep trying – persistence is the only thing that will make it work.
Becoming a translation without a degree is likely to be a long journey and will require some serious commitment.
You’ll have to do some self-study and put a ton of work upfront before you start getting regular income.
If you build your experience at a steady pace, it may take you at least 6 months to start getting any paid work. From then onward, until you can do it as a full time job, it may take 1 to 2 years.
That may seem a long time, but keep in mind that university graduates face the same issue. An undergraduate degree in the UK takes 3 to 4 years to complete, and a postgraduate takes typically 1 year. That’s a long time too!
Building experience in translation is simple, but not easy. You need to work hard for it.
Your chances of success will also depend on your language combinations and specialisms. And of course, the quality of your work is absolutely paramount too.
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