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A Day in the Life of a Translator

There are two main types of translators: textual translators, who work with written documents, and simultaneous translators, or interpreters, who listen and translate a voice as it is being spoken. The former may work on a variety of documents, including legal, business-related, journalistic, or “literary” texts, and is generally paid by the word. The latter are normally paid either by the hour or as full-time staff in such settings as the United Nations, international business, or perhaps within the legal system as a court translator. There are a few terrific benefits afforded interpreters. Most commonly they exclaim, “The travel is excellent!” They also take pride in the frequency with which others are dependent on their knowledge and attention to detail. Translators find the creativity and mental acuity required of their profession challenging, but some become frustrated by the parameters within which they must perform. Interpreters must be flexible, as they may be called to work at any hour of the day or night, and they must be willing to withstand the significant pressure of a diplomatic or business meeting; textual translators, on the other hand, usually have time to refer to dictionaries and other reference tools, and to polish the final product. A variety of working environments exists for those with the skills of a translator. Simultaneous translators must have the most versatile backgrounds. A strong business background may be extremely useful to the simultaneous translator. Many companies mandate 60 hours worth of training for these translators once hired. To become a technical translator, applicants must pass an exam and receive special certification. These translators must also posses excellent technical writing skills. Thankfully, many companies offer test preparation classes to ready applicants for the exams. Court translators have the most lenient requirements of the group, but they must be completely fluent even in the slang of their second language. Generally, these translators are required to complete a thirty hour training course before beginning the job. Other translators work in academic fields either studying or interpreting foreign texts. This is where there is often the most room for creative expression. However, it is also the area most likely to be widely scrutinized.

Paying Your Dues

The route into translation is very structured and predictable, particularly for employment in the United Nations or other government agency. Those seeking the greatest opportunities for employment should be fluent in English and in one of the official languages of the United Nations; French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, or Chinese. There are, however, numerous job opportunities for those possessing fluency in other languages. Applicants should have a language degree, preferably a B.S., B.A., or Masters. Employers prefer candidates who have exceptional fluency in at least two languages, though. Candidates should be fluent in at least two cultures. Cultural study is an area that potential translators cannot overlook as it is invaluable to understanding the nuances of any work to be translated. Therefore, courses in history, anthropology, and politics are as germane to the degree as are courses in grammar and conversation. Time spent studying abroad while in college is also a valuable part of an applicant’s resume. Before interviewing for a position, candidates are normally required to undergo a series of tests to ensure language proficiency. First, the candidate has to translate a general text from the host language into the second, or third, language. Then the applicant must choose a more technical text for translation to exhibit fluency in the area she has chosen for specialization. These tests can take up to seven hours. After the candidate displays fluency the employer will invite the applicant to an interview. For this, the applicant is given some time to prepare a topic for translation and the interview usually begins with the oral presentation of this translation. The interview culminates in an inquiry into her knowledge of the applicable region’s cultural and historical background. Employers will often expect translators, after hiring and training, to work on word processing and other data entry equipment.

Present and Future

The need for translation has existed ever since divergent cultures came into contact with one another. The great Roman senator Cicero insisted that the interpreter be as loyal to the original text as possible, and this idea persisted in the works of Renaissance theorists, who expected a translator to capture the stylistic possibilities of the host language. In the nineteenth century, a near reversal of these theories arose. A German theorist, Schleiermacher, claimed that rather than the translator’s bringing the work to the reader, the translator should bring the reader to the work. This idea of conveying the culture to the reader continues today. The future of translation shows immense growth. Computers will undoubtedly be a field where there will be a myriad of openings for those with translating skills. The job will evolve beyond elementary semantic translation. It will be geared towards the understanding of the syntactical structure of sentences both typed and voice activated. Additionally, the global information highway will most probably contribute to possibilities for employment in ways that have not yet been fully realized.

Quality of Life


Due to the extensive training received in school, interpreters are well aware of what to expect from their profession. Long-term contacts that are commonplace in the field, and with the high starting salaries, a mere five percent decide to leave.


Thirty-five percent of translators leave the profession within the first five years, often because of the ceiling on advancement. This is a position for those with a love for language. Continual recognition and perpetual advancement are not likely occurrences in this field.


After obtaining some tenure, interpreters report continued satisfaction in the field. This is illustrated by the departure of only another five percent of translators beyond the first five years of employment. Interpreters deciding to remain in the field do so because of liberal benefits, increasing flexibility, and comforting security. For some translators, such as those employed by the United Nations, there is a slow but positive advancement in salary, benefits and title-a system that rewards continued employment.