Starting at square one as a translator or interpreter: What does it take?

From time to time we at The Savvy Newcomer receive questions from our readers that make for great blog post topics. This is one of them! Here’s a question from one of our readers who’s just starting to pursue an interest in languages and wants to know how to get started.

Q: Is there any advice you could give for someone who is starting out at square one, wanting to learn another language, with the end goal of interpreting? This may be a wild question, but I have always had an interest in other languages, and cultures, so interpreting and translation work are very attractive vocations to me. How would you recommend someone starting to make that career shift?  And do you happen to know what languages are in demand, or the most useful to know?  Are there any language schools you would recommend?

A: Thanks for asking! The Savvy Newcomer has a couple of posts that may be of interest (How to become a translator or interpreter, Translation/interpreting schools, Interview with student interpreters) but it sounds like you need a bit more direction on the front end as you consider learning a language and go about getting started.

One of the key requirements is a very strong language background. Interpreting and translation, based on quite a few testing results I have seen, require skills beyond the minimum requirements of Advanced High on the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) scale.

To reach that level, people usually have to get far beyond what can be accomplished in the institutional setting in the US. It generally involves at least a year in a foreign country, immersed in the language, not spending their time with the other US students who are there doing immersion programs but going to local choirs, doing some kind of local volunteer work, etc. beyond their academic work to get into the community.

However, even a very high ACTFL score is not a guarantee of translational action skills (the ability to convert the message from one language to another, whether orally or in writing). Interpreting and translation both require congruency judgment, which is an extra skill on top of that. It goes beyond being a walking dictionary. Asking any of us translators what a word means would leave us flummoxed. However, when we are given a problem to solve in context, our brains start clicking and we can be helpful.

Language proficiency is an essential prerequisite. Without language proficiency, there is not much basis for cultural understanding, according to the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) guidelines, and culture is part of the written code. For example, Americans have a tendency to sign a business letter “Pete”, but that would never fly in Argentina. It would be “Mr. Peter Brown,” and the letter would be in the formal usted (you). Anything else would just not go. So you need to understand the culture it is going to as well.

Interpreting and translating, though they purport to leave the person who does the language transfer invisible and not change the message at all, by necessity have to make these minimal adjustments so the message reaches the audience the way the original speaker or writer intended it to get there. Otherwise, it is disrespectful to the speaker or writer. We understand that and generally are doing what I would call “transcreation very light” invisibly. Clients do not like translations where this does not happen.

For example, if a client were to accidentally write “the ocean is full of fresh water,” they would call me out if I translated it that way. They would say I made a mistake in my translation. So I translate it as “the ocean is full of salt water.” I also send them a note, saying I translated it this way, and if they want it to say “fresh water” I can put it back but I would like them to be aware of the issue in the source text.

Of course, this does not apply to some translations submitted to the court as evidence. But even then, we translate so the courts can understand the writing. We typically do not reproduce grammatical mistakes to make the text illegible. It’s very hard to do, and we run the risk of overdoing it and making it a caricature… and getting sued.

So translation is more complicated than it looks. We have to consider a lot of things when you look under the hood, and we carry a lot of responsibility in the language transfer. We take it seriously. These are the opinions I’ve formed from years of experience and from conversations about these topics with my clients.

Readers, what questions do you have about getting started?

Image source: Pixabay

About heleneby

Helen Eby grew up in Argentina, the land of the gauchos. She is certified as an English Spanish translator by ATA and as a Spanish interpreter by the Oregon Judicial Department and by the Oregon Health Authority. She co-founded The Savvy Newcomer and the ¡Al rescate del español! blogs, both of which are team efforts to provide resources for other language professionals. She is also a founding board member of the Spanish Editors Association.

2 thoughts on “Starting at square one as a translator or interpreter: What does it take?

  1. i’ve heard that taking the certification exam costs a ton — even 3,000 $ — is this true? where can the cost of the exam be found? also, if i have more than one language, wd i have to take one exam for each language? yr prompt answer will be very much appreciated.

  2. You will find the cost of the exam on this page… and no, it is not anywhere close to $3,000. You will only be certified in the language pair you were tested. So, if you took a test of Esperanto into Chingolese translation, that would be your certification: Esperanto into Chingolese. Not Chingolese into Esperanto. Please note that ATA certifies only into and out of English, so this particular exam does not exist.
    The FAQs are here. I hope they help!
    https://atanet.org/certification/certification_FAQ.php

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