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Thinking of a Career in Languages or Translation? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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With more than 7 billion people currently living on the planet speaking roughly 7,000 languages, it is no surprise that there is a high demand for translators to bridge linguistic and cultural divides and bring people and communities together.

Worldwide, the language industry is valued at over US$43 billion, with North America representing at least a third of this market. Canada alone, despite having only 0.5% of the world’s population, accounts for a full 10% of the global translation market. And within Canada, Quebec is the undisputed epicentre of translation, with approximately 6,000 translators working in the province and 80% of the country’s translators educated here.

What does a translator actually do?

Traditionally, a translator’s job has been to convert a text written in a source language into a target language, while maintaining the original meaning and taking the target context into account. More recently, however, the lines between translation and its sister professions have blurred.

Nowadays, translation is seen as one of many professions in what is broadly referred to as the language industry, which includes copywriters, revisers, editors, terminologists, interpreters, transcreators, localizers, language consultants and translation project managers, to name a few.

Today’s translators, especially those working as independent contractors, tend to move fluidly from one sphere of the language industry to the next – and will be expected to do so more and more as the marketplace continues to evolve.

Where do translators work?

In Quebec, almost half of working translators are in private practice and this proportion is on the rise. The rest are employed by various levels of government, international organizations, legal, accounting and insurance firms, academic and financial institutions, private corporations, non-profits, translation agencies and others. It is not uncommon for individual translators to acquire experience both in-house and as a freelancer over the course of their career, sometimes even bouncing back and forth, or combining the two, as opportunities arise.

What is the market like for translators?  

Opportunities for job seekers and entrepreneurs alike remain strong in today’s Canadian translation industry. Case in point: the Translation Bureau, Canada’s largest employer of language professionals, has committed to developing the next generation of employees by hiring a minimum of 50 translation students each year for five years to add to its complement of 1,250 full-time employees, including 900 translators.

For those who dream of running their own business, the longer-term outlook is also favourable: in Quebec, according to the findings of a survey of over 400 translators conducted in 2012 by the

Association des travailleurs autonomes et micro-entreprises en services linguistiques (now the Carrefour des langagiers entrepreneurs / Language Entrepreneurs Forum or CLEF), a typical freelance translator has roughly 14 years of experience and enjoys a relatively steady flow of work.

What does the future hold?

The demand for language professionals is expected to grow in the coming years across North America. In Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada forecasts a 12% increase between 2016 and 2026 in the “translators, terminologists and interpreters” category. And U.S. Department of Labor statistics are even more optimistic, with a projected 29% rate of growth between 2014 and 2024.

For Quebec, this presents a unique challenge: the average age of translators has been slowly increasing in past years. That means a pressing need for fresh new talent to make their mark on the industry – people who are passionate about language and culture, who love to learn new things every day, who have an affinity for technology and who are excited to embark on the adventure that is a career in translation.

What is a typical day like for a freelance translator?

For freelance language professionals, there really is no such thing as a typical day. Their schedule is inevitably dictated by their clients’ needs. The 2012 survey mentioned above indicates that approximately two-thirds of clients come from direct sources (businesses, public-sector organizations, non-profits, etc.) while one-third are translation agencies. On average, their roster includes anywhere from one to eight clients. That means being able to juggle various, and often conflicting, requirements simultaneously.

The advantages to the freelance life, however, are frequently touted by those who deem themselves lucky enough to enjoy them. Self-employed translators tend to have the freedom to arrange their work hours around family and other commitments, and many take advantage of modern technology to embrace a lifestyle as a digital nomad. Then there are the added personal benefits of, shall we say, “wardrobe flexibility”:

What skills do I need to become a translator?

Being a translator requires an in-depth understanding of the language(s) being translated from, as well as high-level writing and communication skills in the language being translated to (the translator’s first language) – not to mention a solid grasp of the respective cultural contexts. But those are not the only qualifications it takes to excel.

To forge a successful career, translators require an array of what are known as “soft skills.” These include intellectual curiosity, resourcefulness and cultural awareness – a must for being a top-notch and responsible researcher, which is the first step in learning, writing and transferring knowledge about a given topic. A good sense of judgment and discretion is key to dealing with potentially sensitive subject matter and being able to communicate effectively with clients. Excellent attention to detail is necessary to steer clear of mistakes in word choice, meaning, grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. Efficiency and self-motivation are two essential qualities in staying disciplined, which is especially important for translators working from a home office. The flexibility to manage tight and constantly changing deadlines is part and parcel of the profession. Last but not least, computer savviness is crucial to be able to master standard office productivity software and learn a range of industry-specific applications.

In terms of hard skills, aspiring language professionals must hone their translation, writing, research and terminology capabilities and acquaint themselves with commonly used tools and techniques. This requires formal education both at the beginning of their career and throughout.

How can a translator get ahead in the industry?

Specialization

Chris Durban, translator and author of The Prosperous Translator, emphasizes that “[f]or most language combinations, specialization holds the key to building a practice that is both intellectually stimulating and lucrative.”

In high-demand sectors such as law, business, marketing and transcreation, energy and natural resources, transportation, investing, corporate reports, international development, healthcare and others, there is ample opportunity for language professionals to carve out a niche for themselves in the premium market by leveraging a combination of education and experience.

Broader perspective

To stay ahead, language professionals need to position themselves as strategic partners in their clients’ overall communications strategy. They must develop a granular understanding of what makes their clients tick and use this knowledge to optimize branding opportunities with designated target audiences in the translated language.

In other words, they are “not simply providing a client with a piece of paper in a new language. [They] are providing a solution to a problem that previously limited their business,” as Tess Whitty, author of The Marketing Cookbook for Translators, points out.

Technology

With two-thirds of language-service providers in Canada either using technolinguistic solutions to improve their efficiency and accuracy, or planning to do so in the next five years, it is clear that one of the best ways for translators to future-proof their career is to familiarize themselves with the tools of the trade. This is especially true when it comes to translation memory systems, an invaluable way for premium-market translators to maximize their productivity and complement their core skills.

What kind of education does it take to become a translator? 

There are many different university programs available at the undergraduate and graduate level. If you already have a degree and are looking for a shorter program to launch or advance your career in the language industry, McGill’s recently revised and updated Certificates in Translation (French to English,

English to French, and English to Spanish) and Graduate Certificate in Legal Translation have been designed to prepare students to excel in careers as in-house or freelance translators and language professionals with the latest tools, technologies and best practices, and courses tailored to the changing North American marketplace.

Quick links: Industry associations

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