How to become a translator without a degree
Updated: Jun 9
I have had these same questions since I (finally) reached that point I was considered a professional freelancer, not somebody who does it for side money. How can one become a translator? How did you make it without a degree?
For me, it was chance work. I stumbled on this one-day field interpretation offer from a small government agency, which included translating technical documents after. Granted, I was terrible at it. It was challenging in ways I didn't expect, and I felt like a fraud for being paid. But it also stirred something in me.
I started working low-pay gigs. Test translation of one short paragraph would take me hours. I would work day and night, literally, and barely made 600 dollars a month. Now I'm specialized, with over 13 years of experience and pretty good records. My working hours and compensations have changed dramatically. I started while attending university, which I never graduated from. I don't have typical English fluency certifications and I was never asked to present one.
It's definitely possible to become a translator without a degree and survive, but people tend to dismiss it as one special case, especially in Korea. People cannot imagine landing a decent job in any field without a university degree and several certifications; if you are to work in languages, then native-level fluency must be added to that list. That means you have lived in the country for a long time, preferably born or educated in there. These can be a thing for sure, but there is more to it.
Before going into hows and whats about becoming a translator, let me share one of the most underappreciated truths.
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. When you read books and articles or watch movies and TV series with subtitles, you consume them for entertainment and information. You read the texts for that purpose.
When translating, you read to fully understand the intention of the original writing – what it's talking about and the way it's communicated. Then you need to find a way to deliver this, to make translations feel as similar as possible to the native speakers of that target language. Failing that, your translation may be technically correct but not as "valuable". Let's say you're translating a guide for subscribers who wish to cancel a service or want a refund. You are addressing already irritated people and the last thing you want is to pick the wrong tone for your translation that will intensify the negative feeling. It can be damaging to the brand and the client who pays you for this translation. If you want to be a translator and succeed, you need to think beyond literal accuracy.
If you feel your fluency isn't an issue to start translating but have no idea how to begin, here are some pointers and considerations you may find helpful.
Train and learn from people who are better than you
You may not find any paid opportunities early on and it's okay. All you need is the source and reference translation that you can compare to your version. You can practice on texts from websites of global brands offering different display languages, or do it with a book in two versions (the original one and a translated version with good reviews) or with a movie script. Translate them on your own, then compare and study the differences from the professional work. They are not necessarily always better than yours and you may be able to improve them further. Either way, you can learn a lot from the process.
Depending on what you try to translate, you will also need to consider the length and readability. If the texts are to be displayed on a screen, you should know how to cut the lines without interrupting the flow. It will have to match what's on the screen as well. If it's a technical document, take some time off after you finish and then read them out loud (or have someone read for you), without looking at the source. 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.
I highly recommend joining Proz.com and other communities for translators and interpreters. They are like a LinkedIn for linguists. You can find job opportunities and you will get to check out potential clients as well. You may also find useful tips and help from fellow translators from all around the world. 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.
Another perk is a group-buy or partnership deal of popular CAT software at a great discount. If you're wondering what CAT tools are, I will explain later in this post.
Apply to translation agencies and get started
Once you get the hang of it, start applying and take test translations. Agencies will ask you for a CV but it's to check for any work experience you might have. Your bachelor's or master's degree won't automatically grant you a job. Even with decent work history, they will still ask for a test first.
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. Otherwise, ask them to pay for the extra time you will have to put away to complete the test (in general standards, not how long it takes you personally).
As a beginner, you won't have much negotiating power and it's very difficult to raise the rate later with the same agency. Most times you will have to find new agencies to do that – this is important information to keep in mind when picking your first agency. 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 subcontractor. You won't be paid the best rate at this point anyway, so it's better to start with smaller agencies that also handle high-profile projects. Build your experience and move on when you are ready.
During the first couple of years at work, you will learn (or be required to learn) one or more of what's called CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools. You will also learn about the general localization process, how to run QA (quality assessment) on your work before delivery, and other steps that help you avoid errors and be more efficient.
Realize your writing habits – turn them into your competitive advantage or get rid of the undesirable ones
Pay attention to your speaking or writing habits reflected in your translation. And pay attention to feedback. Does your work seem to be received well in a particular field or job type? Or is there a type of work you get negative comments on a bit too often? Your preferences and interests may change after actually working on a project. It's okay to test out early on and you will soon be able to pick what you want to specialize in. It could be an industry or a sub-field of translation like subtitling, transcreation, or poetry.
You can choose to go for the ones your style seems to work better or identify the habits that will work against you. If you're passionate about working on jewellery, for instance, it wouldn't help when your words sound like a science article.
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 terms or find references every time just to understand what the hell they are talking about.
That being said, you should always research everything you are not 100% sure of. Double-checking is not an option but a must. Your familiarity and interest will help you save time and effort. That's a big advantage you can have over your competitors.
Invest in technology
Translating large volumes of documents can be challenging. It can take days, weeks, or even years, and often several translators will be working on the same project. That means the same word or expression can be translated differently based on who took the part. It will be super confusing for the users above all, and it will be a big mess when there has been a change that needs to be reflected in the translation. A big portion of it may have already been translated before you got the job. How will you make sure your part sounds like the rest?
Your agency, if they know what they are doing, will give you access to a glossary and style guide for the project. Many clients also treat legacy translations as a corporate asset, which you are expected to follow. If the same sentence had been translated and will be used the same, they naturally don't want to pay for it multiple 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. It's a smart idea to invest your time to get used to at least a couple of them as quickly as possible. They all share some basic principles, so it will be much easier afterwards.
A license for most CAT tools is quite expensive. Don't worry. You can start with a trial version and sometimes agencies provide one for you. When you do decide to get a license, always check for special offers and discounts through the communities I mentioned above.
Also get a proper 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 flawless. 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 the issue. There are so many ways you can start right now. But I don't think people ask me how to start; I think they are asking how to make it a proper, rewarding, and profitable career they can grow on and be proud of. Not having a degree is not a barrier indeed, it was never a problem for me.
The challenges you will need to overcome are something else. 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 while 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. More often than not, it's a game of endurance. It's a highly technical profession and it sure takes more time and experience to find your feet. But if you are like me, you will find it worth the investment. Be patient and keep on, you will get there. Good luck!