Sunday, August 15, 2010

Becoming a translator - by accident, meant to be, or strategic decision

Lately, I have been thinking about how I became a translator, and I was wondering if there are many that are in my situation. How did you become a translator? Was it by accident, was it just meant to be or did you make a conscious decision to become a translator?

I am born and raised in a bilingual country, Finland, and speaking the minority language, Swedish there. My education and upbringing was all in Swedish and I knew more about the Swedish culture, than I did the Finnish. Strange? Early on I loved reading and writing and soon developed a keen interest in languages and different cultures. Apart from my mother tongue, I studied English, Finnish, German, French and Italian in school. Did I ever think of becoming a translator? No! It never crossed my mind. I ventured on with studies in International Marketing, hoping I could make use of my language skills and love for different cultures through that.

After my university studies I lived in both France and Belgium and settled in Sweden. I met Kevin, who is now my husband, during my studies. He is an American and received a great job opportunity in Utah, USA, and that is how I ended up here. When I arrived, I was pregnant with my second child, used to one year of maternity leave, great daycare and a very family friendly company, working as a product marketing manager. Coming here was quite a culture shock and I decided to stay home with my two small children.

After a while I started looking into possibilities of working from home and tried all sorts of multilevel marketing opportunities with no real success. One of my friends suggested that I should be a translator. One day I was playing around on the Internet and found some translator networks online. I studied them, did some research online, and decided to sign up. It wasn't long until I received my first job and after that I have never looked back.

I have now worked as a freelance translator for 7 years, educated myself on the way, and now have a successful freelance translation company. I learn something everyday and love what I do. I also love learning and would become certified and educated if there would be opportunities for English-Swedish translation education and certification in the US. At least I am working on starting English-Swedish certification through the American Translators Association.

But I am wondering about others. Many other translators that I know are highly educated, and come from successful careers in medicine, law etc. How did they decide to become a translator? Was it by chance, like me? There are educational programs in translation. Therefore, there must be many people that early on have made a conscious decision to study translation and become a translator. Whichever way you get there is a good way. Don't you just love what you do? Please share!


  1. I fell into it. I took German and Russian in college and couldn't find a job after I graduated. I lived at home and worked 2 menial jobs for a year, and Mom heard about the Master's program at Kent. I was trying to translate a brochure for my dad's company and brought it with me. The chair of the department talked with me and walked me to the office to sign me up. I graduated with my M.A. in German translation and moved to Germany for 6 years where I had an internship and worked as a freelance. I've never looked back.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. Even though where I live in Germany many translators come through specific translation programs in higher education, I am glad that a degree is not required to practice this profession because I think many talented translators come to the profession in other ways, like you did. Of course, there are many people who still believe that just because a person has some training (formal or informal) in a language other than their first language they are somehow qualified to translate professionally. We have to keep educating our clients.

    My own story is similar, except that I grew up in the U.S. where I didn't have as many opportunities for studying a foreign language as you did in Finland. I wanted to study French in addition to German in high school, but wasn't allowed to because my schedule was filled with other required classes. I did take some Italian and Swedish at university along with more German, but now I am only qualified to translate from German to English. After I earned my Master's I taught for about ten years, then decided to retrain as a technical writer. Coincidentally, my professor heard of an opportunity for me to complete a practicum at a company in Germany and in addition to writing documentation I got my first taste of professional translating. It was very difficult at first; though my everyday German was pretty good, the technical terminology was very challenging at first. But after a few years I felt able to start my own business and I'll probably keep translating in some capacity until I retire (if that's ever possible...).

    There wasn't a lot of career advice for becoming a translator back when I was in school and at university in the U.S. I think if I had happened upon the profession earlier I would have studied in a program so that I would be proficient in more languages. Now I feel like my time is better spent learning more specialty areas in German, however, though I'd really like to be able to converse in a few other European languages. I guess there's just not time to learn everything!

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience, I find it very interesting.
    I am only 28 and I studied translation at university so translation is all my life and all I have ever done! After traveling a lot (including one year as an Erasmus in Finland!) and having worked for different companies, I decided to settle down in Canada and work as a freelance translator.

  4. Wow! Thanks for sharing your road to becoming a translator. Glad to see you can study Swedish somewhere in the US.

  5. You can study Swedish (and other Scandinavian languages) at the University of Wisconsin and (I think) at some colleges/universities in Minnesota. Lots of Scandinavian heritage there.

  6. I am just starting a series of posts on my blog on a similar subject! (
    In brief, I studied German and French at university in the UK and Austria, dreamed of being a translator but then worked in lots of interesting jobs in the international arena until I realised time was racing by. So I took a postgraduate evening course in translation and had the good fortune to land an in-house translation job just as I finished the course. Worked there for 5 years and then went freelance. Just coming up for 11 years in the profession!

  7. Awesome post, and a most interesting post. My story is quite similar to yours; we grew up internationally thanks to an ex-pat corporate exec dad, and loved the exposure to another culture and language (am Austrian by birth, grew up in Mexico City). We (business partner and twin sister Dagmar) and I always knew we wanted to do something with languages, and back in middle school we envisioned a cross-cultural consulting business, and we've now arrived at something very similar. Did a few detours, but started translating very seriously in college, where I edited a bilingual magazine. In order to gain permanent residency in the US, I had to abandon the languages plan for a bit, went to business school for marketing and finance, did a couple of detours into corporate America, and ended up where I wanted to end up: as a linguist. Twin Translations was started in 2002 in Vienna, Austria, and I still worked full-time as a translation department manager at a large website. Finally joined my twin full-time in our business and couldn't be happier. And middle school dreams do come true: we also advise companies how to market and target their products in different countries.