What does it take to be a translator or interpreter? What kind of person would even
want to, let alone be able to, sit at a computer or in court day after day turning
words and phrases in one language into words and phrases in another? Isn’t this an
awfully tedious and unrewarding profession? The difference between a translator and a non translato
It can be. For many people it is. Some people who love it initially get tired of it,
burn out on it, and move on to other endeavors. Others can only do it on the side,
a few hours a day or a week or even a month: they are writers or teachers or editors
by day, but for an hour every evening, or for an afternoon one or two Saturdays a
month, they translate, sometimes for money, sometimes for fun, mostly (one hopes)
for both. If a really big job comes along and the timing and money are right, they
will spend a whole week translating, eight to ten hours a day; but at the end of that
week they feel completely drained and are ready to go back to their regular work.
Translators and interpreters are voracious and omnivorous readers,
people who are typically in the middle of four books at once, in several languages,
fiction and nonfiction, technical and humanistic subjects, anything and everything.
They are hungry for real-world experience as well, through travel, living abroad for
extended periods, learning foreign languages and cultures, and above all paying
attention to how people use language all around them: the plumber, the kids’
teachers, the convenience store clerk, the doctor, the bartender, friends and
colleagues from this or that region or social class, and so on.
Translation is often called a profession of second choice: many translators were first professionals in
other fields, sometimes several other fields in succession, and only turned to
translation when they lost or quit those jobs or moved to a country where they were
unable to practice them; as translators they often mediate between former colleagues
in two or more different language communities.
Any gathering of translators is certain to be a diverse group, not only because well over half of the people there
will be from different countries, and almost all will have lived abroad, and all will
shift effortlessly in conversation from language to language, but because by necessity
translators and interpreters carry a wealth of different “selves” or “personalities”
around inside them, ready to be reconstructed on the computer screen whenever
My father worked for the international area of a major
Brazilian bank. As a consequence, I lived in 8 countries
and 10 cities between the ages of 1 and 19. My parents
learned the languages of the places we lived in “on
location”. My father never wanted us (my 3 brothers and
I) to study in American or French schools (which can be
found anywhere), but instead forced us to learn and study
in the language of the place. My parents encouraged travel
and language studies, and since I was 14, I traveled alone
throughout Europe. I learned the 3Rs in Spanish, did high
school in Italian and Portuguese. In Luxembourg, I studied
at the European School in three languages at the same time
(French, English and Italian) and spoke Portuguese at
home. Italian used to be choice for girlfriends:-)
The outcome: I speak Portuguese, English, Spanish,
Italian, and French and translate from one into the other.
I have always worked with the set of languages I learned
in my youth. I have started learning Russian, but I didn’t
like my teacher’s accent. For the future, I plan to study
Chinese (I have a brother who lives in Taiwan and a nephew
who speaks it fluently) .
a new text arrives, or out into the airwaves whenever a new speaker steps up to the
podium. A crowd of translators always seems much bigger than the actual bodies
But then there are non-translators who share many of these same characteristics:
diplomats, language teachers, world travelers . . . What special skills make a well-traveled, well-read language lover a translator?
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the primary characteristics of a good translator are
similar to the expectations translation users have for the ideal translation: a good
translator is reliable and fast, and will work for the going rate.
From an internal point of view, however, the expectations for translation are rather different than
they look from the outside. For the translator, reliability is important mainly as a
source of professional pride, which also includes elements that are of little or no
significance to translation users; speed is important mainly as a source of increased
income, which can be enhanced through other channels as well; and it is extremely
important, perhaps even most important of all, that the translator enjoy the work,
a factor that is of little significance to outsiders.