Degrees & Training for Translators, Interpreters

There is no one prescribed or “acceptable” path to becoming a translator or interpreter. Rather, the education and professional backgrounds of translators and interpreters are typically quite diverse.

To begin with, anyone wanting to enter the field should be fluent (reading, writing, listening, speaking) in at least two languages. Some interpreters and translators grew up speaking one language and learned another in school. Others grew up in a bilingual home. It doesn’t matter how one becomes fluent in more than one language, the end result is the same. Moreover, both translators and interpreters must have excellent communication skills (written and verbal, respectively), and a solid understanding of both grammar and colloquial expressions in both languages. It is also highly desirable that interpreters and translators have an understanding of the cultures in which or with which they are working.

High School

As early as high school, students wanting to enter into the field of translation and interpreting can begin to prepare by taking a wide variety of courses, including English literature and composition, world languages, computer science, sciences, and history. High school students can begin their cultural discovery by participating in school trips to other countries or in summer or yearlong exchange programs such as Rotary International, Youth For Understanding, Council on International Educational Exchange or International Student Exchange Programs. Students can also practice their language skills and gain cultural competency closer to home by volunteering in culturally diverse community, eating in ethnic restaurants, and going to plays and art exhibits that address cultural issues. Students who want to translate should read as much as possible in other languages, including books, magazines, online articles, etc.

Post-secondary and Graduate School

After high school, the options for seriously training to become a translator or interpreter expand tenfold. Although most translators and interpreters hold a bachelor’s degree in language or the field in which they will be translating, this is not always the case. Individuals who are already bilingual may get an associate’s degree in business and launch their interpreting or translation businesses shortly thereafter, picking up certifications and gaining experience along the way. Many literary translators or academic translators and interpreters hold M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in either language or the field in which they translate (such as the arts, history, business, engineering, science, etc.).

“I have a B.A. in French and a B.A. in Fine Arts, as well as a M.A. in French and Francophone Studies. While pursuing my doctoral work in French, I took a translation seminar and really enjoyed it. Shortly thereafter, I began translating literary and arts-related academic and general media articles. My background in the arts was absolutely essential to my early translation career. Since then, I’ve diversified into film, marketing and non-profit translations as well,” says Jen Westmoreland Bouchard, who owns her own translating business.

“I have only ever taken a single course on translation. I have bachelors and masters degrees in French.” Yohana Valdez, French Translator

“I do not have a degree in translations. I have a BA in Latin American Studies, and I have lived in Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, and Puerto Rico,” says Janine Libbey, Spanish Translator and Intepreter for P&L Translations.

Within the past ten years, academic programs that focus specifically on translation and interpreting have cropped up all over the country, mostly in major research institutions. Students can either major or minor in translation or interpreting. A number of these degrees can also be completed through distance learning or online programs. Internships and “in the field” experience are large components of these programs.

Gaining Experience in the Field

Experience in the field is absolutely necessary to become a professional translator or interpreter. Many translators gain experience during or after they complete their formation translation training or degree by working for an in-house translation company, or volunteer by translating documents for a non-profit. There are many volunteer opportunities available through organizations such as the Special Olympics or the Red Cross for both translators and interpreters.

Potential translators and interpreters should think through opportunities in their own communities as well.

It is essential for new translators and interpreters to find mentors in the field. These established professionals are priceless in terms of providing guidance and contacts in the field. If you don’t know anyone who could serve as a mentor, both the American Translators Association and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf offer formal mentoring programs. Additionally, most academic programs have databases of translators who are available for mentoring. At the very least, aspiring translators and interpreters should interview or shadow a professional to make sure they really understand the ins and outs of the field and the day to day life of a translator or interpreter.


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