• Mina Song

How to become a translator without a degree

Since I finally reached that point people started to consider me stabilized as a full-time freelancer, these have been the most asked questions. How can one become a translator? How did you make it without holding a degree?

For me, the beginning was when I stumbled on this one-day field interpretation offer from a small government agency, along with some technical document translation afterward. Granted, I was terrible at it. It was challenging in ways I didn’t expect, and I even felt like a fraud for being paid. But it also stirred something in me.

I started working low-pay translation gigs. Back then, test translation of one short paragraph would take me hours. I would literally work day and night and make 600 dollars a month or even less. Now, I’m a specialized translator with 13 years of experience and pretty good records. Things are very different now for both hours I work and how much I make. I started while attending university, which I never graduated from. I don’t even have typical English fluency certifications because I was never asked.

So yes, it’s definitely possible to become a translator without a degree and survive. But people find it hard to believe this can be their story as well. Especially in Korea. They cannot imagine landing on a decent job without a university degree and several certifications in any field; if you want to work in language, you must be very fluent, and the bar should be higher. All of these are true, but not the only truth.


Before going into hows and whats about becoming a translator, let me talk a bit about something that’s really important but not appreciated much.

Your reading and writing skills matter more than you might think

General fluency in your working pair (Korea-English in my case) is fundamental but it’s only the base. What you really need to improve on is your reading and writing skills.

Reading is different when you are a consumer. When you read books/news/articles and watch movies with subtitles, you are a consumer. You read for entertainment and information. Now, when you translate, you can’t read the source texts in the same way. You need to get the intention of the original writing – what it’s talking about and the way it’s communicated. Then you need to write in the target language in the way the intention and style of the source can be best delivered to native speakers of that target language. If you ignore either, your translation may not be technically incorrect, but it won’t have any value. Just imagine you are working on some written guide for subscribers who want to cancel a service or refund. A wrong choice of tone alone can upset people who are already unhappy with the service. That can seriously damage the way people remember the brand that just paid you for the translation. If you want to be a translator and successful, you need to think beyond technical accuracy.


If you feel your fluency isn’t an issue to start translating but have no idea how to really begin, here are some pointers and considerations you may find helpful.

Train and learn from people who are better than you

In the beginning, you may not find any paid opportunities and it’s okay. Actually, it’s better if you have some reference translations handy so you can compare them to yours when you are done. You can get texts from some online sites by simply changing the display language, find books in two versions (the original one and a translated version with good reviews), or find movie scripts online. Translate them on your own, then compare and note the differences between your translations and these done by professionals. The quality of reference translations is not necessarily better than yours all the time. That doesn’t mean you don’t have things to learn from them.

Depending on what you try to translate, you also need to consider the length and readability. If the texts show up on a screen, you need to know how to cut them right without interrupting the flow. It will have to match the video on display, too. If you are working on technical documents, take some time off and come back to it later. Then read them out loud without looking at the source or just have someone else to read the translations. If it makes you stutter or breathless, something is wrong. If it takes more than one read to comprehend it, something is wrong.

Provided that the original texts are well written, these should be the focus of your training. Be honest while you’re at it. It’s only good for the client when it’s good for the audience.

Join communities

I highly recommend joining Proz.com and other communities for translators and interpreters. Not only can you find and apply for job opportunities, but you can also find tips and help from fellow translators from all around the world. It’s useful because some of the questions or problems you will face are unique to this profession. And you don’t usually bump into another translator down the street.

You won’t need to be a paid member or even be active on forums to benefit. On Proz.com, for instance, you can find partnered offerings for most popular CAT tools at a great discount. If you’re wondering what are CAT tools, I will explain later in this post.

Apply for translation agencies to get started​

Once you get the hang of it, start applying agencies and take test translations. They will ask you for a CV but it’s for any work experience you might have. No agency will auto-hire you just because you have a degree or masters. Even with decent work history, they will still require a test before assigning any job.

  • Don’t accept tests that are longer than 300-500 words without a fee. This is a volume generally expected to take one or two hours maximum. You can either ask them to adjust the volume or pay for the extra time you will have to put away to complete the test (in general standards, not the time that will take you personally).

As a beginner, you won’t have much negotiating power and it’s very difficult to raise the rate later. Most times you will have to change the agency, so take that into account when you pick your first agencies to work with. Big agencies generally pay more because they deal directly with clients. They then outsource smaller agencies for some of the projects, which sometimes go through another subcontract. In other words, you can still work on high profile projects through smaller agencies, just the payment and time agencies can offer are not the same.

The first couple of years will be a real-world training and you will learn to use one or more translation software called CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools. You will learn to QA your own work before delivery, along with all other important things there are to know.

Realize your writing habits and turn them into your competitive advantage or get rid of them

Pay attention to your speaking or writing habits reflected in your translation. When you start working for clients either directly or through agencies, you’ll notice you get more positive feedback in certain areas but not in others. It’s okay to test out different fields early on. Sooner or later, though, you’ll have to pick what you want to specialize in (ideally no more than 3-4 industries).

You can either choose to go for the ones your style seems to work better or get rid of habits that restrict you from developing in the field you set on. If you speak like a scientist when translating a jewelry campaign, you won’t land another job.

A person’s language represents their interests and lifestyle. That’s why it’s good to work in an area that’s already part of your life. It’s a lot easier to talk about something you know or use in person. You know how to communicate with the target audience because you’re one. You don’t have to look up for terms or find references just to understand what the hell they are talking about.

Well, you must do the research on anything you are not 100% sure of anyways. Double-check is a necessary part of the job. So your familiarity and interest in the field definitely help as it allows you to deliver quality with less time and effort. That’s a big advantage you can have over your competitors.

Invest in technology

Translating large volume documents can be very challenging. It will take days, weeks, or even years, and often several translators will be working on the same project. How do you prevent from ending up with multiple versions of key terms and phrases? What about the ones that have already been translated? To ensure consistency across people and time, your agency will give you glossary files and style guides to follow (if they know what they’re doing). Many clients also treat translation data as an asset to manage because they don’t want to pay for translating the same texts a hundred times.

Enter CAT tools. The most widely used are SDL Trados and MemoQ. These are Windows-based software, but you can find Mac or Linux tools that can handle the commonly used file formats. In any case, it’s a smart idea to invest your time to get used to at least a couple of them as quickly as possible.

A license for most CAT tools is quite expensive. Don’t worry. You can start with a trial version or, if you’re lucky, your agency will set you up with a limited access one you can use exclusively for working on their projects. If you have to, don’t buy it off the website. Find group buy offers and special deals on forums, you can easily cut the price by half.

Make sure you have a grammar checker and other QA tools for ALL of your working languages. It might surprise you, but being a native doesn’t mean your work will be mistake-free. You will also realize that synonyms, collocations, and paraphrasing skills are just as important as grammar, and you should have a good knowledge of cultural and industrial references.


It's not about how to become – it’s about how to stay

You’d probably noticed (quite quickly) that becoming a translator isn’t that hard. There are so many ways for you to start right now. But I don’t think people ask me just how to become a translator. I think they want to know how to turn it into a proper, enjoyable, and profitable career they can grow on and be proud of. Not having a degree is not a barrier, especially when you start off freelancing. It was never a problem for me.

There are some challenges you will have to overcome for sure. Your translations must be conscious decisions, and you should be able to explain and defend your choice if someone challenges you just because it’s not literal or they are not familiar with the expression you used. Having ownership of your translations and keeping your ego down is not easy, but you will find the balance and be able to deal with it gracefully.

Most people don’t survive their first 2-3 years in their freelance venture, and it doesn’t only apply to translators. Don’t let that make you think it’s not worth it or you’re not good enough. Some careers are highly technical and have a longer learning curve. It sure takes more time to stabilize. Be patient and keep on, you will get there. Good luck!