“Anyone who is bilingual (or who speaks another language) can be a translator” – is this true?

By Rebecca Ellerker, Freelance Translator

translating text

Yes and no.
It is commonly perceived that anyone who speaks another language can translate and this topic has received a fair amount of attention from scholars and translators alike. Those of us who are bilingual, or have the skills to communicate in another language, will have often been asked to do ‘a quick translation’ to help family and friends. I remember being on many family holidays, even as a teenager (early on in my language learning journey), and my monolingual parents asking me to translate in supermarkets or tell them what street signs were saying. I was able to do it; we purchased the things we needed, and we got where we needed to go. However, this type of ‘translation’ or ‘communication’ is a far cry from the work I do as a professional freelance translator.
To arrive at a satisfactory answer to this question, we need to consider what it means to be ‘bilingual’ (or have the ability to speak another language) and what a translator actually does. A concrete definition of bilingualism is hard to come by; definitions range from the, ‘the fact of being able to use two languages equally well,’(1) to ‘a fluency in or use of two languages.’(2) The important point to note here is that there are two strands featuring in these definitions of bilingualism: language use and language competency.
Speakers of more than one language will often find that their proficiency in their second language is defined by the circumstances in which they have learnt or used it. For example, when I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I had spent extended periods living abroad and had consequently developed a strong level of fluency; I could conduct my daily life in France and Spain without any problems whatsoever. However, when I started my first graduate job, a matter of weeks post-graduation, working in European finance for a large multi-national company, I rapidly realised that I had much to learn in terms of corporate financial terminology!
Turning now to the act of translation: this can be an activity as simple as transferring words from one language into another. Rather like the kind of ‘translation’ I performed on my early family holidays. However, often professional translators work with complex, specialist or technical texts. Translating then becomes much more than the simple transfer of words and the translator must focus on producing a target text that transfers the meaning of the source text in a manner that is accurate, reliable and appropriate to its intended audience and function.
Professional translators must have their wits about them. An overly literal translation is rarely acceptable and the translator must consider every aspect of their translated text: lexical, functional and cultural elements, to name but a few.
A translator must have an eye for detail and will have, more often than not, an in-depth knowledge of their chosen specialism. Translating a legal document, for example, requires the knowledge and skill to produce a flawlessly written legal text in the translator’s target language. Likewise, translators specialising in marketing slogans must have a thorough awareness and understanding of both the source and target cultures to ensure that their translations are appropriate and effective for their target audience. A quick internet search for ‘marketing translation fails’ reveals countless brands that have made errors due to a lack of cultural understanding and awareness. Errors that professional freelance translators cannot afford to make.
So, if we have established that a person with knowledge of a second language can translate words from one language to another, but that this fact does not necessarily make them translators, then, logically, we should consider how linguists can learn the relevant skills to become proficient, capable translators.
A course such as the MA in Translation Studies at Exeter provides the perfect opportunity for those who have the knowledge of a second (or third…) language, to develop their ability to translate and become skilled translators. I recall many years ago being asked to translate a legal letter for a family friend who was in the process of purchasing a house in France. Whilst I had the ability to understand the words, and look up the direct meaning of the words I didn’t know, I realised that I certainly wasn’t capable of reproducing the letter accurately and, importantly, reliably in English. I learnt then to truly value the skills of the professional translator and understood that being bilingual did not mean that I could automatically consider myself a translator. Having now successfully graduated from the Translation Studies course at Exeter, I am proud to say, at last, that I feel able to call myself a ‘Freelance Translator’!

[1] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/bilingualism

[2] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/bilingualism

Career paths after studying MA Translation Studies

By Rebecca Ellerker, Freelance Translator

MA Translation Studies

Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey 2018 reveals that students undertake a postgraduate taught programme, such as the MA in Translation Studies, for reasons related to career and employment prospects. Typically, students studying the MA in Translation Studies are motivated by their personal interest in languages or a particular area of the translation industry. They often embark on the course with a view to pursuing a career in the translation sector, or even a career change towards translation.

An MA in Translation Studies is an industry recognised qualification and prospective employers are increasingly seeking professionally qualified applicants. Graduates of the programme, at the University of Exeter, know that they have the skills to set them apart from less-qualified rivals and are employed across a range of jobs in the translation and languages sector. A commonly asked question by prospective students of the programme is, what jobs do graduates actually end up doing after their studies?

This blog entry will explore some of the common career paths followed by Translation Studies graduates.

There are several career pathways available in the translation sector that hold different levels of appeal for each individual. The impact a career has on lifestyle is an important factor to consider: where to live; whether to work individually or as part of a team; a willingness to live abroad or to relocate to a new town / city; flexible working hours or a more fixed routine. Other considerations relate specifically to the area of the translation sector an individual is wanting to pursue, such as making use of any pre-existing specialisms, a tendency towards literary / non-literary translation, or a desire to be creative and have more freedom.

Having considered these areas, many graduates follow one (or more) of the career options below:

• Freelance translator

Freelance translators are self-employed and usually work from home. Freelancers are able to pursue a range of different translation options including both literary and non-literary texts, general translation and many opt to develop their own specialism. Freelance translators work with clients directly or secure work through an agency. The freelancer is responsible for every aspect of their business; in addition to concentrating on providing quality translations to their clients, they must also dedicate time to securing work, responding to emails and developing their marketing strategy, producing accurate quotes and invoices and showing commitment to maintaining their professional development. Freelancing and self-employment can be wonderfully flexible and rewarding; however, working alone from home may not suit everyone.

• In-house translator

Many large international companies who have a regular high demand for translation will employ in-house translators. This can be a great way for translators to gain valuable experience and build a specialism. While the work may not be as varied as freelancing (depending on the company in question), being employed (rather than self-employed) can offer more job security and has particular benefits. Often graduates who take positions as in-house translators will progress their careers and secure promotions either in a different company or in the same one. It is fairly common for graduates to gain experience in-house before looking to go freelance.

• Translation Project Manager

This is another employed option where successful graduates work in the translation industry, often for a Language Service Provider (LSP) or a translation agency. Project Managers ensure that translation jobs are completed on time and to a high standard. They will liaise with clients to secure work and negotiate appropriate rates, and then analyse the documents to find a suitable translator to complete the translation. Project Managers are responsible for the work flow from initial client enquiry through to final delivery. This can be an excellent way to gain industry experience and develop contacts. Translation Project Managers can progress within their roles to more senior positions with additional responsibilities.

• Post-translation Editor

This position can overlap with certain elements of the Translation Project Manager role; however, many translation agencies employ editors specifically to review the work of translators. Editors fine tune a text before it is delivered to the client, ensuring that it is of high quality, that it is accurate and written in an appropriate style. Editors will look for orthographical and typographical errors and will make appropriate corrections. They are also responsible for ensuring that the original meaning of the text is retained and is expressed in authentic natural-sounding language, any quotations included are referenced accurately and any style-guides used are adhered to.

• Transcreation and copy-writing

There are times when translators will be called upon to be more creative and rather than work from a finalised source text, they are required to use their cultural knowledge to adapt a source text when necessary to ensure that it will function in the target culture as intended. This can often mean changing a text substantially from the original and requires the translator to have a thorough understanding, not only of the languages and cultures in question, but also of the purpose and function of the text. The translator must ‘translate’ the text and at the same time ‘recreate’ it. It may be that there is no concrete source text at all, but rather a comprehensive set of instructions from a client about what it is that they are wanting to achieve. This type of work offers much more scope for creativity and many translators offer a combination of services including transcreation and copy-writing.

• Further academic study

Some graduates choose to continue their academic study and embark on a PhD programme in a field related to Translation Studies. Students who choose this option will either apply for funding or self-fund their programme.

To find out more here about the University of Exeter’s MA Translation Studies course.

Mentoring and professional development – part 2

‘Industry Panel Days’ are often organised for MA Translation Studies students


Written by MA Translation Studies graduate Rebecca Ellerker

The previous blog post concentrated on the culture of mentoring between academic staff and students. In this post I would like to highlight the many opportunities for students to work with leading industry professionals, in addition to the many different ways in which the MA in Translation Studies programme has been designed to ensure that graduates have rigorous professional training.

At the very heart of the programme there is an emphasis on providing students with the industry’s required knowledge, understanding and skills. In fact, the quality and standard of the MA in Translation Studies at Exeter is recognised by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL). The university is rightly proud to be one of the CIOL’s preferred education providers, meaning that successful students (following external verification and moderation) are awarded exemption from one of the units in the Diploma in Translation (the CIOL’s gold standard professional qualification). In addition, the Institute of Translating and Interpreting (ITI) recognise the standard of the MA programme and offer the prestigious MITI status to high achieving graduates (those with a translation dissertation and a distinction overall and or those with a merit overall, but having gained a distinction grade in their translation dissertation), who have demonstrated sufficient professional experience.  Students are eligible (and encouraged) to join both organisations as student members, allowing them to experience the professionally high standards of the industry and the many benefits of belonging to these organisations.

Focusing on the academic content of the programme, the course has been developed to ensure that students have wide exposure to as many different areas of the translation industry as possible. Such is the emphasis on professional development that many of the assignments have been devised to provide students with opportunities to hone the skills required not only to work as a translator, but also to secure work and understand the professional role and responsibilities of a translator. Students can experience industry-standard activities such as a mock-pitch to a potential publisher, subtitling a short clip and acting as an interpreter at a conference. In fact, interpreting proved to be such a popular experience that a new module, ‘Introduction to Interpreting,’ was launched in September 2018. Alongside modules in translation theory and the practice of translation, module choices  are available to allow students to concentrate their professional development in areas that interest them most, be it specialist or literary translation. There is also the option of embarking on a work placement/project, or a module that focuses specifically on the translation profession and the use of CAT tools (computer-assisted translation).

Alongside this very thorough academic programme, the course tutors have worked tirelessly to use their networks, contacts and alumni to provide an enriching programme of events and experiences designed to boost students’ professional development and their exposure to the professional industry. There are many opportunities to meet and engage with leading industry experts, many of whom work in local translation companies, are freelance translators, or have close links with the professional bodies. There are special guest lectures on offer where professionals share their experiences and mentor students on topics ranging from setting up a freelance business, to working in particular translation fields, such as academic or technical translation.

Other professional-training events have included an ‘Industry Panel Day’ organised for Translation Studies students, at which a panel of five industry experts agreed to share their experience and top tips for working in the translation industry, as well as answer any questions posed by the students. The inspirational mentoring the students received at this event was invaluable and provided an insight into first-hand experiences of how to make a successful career in translation. Perhaps the most profitable part was the opportunity to informally network and make lasting contacts over lunch.

Translation Studies students may also take field trips, such as the one I went on to London to visit one of the top Language Service Providers (LSP) in the country. Students were given a presentation by the company and were then invited to complete a mock-project management exercise. As before, the students were able to gain a real understanding of how the industry operates in practice and were able to add to their list of potential contacts.

This wide range of enriching experiences highlight Exeter’s commitment to ensuring their graduates are well-equipped in order to succeed and compete as professionals in the translation industry. It is clear that professional development and mentoring during the MA in Translation Studies go hand-in-hand; students are privileged to benefit from high quality input from the academic staff, as well as a diverse range of opportunities to profit from professional industry experts.