I Know Two Languages. Am I Ready to Translate?

Perhaps you speak two or more languages, whether you learned them at home, in the community, in school, or as an immigrant. Are you ready to translate, and should you? There are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you are prepared to perform effectively and serve your clients well. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to spoken or signed communication as interpreting, and written communication as translation, but these tips largely apply to both activities.

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Specialized Language

You need to know both of your working languages at a high level to be either a translator or interpreter. Perhaps you feel confident in your ability to have a casual conversation in a certain language but aren’t sure how you would do in a business meeting. Excluding people whose language knowledge comes from sources other than formal study from working in this area is neither just nor justified. Professor Nelson Flores points out how arbitrary dividing language into academic and “social” is.

At the same time, different subject fields and text types do have their own vocabularies, grammars, and other conventions. Most translators and interpreters specialize, meaning they work in one or a few areas. For example, if you end up working as a healthcare interpreter, you will need to learn the names of common medicines and procedures and know what to expect during a clinical visit. No one knows this “out of the box,” but there are many ways of getting this knowledge, including interpreter training programs, experience working in healthcare, self-study, shadowing a medical provider, or a combination of these activities.

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Apart from knowing the subject matter in two languages, you need to be able to re-code message from the one language to the other effectively. (As a side note, many translators only work from their second, or passive, language into their first, or active, one.) What if there is no exact translation? Should you follow the structure of the original utterance? How do you remember all the details, and can you omit something?

Translator or interpreter training teaches you some approaches that will help you cope with these challenges and provide good service to your clients. Once again, a college degree in not the only venue where you can get these skills.


Finally, some situations might arise in the course of your work that will require you to make a judgment call. What if you’re sure the speaker or writer made a mistake? What if a person tells you not to interpret what they just said? What if two agencies ask you for a quote for translating the same document?

Knowing two languages or being a subject-matter expert alone doesn’t provide guidance on how to handle ethical quandaries, but translator/interpreter training does touch upon potential ethical conflicts and some best practices to follow in tricky situations. Granted, the standards may be different depending on the organization training you, the subject field, or even your region or country. For instance, different codes of ethics have different guidance on whether and how much an interpreter should advocate on behalf any of the parties involved in the encounter. However, these standards will provide a starting point you can refer to as you make your own judgment calls.

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I’m Sold. Where Do I Sign Up?

Once again, none of what I said means that you need to have a framed degree on your wall before you dare to translate or interpret. There are many ways to get the skills you need to be successful, including short courses or self-study materials. Below is a list of resources you might want to check out. This is list is by no means exhaustive, and I cannot endorse or vouch for any particular provider.

  1. Short courses and webinars
    1. ProZ.com translator website
    2. eCPD private training provider
    3. Training for Translators by Corinne McKay
    4. Blue Horizon interpreter training
  2. Professional organizations
    1. American Translators Association
    2. International Medical Interpreter Association
    3. National Association of Judicial Interpreters and Translators
  3. Universities
  4. Self-study materials
    1. For example, CDs by Acebo
  5. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) about various disciplines, for example on Coursera

However you decide to develop your skills, doing so will help you feel confident and do your job effectively.

Published by Maria

Russian health and human services translator based in Rochester, New York

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