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Advice for a budding translator December 3, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Translation.

Hi Ms. Sommer!

My name is [Nicole Kidman], and I just found your website! I’m a freshman at the University of Mary Washington, and I’m planning on majoring in German and…something else.  I always thought translating and interpreting were one and the same, but now I realize there is a difference.  The reason I wanted to double major is because I had NO idea what career options interested me, and my parents are pressuring me to have a back-up plan because I need to earn money somehow.  After reading your website, however, I’ve realized that being a translator doesn’t mean standing behind a diplomat, translating what a speaker is talking about.  I have a few questions that I hope you could entertain because I’ve never had the chance to talk to an actual translator before.  I studied abroad in Germany last year (took a gap year between high school and college), so I’m pretty steady in my German learning.  In high school, I took four years of Spanish (though I’m not passionate about the language), and this year I started Chinese.  I definitely plan on continuing with German and Chinese, but I was wondering if you could offer some advice as to which third language I should learn.  My parents want me to continue with Spanish. I realize this is the most reasonable choice since 22 countries speak Spanish, but I plan to either work in Europe or with a European country in America.  As a translator who has expertise in the German language, which language would be the best accompaniment to German?  My options are Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic.  Also, since I do want to have a steady career and income, would you say that translation is a steady and growing field?
Sorry, this email has become much more long-winded than I meant it to be! 🙂

Hi Nicole,

I suggest concentrating on learning one language you are passionate about and learning it really well. Live overseas for as long as you can. Being a translator means you need to understand every nuance of the source text (including cultural references and subtleties). Being immersed in the language ensures you understand that the text is talking about a Tornado fighter plane and not an actual tornado. If I were to do it all over again my second major would have been something helpful, like business classes or some technical field that I enjoyed. That would allow you to specialize right out of the gate. It is very rare to find someone who speaks seven languages and knows them well enough to translate them effectively. There are a few people out there that do, but they are very rare indeed. Most agencies prefer to work with someone who translates from one or perhaps two languages into their native language. My friend Jane translates from German and French into English, for example. Dr. Geoff Koby translates from Dutch and German into English, etc. Both work in languages that are somewhat similar. Even though I don’t translate from Russian, I find my knowledge of Russian sometimes comes in handy in WWII documents, for example, when it comes to the transliteration of names or cultural background information.

As for translation being a steady and growing field, absolutely. With globalization the need for translation continues to grow by leaps and bounds. As the current ATA President Nick Hartmann mentioned in the closing ceremony of the ATA conference this year, the industry grew 15% last year and looks like it will grow another 15% this year. There aren’t enough trained translators out there to cover the demand, so I would suggest continuing your undergraduate studies and study abroad one of those years. Then consider studying translation at the graduate level at either Monterey (if you want to interpret, this would be the best choice) or Kent State University.

I hope that answers your questions.

Hey fellow translators, do you have any wisdom to add? If so, please feel free to add some more advice in the comments!



1. Craig - December 3, 2009

I doubt that there is any such equivalent thing in the US, where you are probably much better off simply focusing on one target and one source language, but just for the record….

If you want to be a translator for the EU (which requires EU citizenship), then you will definitely need at least two EU foreign languages, though three would also help. I know a Dutch guy who translates into Dutch from English and German (and possibly French, I can’t remember), but also occasionally translates from Finnish, and he hardly speaks it. He says he manages about a page a day from Finnish, whereas a page an hour would be more usual.

2. Anne - December 3, 2009

I obviously would not advise to learn Latin if the purpose is to translate from this language.

Nonetheless, it could be useful especially when focusing on Roman languages.

3. Kevin Lossner - December 3, 2009

@Craig: I think day jobs with the EU also require citizenship in the EU, so I think Nicole is probably SOL there unless she’s got an immigrant grandparent that might give her an option of claiming a second passport from Ireland, Italy, etc.

Statistics I’ve seen on the volumes of translation jobs (probably in Europe, but maybe the scope was wider) show that the German to English combination has four times the volume of the next largest combination, which was English to German. Everything else falls far behind that. Spanish is certainly a waste of time by comparison given the number of people in the market and the dumping practices and exploitation one often encounters. And when the Cubans enter the market, the bomb will really drop.

If she has a technical specialty, possibly some legal competence and a really, really good grasp of German, she won’t need a backup plan as long as Germany continues to be a major exporter of technical goods and services. Other languages may be fun and nice for entertainment purposes, vacations or perhaps a passionate affair, but from a purely commercial perspective, German will take her farther.

On the other hand, if she wants to scatter herself with languages, I can recommend Sumerian and Akkadian. I enjoyed those a great deal when I relaxed for a year with the Near Eastern archaeologists at the Universität des Saarlandes.

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