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The Education of a Translator

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Translators come from all backgrounds. Some have Masters degrees in translation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies or Kent State University, some have certificates from Georgetown University or other programs in the United States, others have degrees from schools in Europe (such as the ones in London, Paris, or Geneva) or Asia (such as Simul Academy in Tokyo or Winzao in Taiwan) and many have a degree in a general field such as literature or history. While a specialized degree in translation is useful, it is far from necessary. What counts more than anything else is ability. So where does this ability come from?

Perhaps it is nature, but I suspect that nurture helps immensely. Most translators are very well-read in their languages, and can write well. Some are writers who use translation as a way to write for a living. Others are fascinated by language and use translation as a way to be close to their favorite subject. Still others are experts in certain fields and use their language skills to work in that field.

Almost all professional translators in the United States have at least a college degree. Some even have advanced degrees either in translation or in the field they specialize in (a few even have both). Most translators have university-level language training in their B and C languages. Some started their languages earlier, others later, but very few translators have no language training at all. Of course, language training might mean specialized courses from a variety of schools.

Translators also generally have lived in the countries where their languages are spoken. I know of translators who have spent seven or even ten years in the countries of their B language. Some translators have spent more time in the country of their B language than in the country of their A language. The notable exception to this is Spanish in the United States and English abroad. Because Spanish is used so widely and is as common as English in many parts of the U.S., some translators learn and then work in the language without ever leaving the U.S. As well, translators in other countries often work from English into their native language with just the language training they received in school.

Above all, translators must have a deep interest and dedication to the languages they work with. The only exception to this rule is people who translate very specialized material. I know an individual with a Ph.D. in mathematics who translated a book on topology from French to English. His French skills are dubious, but since few people in the world understand the material, he was suitable. In almost all cases, however, translators have to be committed to honing and polishing their language skills throughout their professional life.

The knowledge of the field the translator is working in is often overlooked by translators and those that hire them. Translators are by definition language professionals, but they also have to cultivate a knowledge of the areas they work in. Few translators claim to be able to translate anything written in their languages, just as few people can claim to be experts in everything. Most translators have to specialize, working with one or a few related categories of material: legal, financial, medical, computers, or electrical engineering, to name a few. Each field has its own vocabulary, syntax, and style; the translator has to work hard to develop the knowledge necessary to deal with such material.

The knowledge also includes two other important factors. First, the translator should have the background knowledge to work in the field. This does not mean that a medical translator should have an M.D. or that a translator of software manuals should be a programmer. But some background, experience, or education (or all three) is essential. This can be obtained through coursework, on-the-job experience, or self-study. No one seems too concerned with exactly how translators develop their subject knowledge, as long as they truly have. And though translators do have degrees in their specialization, most do not.

Second, the translator should have the necessary resources to deal with the material. This means dictionaries, glossaries, and any other resources. Such resources can include web sites devoted to translation or terminology, Usenet discussion groups concerning translation, friends or colleagues who work in the profession, and magazines and journals. And translators have to work tirelessly to maintain if not improve their knowledge of the fields they work in by reading related material. They also have to invest the time and money in maintaining their reference library.

In other words, professional translators are always learning. You don’t just put your hand on a rock and say: "I am a translator." Nor do you simply acquire a language in a few months by living somewhere and then begin translating. Heinrich Schliemann may have learned to read each of his languages in six weeks, but he couldn’t write or speak them (nor did he need to). Moreover, at that time, languages had considerably more limited vocabularies than now. And of course, reading and translating are two separate things.

So at what point are you ready to begin translating? Simple. When you feel that your abilities of expression and comprehension in your A and B languages are strong enough that you can do the job properly by the client’s deadline. The length of time to cultivate these abilities depends on the person and the language. Native speakers of English have an easier time with the Romance and Germanic languages because their grammars, syntax, and vocabulary are relatively familiar. A language like Chinese or Japanese takes a long time simply because you have to learn to read and understand thousands of characters, as well as deal with grammar, syntax, and structure wholly unrelated to that seen in English.

Finally, you have to be able to prove that you have the skills you claim to have. Experience living, working, and studying in the country of your B language is one form of proof. A degree in your language or in translation is another. Taking a test such as the ones given by the ATA, the State Department, or the United Nations is another. But I’ll leave the discussion of accreditation for a separate article.

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