How to become a translator

Written by MA Translation Studies student Rebecca Ellerker

The translation industry is unregulated and as such there are no formal requirements to meet in order to be able to call yourself a translator. As you would expect, this lack of regulation leads to a wide variety of skill and quality amongst those working in the industry. However, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has published ISO 17100:2015, which relates to translation and sets out processes to follow, as well as the qualifications a translator must hold in order to be compliant with the standard. In addition, the Institute of Translators and Interpreters (ITI) recommends that all potential new translators gain a formal translation qualification prior to entering the profession.

In this blog post we will explore the skills and qualifications recommended for translators and look at different translation career options.


 The most obvious skill a translator requires is the knowledge of one or more language, in addition to their mother tongue. In order to translate effectively, translators must have an excellent understanding of their source language(s), excellent writing skills in their native language, and a solid grasp of the culture in the countries where both are spoken.

Following on from this, more general skills are required in order to succeed as a translator:

  • the ability to research and acquire the additional linguistic and specialised knowledge required;
  • resilience and strategies to continue in pursuit of ‘the perfect translation;’
  • curiosity and a willingness to learn – both in terms of translation skills and technologies as well as subject content;
  • oral and written communication skills in both the source and target language – producing clear translations is not the only aspect of this job, translators also need to liaise with project managers and clients;
  • time management skills – translators need to keep on top of work load, deadlines, and, in the case of freelance translators, all the other activities associated with running a business, such as marketing and accounting.


The ITI recommends that an MA in translation or translation studies, such as the MA programme at Exeter, or the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL)’s DipTrans qualification gives translators credibility and an edge in a highly competitive market. Holding such a qualification means that translators adhere to the requirements set out in the ISO and also enables them to apply for membership of the professional bodies (CIOL and ITI). Translators who boast such qualifications and accreditations are set apart from those with little or no training and experience.

An MA in translation not only gives participants the required knowledge and skills to successfully translate, but it also provides an understanding of the history and field of translation as a whole, as well as practical training in preparation for the industry. Through professional courses, translators are introduced to the translator community, the importance of which should not be underestimated; it is a great way of securing invaluable contacts, potential work and support from other translators.

Job opportunities

There are a variety of job opportunities for translators, all of which suit different individuals and personal circumstances. Prospective new translators should give some thought to how they would like their career to progress.

Different options include:

  • Working as an in-house translator or project manager for a translation agency or a Language Service Provider (LSPs); this option provides stability and security and allows translators to build up a wealth of experience.
  • Opportunities at major institutions such as the European Union (EU) or United Nations (UN); this usually requires translators to live abroad and often provides excellent career progression.
  • Working as a freelance translator, the most popular option according to the ITI; whilst this requires translators to set up their own business and secure their own work, it does afford the most flexibility and allows translators to work when and where they choose.

Five steps to becoming a translator:

  1. Assess yourself against the skills listed above; if there are shortfalls in your skill set, address them. If it is related to the technologies used in industry, take a course! If it is language related, make an effort to improve by taking every opportunity to practise your source language (listen to the radio, watch films, talk to friends, read books, etc.). In terms of your native language skills, the most important thing any translator can do is READ. Read as widely as you can to develop an awareness of style and improve your vocabulary.
  2. Gain a translation qualification. Research post-graduate study options and consider an MA in Translation Studies. The programme of study at Exeter provides a well-balanced curriculum of theory and practice (including in the use of Computer-Assisted Translation, or CAT, tools) to ensure that you graduate with the necessary skills and support to succeed in the industry.
  3. Join professional bodies: CIOL and ITI. These provide excellent support and resources for networking and development at any stage of your career. This also gives a clear message to any potential clients that you can provide a quality translation service.
  4. Gain experience. Translate as much as you can and use your contacts and networks to secure work. Use any prior skills, experience and qualifications to build your specialism. Perhaps you have a background in law or finance? Use this to your advantage.
  5. Finally, be willing to keep learning. Translation is a career in which you will never stop building your skills and gaining new knowledge. As with other careers, the best professionals are those who are willing reflect on their experiences and practice, learn from any mistakes they make, and continue to progress.