I am often asked this question, in various forms:
- I want to become a translator/interpreter: which language should I study?
- Which language is the most in-demand for translation and interpreting?
- What is the best language for a translator or interpreter to know?
The answer, like the answer to many freelance-related questions, is a resounding it depends. I’ll give you my thoughts here, then please chime in with yours (so that I can use them to answer this question the next time it comes up!).
To me, “in-demand” and “best” are two different things. For example in the U.S., the most in-demand language in general terms is undoubtedly Spanish. It’s the second most commonly spoken language in the United States, after English (insert one of my favorite factoids, that the U.S. has no official language!). But when people ask about the “best” language, I usually assume that they’re talking about a balance between demand and income potential, even when they don’t phrase it that way. And in terms of income potential, Spanish translators face a lot of challenges, starting with heavy competition from in-country translators in Latin America whose cost of living is often much lower, and who are in the same time zone as U.S. clients. In addition, because there are so many Spanish speakers in the U.S., true professional translators and interpreters often come up against the “anyone can do it” mindset held by some would-be translators and interpreters and even some clients. So, despite the very high demand for Spanish in the U.S., it’s probably not the language that I would encourage someone to learn if they’re starting from scratch.
I think that every language has its pros and cons. For example I think that for U.S.-based translators, French and German are appealing because there’s a good balance between work volume and rates, and because U.S.-based translators have some financial advantages (generally lower cost of living, and the fact that we don’t charge VAT). Also, the U.S. time zone is an advantage, as European clients can send work at the end of the day their time, to be returned the next morning. However, the European business culture is very relationship-based, and it can be hard to find and retain direct clients in Europe unless you can go there with some frequency.
In terms of critical need, I think that Middle Eastern and Asian languages are certainly the winners. Also, I think that Japanese to English is one of the highest, if not the highest-paid language combination in most market surveys. But my sense is that for some of these language combinations, there is a lot of competition from translators who are not native speakers of English but who translate into English anyway, even if they shouldn’t. Also, these cultures are much less similar to American culture than European culture is, and it is probably more difficult for translators who grew up in the U.S. to “fit in” in China or Saudi Arabia than it is in Spain or Switzerland.
Then there’s personal affinity: I love the sound of Italian and Portuguese. I’m such a nerd that sometimes I listen to Italian or Portuguese news on the radio (via TuneIn) even though I can’t understand it at all. Biking through the Dolomites last summer was one of the best vacations of my life: I just love Italy! If I were going strictly for income potential, I’d probably go for Japanese, but I really struggle with character-based languages–for example when my husband and I traveled to Nepal, I had a relatively easy time with the spoken language but couldn’t read anything, while he was the opposite.
Anyway, enough rambling thoughts on the merits of various languages! Readers, what do you think? A high school student e-mails you and asks “What language should I study?” and you respond…