ULG's Language Services Blog

Advice for Aspiring Linguists: How to Make it in Today’s Industry



May 11, 2018


On a recent trip to Australia, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron committed a rather embarrassing slip of the tongue.

“Thank you and your delicious wife for your warm welcome…” Macron told Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull before leaving the country following a diplomacy trip.

The gaffe was accidental and harmless. But it’s yet another example of why we need skilled linguists to do the talking in foreign language situations. Translators and interpreters bridge the gap between countries and continents; they are skilled communicators who transcend the constraints of language.

But how does one get into the language business? What should someone know before starting down the path of translation? We talked to a handful of freelance translators who have worked with ULG to get their take. Here’s what they told us.


Know Your Language “To Near Perfection”


Not surprisingly, everyone we interviewed stressed the importance of strong language skills. Having the know-how and passion for the language(s) you translate will determine how successful you are as a translator, and how happy you are with your job.

You need to know “both languages to near perfection,” said Annabelle Nelson, who translates from English to Spanish. “And I mean it. Not only the informal spoken language, but the formal written language.”

It’s a good idea to study at least two foreign languages, says translator Pierre Augereau, adding that living abroad for a least a year can also help. Immersing yourself in the language you study and truly enjoying what you do will increase your chances of success.


Develop An Area of Expertise


The advent of Neural Machine Translation technology has forced translators to be more than just multilingual wordsmiths. Automation is the name of the game in today’s language industry and it’s important that linguists set themselves apart by specializing in a specific subject area to outsmart the machines.

“I think that aspiring translators should be highly specialized in one or two fields. With neuronal computing, clusters of computers will be able to translate general texts, but they will never replace a human mind when it comes to very specialized translations like medical, nuclear, etc.,” said English-to-French translator Nicolas Kmiec.

This could mean studying medicine, finance, or law in addition to your linguistic pursuits. Augereau agrees that the extra knowledge helps.

“If you are extremely knowledgeable about a particular field, it may prove very useful to get specific jobs more easily,” he said. “Having general knowledge is great as it will help you get different kinds of jobs, however, translators who specialize in a few specific areas are usually highly rewarded.”


Technology Is Your Friend


While technology has worried some linguists in the industry, it’s also acted as an effective tool for translators who need work done fast.

It’s a must to have an understanding of CAT tools and general computing abilities. Nelson says that due to continuous advancements in the field, today’s translator needs to be flexible and willing to accept change.

In particular, Augereau lists Trados, Wordfast, memoQ and Across along with the Microsoft Suite as valuable programs to be familiar with.   

For those wary of the influence Machine Translation could have on the industry, Nelson makes clear it’s a non-issue.

“The translation industry tends to simplify their groundbreaking software, but the content is not taken into account,” she said.

“Basically, translation tools are good for the administration of projects, and, in my experience, from the input part of work, some tools I am asked to use slow me down too much to be considered good.”



Being Your Own Boss – A Blessing And A Curse


In most cases, being a translator means being a contract worker. Freelancing definitely has its perks --  creating your own schedule, working from home -- but it creates its own set of challenges, too.

“It can be a very lonely job, especially as a freelancer,” said Augereau. “You should be prepared to socialize differently, outside of your job. You should also regularly do activities which are not related to work.”

Being a contract worker means that you are always held accountable for your work no matter what the circumstances. There is no higher-up to vouch for you. Another thing to take into consideration is that you need to be able to promote yourself in order to secure work.  

Kmiec explains that this can be similar to running your own business.

“In my opinion, the most important thing is that you must remember that you run your own company when you are a freelancer,” he said.

“You need to be able to multitask. You need to be an accountant and a salesperson if you want your business to flourish. This is only 10 percent of the job, but this 10 percent is very important.”


Where There Is Demand, There Is Opportunity


The market for translators in the United States is on the upswing, with employment in the industry projected to grow by almost 30 percent through 2024.

As long as there is global business and commerce, there will be a need for skilled linguists. Keeping up with industry trends and polishing your language skills will put you in a favorable position to translate for a living.

“Don’t give up: If translation turns out to be a passion, there is room for you, too,” says Augereau.