A modern language degree is an excellent foundation for careers in translation and interpreting or elsewhere, but new graduates usually need to adapt their skills if they want to thrive in the world of professional translation.
One translator, Victoria, admits finding the transition challenging. ‘There are probably some more practical degrees out there, but my course in particular was very literature-based. We did a lot of translation in our language work, but it was mostly translating extracts from novels, poetry or literary criticism, even jokes sometimes. These are some of the most difficult things to translate, so it taught me a lot about d how to use language creatively, persuasively and effectively. I can transfer those skills to my current work, but the demands of a corporate client are very different and it took a while to adjust.’
While developing general linguistic competence and the ability to motivate oneself and work independently, a pure language degree does not necessarily prepare graduates to work in specialist fields where there is most demand for professional translators and interpreters. Translation and interpreting require specific skills and, in a highly competitive job market, experience is also essential. Many companies and agencies only employ certified translators, and even acquiring the years of experience needed to achieve certification can be difficult.
Legal documents must be watertight: words and phrases have a very precise meaning and must be used according to strict conventions and practice. A new graduate with brilliant language skills might be able to understand the content of the document in their second language, but would probably not be familiar with the language of tenancy agreements, employment contracts or marriage certificates and would need additional training or experience in law before being able to produce a document that could stand up to legal scrutiny.
In other fields, such as medicine, science or engineering, ever-evolving technical terminology can pose problems for non-specialists, and many agencies only employ translators who are professionally active in their fields for this reason. Victoria continues: ‘The first freelance job I had the opportunity to bid for was to translate a user manual for a piece of scuba diving equipment. I knew nothing about diving, I knew nothing about physics or engineering. There were loads of technical words I had never seen before, and the work was on such a tight deadline that in the end I had to let it go.’
Victoria found she was more successful with marketing translations and translating evidence for court cases, but are there other ways recent graduates can overcome these challenges?
For those who can afford it, a MA or postgraduate diploma in translation or interpreting can be extremely useful. These courses usually focus on channelling students’ broader abilities into more marketable skills, allowing them to take modules in areas such as medical translation or international law, refine their writing style and gain work experience through placements in industry or government. Alternatively, graduates can acquire the requisite vocabulary and professional experience by pursuing another qualification or finding employment in their chosen specialist field, although it can be difficult to maintain language skills while doing this. Finally, determination and perseverance in looking for freelance or full-time work should eventually yield results. However, initial jobs can often be low-paid and it takes time to build up the contacts and experience necessary to command higher fees.
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