Do I Really Need a Translation Degree?

“I’d like to be a freelance translator, but I don’t have a degree in translation.”

Are you wondering if you have what it takes to be a freelance translator? I always knew I loved languages. I also wanted to help people from different cultures communicate. Even though I had done some informal translations for friends and family, I wasn’t sure if I could be a professional translator without a degree in translation. It turns out, I’m not alone!

A woman with long hair looks thoughtful between two tall stacks of books.

Did you know??? A recent survey on the educational backgrounds of freelance translators found that only 29% of respondents hold a first degree in translation. Most translators enter the profession after studying languages or by earning a degree in a different field.

So, what do you actually need to become a freelance translator?

  1. Bilingual fluency – Being bilingual is just the beginning, because just knowing two languages doesn’t mean that you can translate. Good freelance translators have near-native skills in at least one foreign language. Do you regularly read and write in your foreign language? Can you sing along to songs on the radio or understand comedy shows? Then you’ve probably achieved the level of fluency you need to translate. Many translators have also spent a significant amount of time in places where their second language is spoken.
  2. Strong writing skills – Good translators must be good writers in their native language. As a general rule, we only translate into our mother tongue, or target language. Readers should not notice that the text is a translation. Your job is to understand and convey literary nuances in the source language. Translators write clearly, without adding or subtracting information. A strong vocabulary and a good set of dictionaries are a must. Errors will distract your readers from the intended message, so you should always proofread before delivering a document.
  3. Love to learn – Freelance translation involves a lot of background reading across a range of subjects. There are many different project topics that will land in your inbox. I’ve translated everything from medical reports to market research on chewing gum packages, from TV scripts to sustainability reports. In order to translate correctly, I need to read a lot about different industries. Make sure you keep up with the news in your source and target languages because you’ll see current events and scientific developments crop up in your project topics.
  4. Bachelor’s or Master’s degree – Guess what?! Your degree does not have to be in translation! Most professional translators have a first degree in languages. But what if you studied business or engineering or gastronomy? Good news! You’ve already got an area of specialization that translation agencies will view as an asset, because of your insider terminology. I studied Spanish and Politics as an undergraduate, and earned a MA in Political Science. When applying to agencies, I optimize my resume to highlight my areas of experience and specialized knowledge (don’t worry; I can teach you how to do this). Studying translation theory is a definite asset, and if you have a first degree in translation, it will serve you well. But for the rest of us, there are courses available that teach you how to translate for specific industries, without shelling out for a four-year degree.
  5. You want to be your own boss – This is my favorite part about being a freelance translator! It’s wonderful to have the freedom to choose your own projects and set your own schedule. Over the years, I’ve focused on different industries at different times. I started translating market research and oil and gas engineering. Then, there was a stretch where I mainly worked on legal documents (contracts and lawsuits). Now, I translate a lot of immigration documents and sustainability reports, and I edit medical and pharmaceutical texts. Two years ago, I started working in audiovisual translation. I adapt subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and translate TV scripts for major streaming services. And best of all, I’m able to schedule my project work around our homeschool activities, doctor’s appointments, and frequent travel.
  6. Bonus skill – You’re nosy! Often, privileged information will come through your inbox before it’s available to the general public. Often, you’ll need to sign an NDA and make sure that your computer is secure before working on certain projects. Why? Because you’ll get a sneak peek at products in development, focus group reactions to marketing campaigns, or TV shows that haven’t been aired yet. Sometimes, I need to work through proxy servers with multiple layers of authentication in order to protect project secrecy. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s also really fun to be in the know, and to recognize your work when you go to the store or scroll through streaming options!
A newspaper with a cup of coffee and some blueberries.

So, even if you don’t have a degree in translation, you do have the skills to start your freelance career. If you are fluent in a foreign language and are a strong writer in your mother tongue, you’re already on your way. If you are curious, love to learn new things, and already have a degree (in anything), you’re good. Your next step is to learn the basic business skills to market and sell your language services.

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