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Lost in Translation: The Shortage of Translators and Interpreters

We live in a changing world. Because of the Internet, global trade and immigration, our societies are more diverse than ever. This diversity means there is a lot of work for translators and interpreters.

Translators work with written words and may change something written in English, for example, into another language. They can translate documents, books, websites, manuals, software, etc.

Interpreters, on the other hand, deal with the spoken word. They must be able to follow conversations in one language, determine what is being said, and then communicate those thoughts in a second language.

So if you are already fluent in two languages, you can become a translator or interpreter, right?

"Not at all," says Kevin Hendzel. He's the national media spokesman for the American Translators Association. "Does having two hands make you a concert pianist? Not by a long shot. You need your two hands, but it's just the barest start."

What else does it take to have a career in this field?

"Translators and interpreters must be bicultural," Hendzel explains. "They must have the ability to write fluently in their languages (translators) or maintain complex thoughts in memory for long periods (interpreters). They must be trained and mentored, have extensive experience and be able to convey complex subjects across cultural boundaries.

"Above all, they need to know a lot about the world. Translation and interpreting are about things -- politics, law, technology, physics, engineering. You have to understand these subjects to translate them. It's not about words. It's about what the words are about."

Marco A. Fiola agrees. He is an associate professor in a department of French and Spanish. As a language expert, Fiola understands that translating and interpreting go beyond simply speaking another language.

"Being fluent in two languages is the minimum requirement to learn how to translate," he says. "Translation can not be summed up as mere bilingualism. To assume that bilingualism is sufficient to translate is to underestimate grossly the enormity of the task at hand."

This is also a broad field. There are employment opportunities in many different areas. These areas include the government or military, commercial businesses, and the legal or health systems, among others. All are experiencing job growth -- that growth isn't expected to slow down.

"There are three reasons for the higher-than-average demand in translation and interpreting," explains Hendzel.

"The first is rapid globalization of business, which is driving demand across all industries and languages. This is reinforced by increasing requirements that products and services be delivered in the local language. The idea that English is the global language of business is long gone. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and the European languages are on the rise.

"The second reason is U.S. national security. This is by far the greatest change in the last several years. Languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Uzbek, Kurdish, Korean, Chinese, Bahasa Indonesia and many others are driving demand in the U.S. military, national security agencies and even private companies involved in reconstruction and development.

"The third reason is domestic demand for translation and interpreting for U.S. citizens with limited English proficiency. This population has been on the rise for the last decade, and recent rulings have required foreign language support in the court system, hospitals and other public settings for such individuals."

With such demand, one might think finding employment would be easy. But this is actually a competitive field which requires extensive training, experience and knowledge.

In addition, most people specialize as either translators or interpreters. According to Hendzel, only about 20 percent of professionals work in both areas. And even those people who do both tend to be more capable in one of those areas.

Be prepared to undertake extensive schooling in order to stand out from the pack. Many post-graduate training programs are available for translators and interpreters in the U.S.

Specialized translators often identify a field of interest and then develop an expertise with time.

"Lately, many translation students are in fact bilingual people who have been practicing another profession for some time," Fiola says. "But these people have chosen to change their career path to capitalize on their bilingualism and their specialized knowledge in their former field of practice."

This group includes teachers, military members, nurses and computer specialists, among others. They work to get the required training and become specialized translators in their former field of practice.

The benefits of working as an interpreter or translator cover many areas. While compensation may be average to start (mid-$30,000 to $40,000), workers have the advantage of seeking full-time, part-time, in-house or freelance employment to suit their current needs and situations.

In addition, salaries can climb to over $100,000, particularly for conference interpreters, specialists in the national security languages with security clearances, and those who specialize in difficult fields such as international banking, commerce and technology.

"The majority of professional translators work as freelancers," says Hendzel. "This allows maximum flexibility to work where the demand is the strongest. Also, the translation and interpreting industry is very much a global industry and market.

"Translators and interpreters from all over the world compete for commercial work on the market every day. But the market is very large and diverse, and there are many potential areas for employment."

Fiola also mentions that a large number of translators are independent, freelance workers. He points out that many can work from home, which is ideal for those who don't want to sacrifice their career for their family, or vice versa. This might also help explain why there are far more women entering the profession than men despite equality of access to training.

"Translation and interpreting are growth industries," says Hendzel. "But it's important to have the skills to succeed. Seek out training or an advanced degree or a mentor to help you against the competition. The best translators and interpreters also have a significant amount of training in another technical or business field -- it's not just about language."


American Translators Association
The ATA maintains a directory of professional training programs

Translators Cafe
Lots of glossaries, dictionaries, articles and more for linguists!

International Federation of Translators
An international federation of more than 100 associations from around the world

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