Why go with a professional translator? Why not just find someone in-house who knows Spanish (German, Mandarin, etc.)?

A. Translation is not simply a matter of typing in a foreign language or having someone who “knows” a language shoot a phrase out into that language. The fact that someone “knows” the original language carries no guarantee that his or her translation will read naturally in the target language or be faithful to the original text while taking key cultural and linguistic nuances into account. These factors become absolutely critical when sensitive or “sticky” documents like marketing materials, human resources manuals, or legal contracts are being drafted.

Producing a good translation is a very labor-intensive task, far more labor-intensive than many monolingual business owners realize. Often, when in-house employees are asked to do the translation, it isn’t part of their regular responsibilities and they aren’t compensated for their extra labor. They have no incentive to take the extra time and effort that the work requires, so they (understandably) do a “quick and dirty” version that will allow them to get back to their regular tasks. This could create an explosive situation once the document is disseminated to its audience. It is usually only then that a professional translator is called in to clean up the mess, and the company comes “out the pocket” twice – in wasted time spent by the employee, and in paying the translator – when it should have paid only once, at the beginning of the project when it first had the opportunity to hire a professional translator.

For important documents, go with professional translators who are committed to the process of translating and have a vested interest in doing their job right. You can be sure that professional translators will translate your documents with care and accuracy. They have native fluency in the target language so that the finished product is not a stilted, literal word-for-word translation (or they always have a qualified native speaker proofread their work if they are not themselves a native speaker of the target language). They perform research on the topic so that they completely understand what they’re translating, which ensures accurate, correct terminology. Also, good translators draw on their entire experience – all the intellectual capital they possess – while working on each translation. As a result, your finished product is extremely value-added.

When looking for a translator, try to find one with extensive cultural experience, a native command of the target language, a broad-based education, proper methodological training, and excellent research skills. These indispensable assets are what separate the professional translator from someone who just “translates.”

Q. Why not buy translating software? Won’t it do the job faster?

A. Yes, but not well! Unless you only wish to translate standard business letters, or you need an instantaneous draft translation of something to “find out what it says” and make a quick decision, machine translation (MT) software that automatically translates text for you is a waste of money. These programs make ridiculously inaccurate word choices and are completely insensitive to context and cultural nuances. (To see what I mean, click here to check out a page that was created with MT software.) They do not take into account that translation is an art, not a science; and human languages are living, organic, constantly changing organisms that do not have one-to-one correspondences and are not simply “codes” to be “decoded” and “encoded” into other languages. The wealth of human creativity and experience, which is the lifeblood of translation, can never be distilled into algorithms.

In recognition of this, the software industry has steered away from the production of MT tools to focus on computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. CAT tools, unlike MT tools, don’t attempt to replace human translators outright, but are designed to assist them in the translation process and help them do their work with more consistency and greater efficiency and productivity. CAT tools include translation memory managers (TMMs), which are programs that store translations previously done by the human translator along with the original text in a database called a translation memory (TM). During the translation of a new text, the TM retrieves translated segments for re-use in the new text, and the human translator approves, rejects, or edits the segment to incorporate it into the new text. TMMs are especially helpful when translating large, repetitive texts, technical or legal documents, or any time when consistency of terminology and style is an absolute must. Two very popular TMMs are TRADOS and Déjà Vu, although the industry has plenty of other solid offerings and is coming out with new and improved stuff all the time.

Q. Okay, I’m convinced. But I have a document that’s in a language and/or subject that you don’t work with. Where can I find a professional translator who can handle my document?

A. Try the American Translators Association first – it’s the national trade association for professional translators. Its online directory lists professional translators in their respective language combinations, many of whom are ATA-accredited. Next, you can try contacting your local ATA chapter. You can find your local ATA chapter through the ATA website. You can also browse Proz.com and Translatorscafe.com, which are popular online communities for translators. If you use these sites, it is helpful to have prior experience working with translators so you can parse the profiles and find exactly what you’re looking for.  Finally, if you would prefer to have a direct referral, just click on the “Contact Me” link to the right of this page and I’ll be happy to provide you with a referral to a colleague I trust.

Q. We have a huge technical document that needs translating. 300 pages or 100,000 words, with embedded graphs and tables. And we need it by EOD Friday. (It’s Tuesday.) Can you do that?

A. Heck, no. Not by myself. Not unless I forego all biological needs and functions and hook myself up to a caffeine drip. And if another freelance translator tells you that he or she can get it done for you in that time frame, that translator doesn’t grasp the scope of the job or is flat-out lying to you.


Most good translators can translate an average of 2000 to 4000 words a day, or 8 to 16 pages, without CAT tools before the quality of the work starts to go south. With CAT tools, translators can translate more, but most likely no more than 30 pages a day, max. These figures do not take into account factors like complex formatting and graphics, badly written source text, the absence of reference documents from the client, and terminology issues, all of which slow the translator down significantly.

To get the job done successfully, with accuracy and consistency, in this ultra-tight time frame, you’ll have to hire an entire team of specialized translators, which would take at least a day or so to locate, screen, and hire on your own. You don’t have that kind of time, so you’ll need to go through an agency. They’ve already done the searching and screening for you, and as an organization, they have resources at their command that even the best and most technically savvy freelancer by him/herself does not have. It will, of course, cost more money to go through an agency than to hire a freelancer directly, but if you want a quality document in the time frame you specified, you don’t have any other options unless you’re willing to adjust your other parameters: extend that deadline by at least three weeks, or shorten the length by replacing some of the text with simple pictures wherever possible or eliminating certain sections. A translator can review the document for you and give you a quick oral or written summary of each section so that you can decide which section(s) are irrelevant and can be eliminated.

Q. We’re having a hard time finding a reasonably priced translator for our document. The last one we spoke to quoted us $0.25 per word! Why is professional translation so expensive?

A. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s surprisingly affordable. But when you have a a technical or legal document with complex terminology, a document laden with Byzantine formatting and graphics, a document with a very tight deadline (e.g., a “rush” doc), or a document with all of the above issues (!!), the price will go up accordingly. Most likely, your document has one or more of these issues and these translators are simply factoring that into their estimates. A good translator will explain the issues with your document and take the time to educate you so that you can better understand what is required for your document and what is involved in the translation process.

Q. I’m on a tight budget. Can I just have you do a “rough” translation of my document? I just want to see what it says.

A. It depends on what the situation is. “Rough” translations or translations “for informational purposes only” take almost as much work as a final draft, but would contain errors that would affect the accuracy of the message. What it would say would be a little different from what the writer originally intended. This is okay for certain situations, such as translating a routine interoffice memo, but definitely not okay for outbound documents in litigation, medicine, marketing or sales, or other areas where precision and sensitivity are crucial.

If you’re on a tight budget, why not just tell me about your document in the “Free Estimate” section of this site? Your information might help me come up with some options that could be attractive to you.

Q. Can you provide me with a sample of your work so I can decide whether your services are right for me?

A. I don’t believe in maintaining a portfolio of sample translations because there is no guarantee for the prospective client that I was actually the one who did the work. For all they know, the work could have been done by another translator on the sly at my request, or I could even have ripped the samples off of another website and passed them off as my own work. Yes, I’ve seen translators do these things.

So that you can have a reasonable degree of assurance that I do quality work and the work is indeed my own, feel free to send me a short paragraph of the document via the “Contact Me” link to the right of this page so that I can give you a quick, short test translation at no cost to you.




Q. What’s the difference between translation and interpretation?

A. Translation is the conversion of the written word from the original language into a target language, while interpretation deals with the conversion of the spoken word. Although the two terms are used interchangeably in the media, translation and interpretation are very different professions … and interpretation isn’t just the oral translation of words from one language into another.

Since translation deals with the conversion of written text, that conversion takes place in a static setting and at a much more deliberate pace than interpretation. Interpretation is a far more dynamic, fluid, and instantaneous process and takes place at lightning speed.

Translation and interpretation also involve completely different methodologies. Translation requires sequential, systematic thought, an acute eye, and an impeccable grasp of written nuance and detail. In interpretation, there is practically no time to think, so the ability to process information at an extremely fast pace, accompanied by a good deal of sangfroid, is essential. Interpretation also demands excellent public speaking skills and an acute ear. (Individuals who can do a good job in both fields are the truly gifted ones!)

Traits common to both professions are great powers of concentration, a willingness to constantly expand one’s knowledge and vocabulary, and a willingness to work with any and every area of human activity, from integrated circuits to winemaking to currency exchange to animal husbandry to mine detonation.

Q. How do I become a professional translator and get translation work?

A. Translation is an extremely rewarding calling, and brings a great deal of challenge and satisfaction to dedicated practitioners of the profession. At the same time, some aspects of the profession can be a PITA, and only a love of languages will carry you through those tough situations. If you don’t truly love languages – indeed, have a passion for them - a career in translation is not for you.

That said, if you’re committed to becoming a translator, you should complete some sort of program in translation studies in order to obtain a degree, accreditation, or certification in translation. This will give you a tangible benchmark of your expertise and credibility to show to potential clients, and will enable you to take advantage of many work opportunities that you would not otherwise have had access to due to a lack of credentials. Many clients and agencies won’t even look at you if you don’t have some sort of degree, accreditation, or certification, and rightly so.

If you have little or no prior translation experience and are interested in learning about translation methodology and the actual translation process, a university certification program is more appropriate for you. Try calling the universities in your area to see which, if any, offer a translation certification program. If you are willing to relocate, two of the country’s best programs are at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, and Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. NYU has a good online certification program if you can’t relocate. But to even be admitted into one of these formal programs, you must have complete (native) command of the language that you wish to translate into (with extremely rare exceptions, this will be your mother tongue), and have at the very least a university-level proficiency in the language that you plan to translate from. If you don’t have university-level proficiency in that language, it is absolutely crucial that you take intensive courses in that language for as long as you have to in order to reach university-level proficiency and apply to a certification program.

Note: It’s a misconception that you have to be perfectly fluent in the language you translate from. You don’t need to be perfectly fluent in the language that you translate from; just the language you translate into. Of course, if you’re perfectly fluent in the source language as well, so much the better, because that makes you more efficient and cuts down on the time you need to research unfamiliar words and concepts. But the bottom line is that a university-level mastery over the source language and native mastery of the target language are the absolute minimum requirements.

If you have prior translation experience and simply need some credentials to prove that you can translate well and are serious about it, taking an accreditation exam to become accredited with a local or national accreditation organization, such as the American Translators Association, is the way to go.

Once you’ve gotten your credentials, it’s time to decide whether you want to pursue an in-house career or take the freelancing route. If you choose to freelance, theoretically you could start right in with freelance translation work and get enough work to sustain a full-time freelance translation career. However, in real life it takes years (at least three to five years, and that’s if you’re good) to build up your freelance translation business so that you have enough work to go full-time. In the meantime, you’ll need to play it safe for the sake of your financial security and hang on to your day job, translating part-time evenings and weekends. The money you’ll be making from translation will be “gravy” in addition to your full-time salary, and you’ll be free to use this “gravy” to build up your translation business (software, computer equipment, dictionaries, etc.) without having to pay for such items out of your full-time salary, which you’ll need for other more important expenses like paying your bills and buying food! When you get to the point where your workload is around 50/50, where at least 50% of your total workload is from translating and no more than 50% is from the work that you do in your full-time job, then – and only then – can you safely make the leap to a full-time freelance translation career. If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Gee … that sounds like a lot of late nights and hard work,” you’re right, it will be! You must prepare yourself mentally for this. It’s sort of like embarking on a career in law or medicine: if you don’t burn for it and aren’t willing to bleed for it, don’t even try to go there. The PROFESSION – and the clients who use it – need PROFESSIONALS, not dabblers.

I’ve emphasized the words “profession” and “professionals” above because a surprising number of people inside and outside the industry don’t realize that translation is truly a profession, just like law, medicine, or architecture, and do not treat it as such. There are too many clients out there who are misled to believe that anybody can translate if they “know the language,” and in the same vein, there are too many wannabe translators who have taken a couple of language courses and are misled to believe that they can just start translating and boom!, like magic, they’re a translator and can translate anything that comes their way. That’s like someone trying to practice neurosurgery on a brain tumor patient after he/she has attended a couple of premed courses and read a few textbooks, but has no license to practice, has not passed the board examinations, and worse, has not acquired the experience or specialization needed to help the patient and do a satisfactory job. He/she could go ahead and perform the surgery, but not without harming or killing the patient due to a lack of experience and specialization, and he/she would certainly be sued for practicing without a license or credentials. It’s the same way with professional translation – or at least it ought to be. To be successful as a professional translator, you must go through many years of pre-career preparation in languages before you even get to the point where you can translate, and then you must specialize. Again: it takes many years to prepare yourself for a career like this. If you don’t passionately love languages and don’t burn for it and aren’t willing to bleed for it, don’t even try to go there. Please.

Now, if what I’ve said above hasn’t scared you off, let’s discuss how to get freelance translation work. I recommend that you start out by working for lots of agencies. That’s how I started out, and to this day they still make up at least 75% of my client portfolio. It’s an excellent way to get started because you’ll get a steady stream of assignments – and therefore, a steady stream of income – from the ones who like your work and your professional approach. This in turn will give you excellent on-the-job training, which is good because in this industry, you learn only by doing, and the more work you do, the more you learn. Agencies are usually quite a bit more willing to take a chance on new translators, and they also have many resources to help you if you need assistance with a particular assignment. Sure, they have to take their percentage, which means you get paid a little less than you would if you worked with the end clients directly, but the tradeoff is that they do all the marketing, negotiation, and pavement-pounding for you with regard to the end clients, so all you have to do is focus on your work. Later, as you polish your skills and gain confidence and expertise in your favorite fields, you can always take on more direct clients.

Volunteer translating, when done in internationally-oriented venues that attract a lot of people who might later be your clients, is also a great way to get your feet wet and build some experience at no risk to either you or the volunteer organization. You’ll be translating in an environment that will likely be warmer, friendlier, and less pressured than most traditional for-profit corporate environments, which is great for when you need mentoring and detailed feedback on your work. You’ll also feel good knowing you are helping a good cause. Later on, you’ll be able to present letters of recommendation from these organizations to the agencies, and they’ll be happy to take you on. And the people who put in volunteer time along with you will remember you by referring you to their employers.

If you’re interested in translation or interpretation as a profession, feel free to send me a message via the “Contact Me” link to the right of this page, and I’ll be happy to discuss these issues with you or refer you to the appropriate resources or contacts to set you on the right path.