Advice on Working as a Language Specialist

Translation and interpretation are two different occupations that can be pursued by a language professional. Often, a person with knowledge of, and proficiency in one or more foreign languages will work in both translating and interpreting, but these are different professions involving different sets of abilities.


Translating is converting text from one language to another, and therefore focuses on language in its written form. A translator takes a document written in the source language, reads and understands it, and then re-writes the document in the target language.


Interpretation involves verbal communications – listening to, and understanding what is said in one language and then verbally expressing it in another language. Interpretation is broken down between:
�· Simultaneous interpretation, which involves converting what is being said in a meeting, presentation, seminar or other type of communication forum, into the target language at the same time the speaker is talking, with a very short lag, practically anticipating what the speaker is going to say.
�· Consecutive interpretation, which is listening and comprehending what the speaker is saying, in short blocks of speech, and then converting what was said into the target language.

Language Combinations

A translator most often translates from a secondary language to his or her native language. This is generally due to language nuances that are learned from birth, and that are assimilated and internalized over a lifetime. A translator can be very adept at comprehending a secondary language, but is normally more comfortable, and is better at writing in his or her native language. There are exceptions, and some translators are equally capable of drafting text well, in both a native language and a learned language. Interpreters are probably more flexible in switching between languages, although a similar tendency toward converting from a secondary language to a native language can be observed.

What Are The Requirements?

The nature of translation, as working with written language, and interpretation, as working with spoken language, create very different sets of requirements for translators and interpreters. What they have in common is that both require a command of both the source language and the target language. And both require well-developed language skills in terms of comprehension, structure, grammar, and vocabulary.


A translator needs to have good writing ability. The final product must be a text that conveys the concepts, ideas, and significance of the original text in the source language, in an understandable and well-flowing text in the target language.

An interpreter needs good speaking ability, concentration, an exceptional memory, and the ability to work under pressure.

Formal Education

Translators and interpreters normally need formal education, not only in a foreign language but also training in the techniques of translation and interpretation themselves. Many professional translators and interpreters have college or university degrees in one or more languages, and may also have a degree or other academic background in linguistics.


Certification as a professional translator or interpreter, or both, by an official certifying entity, is also common and beneficial, and membership in a professional society is also an important qualification.


Translators and interpreters often specialize in certain areas, since it is very difficult to be able to provide professional-level services in different fields at the same time. So, language experts may also have specialized education or experience, or both, in a certain field, such as medicine, law, finance, engineering, or computer software. And these fields may in turn be broken down into further fields of specialization.

Research and Preparation

Both translators and interpreters need comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter which they are translating or interpreting. Translators have the opportunity to research specific aspects and terminology of the text they are translating while they are working. Interpreters normally receive the subject matter before an interpreting assignment, giving them time to adequately prepare themselves and do any necessary research.

Both translators and interpreters normally have their own reference sources, in terms of dictionaries, glossaries, and specialized texts on their fields of expertise. And, thanks to the Internet, there is a tremendous amount of information readily available, and this has greatly facilitated the research that both translators and interpreters do in order to prepare themselves.

How Are The Working Conditions?

Translators generally work alone, with texts, therefore translation can be a solitary occupation as compared to interpretation, which will always involve real-time communications with other persons in a more dynamic environment. Interpretations may be done through various means and in various environments, including live presence in meetings, presentations and seminars, or audio presence through telephone calls, conference calls, or video conferences.


Both translation and interpretation have an inherent level of pressure. A translator works under the pressure of having to deliver a completed translation by the deadline. A translator can take the time to fully comprehend a text, do any necessary research, and choose the appropriate words and phrases to express the concepts in the target language while working on the translation. But normally the party requesting the translation wants it as soon as possible. This often results in long hours working on a translation in order to meet the deadline.

An interpreter is under pressure at the moment – the language conversion must be made on the spot, with no time for research or review. An interpreter must listen, comprehend, convert and express the concept, either simultaneously, while the speaker is talking, or immediately after. The interpreter does not have the chance to go back and review or change a work or phrase. This requires a high level of concentration, and it is customary for interpreters to work in pairs during a meeting, presentation, or seminar, and alternate every 20 minutes or so.

Work Environment

Translators who work for a private company in industry, or for a translation firm, can expect normal office conditions and a relatively steady work flow and schedule, perhaps combined with interpretation assignments, if the language professional works in both areas.

Many language professionals also combine their translating and interpreting activities with teaching activities, giving language classes to individuals or groups of students.

Translators can also work on a free-lance basis, as an independent contractor. Here again, translation services may be offered in addition to interpretation and/or teaching services. As a free-lancer, you are your own boss, set your own hours, can work at home or wherever you choose to work, and set your own rates. Much translation work is done on a bid basis, and the Internet has literally opened up a world of opportunities as well as a world of competition.

The work environment for interpreters depends on the venue of the work. Many times, interpretation work will be done in a meeting room, with several different persons present. Sometimes an interpreter will be assigned to a particular person (commonly a visitor from another country) and will accompany that person throughout the day in various different situations. And, interpreters may also work in a formal presentation, seminar, or meeting, interpreting by microphone from a booth.

Work Flow

As a free-lancer, the flow of translation and interpretation work may be sporadic, with some periods of intense activity and long hours, and other periods with no work. For this reason, many translators and interpreters combine these professions with other jobs, or with hobbies or other personal activities. Managing uneven flows of income can sometimes be a challenge for free-lancers.


Translators and interpreters working for a company in private industry, or for a translation and interpretation firm can expect to receive a salary. Translation work as a free-lancer is normally bid and paid based on the volume of text, commonly with a rate per source or translated word. Free-lance interpretation work is normally paid by the hour.

What Are The Possibilities?

Globalization and technological advances in communications, especially the Internet, have brought the world together, and the need and desire to share ideas, concepts, news, developments, and information in general, and to bridge language and cultural boundaries have created a great demand for persons with special abilities in languages. Persons who are able to take into account the particular nuances of each language and to respect and be sensitive to the cultural aspects that are an inherent part of language, both spoken and written, are particularly valued.

Working in a Private Company

A translator or interpreter can work in private industry, especially in a multi-national company where there is a constant need to convert communications and information between languages. Many large companies have a separate translation and interpretation department. Depending on the company’s business, specialization in a certain field may be required. The advantages of working in this environment are that it provides stability and a secure source of income, and a relatively normal office-type working schedule, for those who prefer these attributes.

Working in a Firm of Translators and Interpreters

There are many small, medium-sized, and large firms specializing in translation and interpretation. These can also provide translators and interpreters with steady work and employment. The firm may work with in-house translators and interpreters as well as with free-lancers. The larger firms tend to be concentrated in larger metropolitan areas, but as a free-lance independent contractor, it may be possible to be affiliated with these firms and have relatively constant work from home or another location. Interpreters may be sent on assignments wherever there is a need for their services.

Working Freelance

Working as a free-lancer involves taking care of other aspects of business in addition to the professional work as a translator and/or interpreter. A free-lancer must do marketing, bidding, billing, and collection. Probably the most effective way to be successful as a free-lancer is to build up a reputation and a group of steady clients, with repeat work.

Just as the Internet and globalization have created more demand for language specialists, they have also significantly evened the playing field, especially for translators, since their work is no longer tied to a certain geographical location, and translators from all countries can now compete, since much of the work is done electronically, without regard to physical location. The opportunities for interpreters may be more dependent on the level of demand for language specialists in the area in which the interpreter works, although a good interpreter may well be able to travel to any location where there is a demand for services.

Translation Software

Translation software is constantly improving, but there is still no indication that it is replacing the need for human translators and interpreters, and demand for these professionals should continue to increase with overall economic growth, and the ever more dynamic global environment.

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