Translation credentials: what are they and do you need them?

Here’s a very common question from my beginning translation students: “Do I need a…(Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, translation certificate, translator certification, etc.)” with corollaries such as “Am I better off getting a foreign language MA or a translation certificate?” “If I don’t have a Bachelor’s degree but I’m ATA-certified, is that OK?” and so on.

I can answer all of these questions with two words: it depends. There you go! That’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it does really depend on your background, your goals, who you work for and what you do. And in this post, I’m talking about the norm, not the exception; I know a couple of self-taught conference interpreters who have tons of work, people without Bachelor’s degrees who are doing fine, and lots of people who are not ATA-certified and still make a squadrillion dollars a year. But here I’m talking in general, and I apologize in advance if this gets long!

Also, there are some very notable exceptions to these observations. For example let’s say that you want to be a court interpreter at the state level. In many U.S. states, the only pre-requisite to take the court interpreter exam is that you have to be 18 and legally eligible to work in the US. In theory, even a smart and motivated high school student could study for and pass the exam. And once you’re certified, everyone generally is paid the same rate. So in that case, and for that specific job, there may be absolutely no advantage to having a Bachelor’s degree.

Do you need a Bachelor’s degree? Yes, in most cases, I really think that you do. As with the court interpreter scenario above, of course there are exceptions. But at least in the US, I think that if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, you are seen as A Person Who Did Not Go to College; whereas whether you have a BA, MA, PhD, law degree, whatever, you are A Person Who Went to College. Corollary: if you’re not 18 and your parents aren’t going to fund this educational endeavor, is a Bachelor’s from an online university better than, say, a high school degree or an Associate’s, plus a certificate from a reputable translation certificate program? Honestly, I don’t really know. First, you’d need to find a reputable translation certificate program to accept you without an undergraduate degree, but that might be doable if your language skills are strong.

Are translation/interpreting MA programs worth the investment? You had to ask a tough one, didn’t you… Here’s my opinion: before you undertake a graduate degree, ask yourself, “What do I want to do, that I cannot do now, that I can do if I earn this degree?” If your answer is that you want a job as a staff translator or interpreter at a high-level entity such as the U.N., Department of State, European Union, etc. then yes, I think that a translation/interpreting MA, preferably from the top program in your country, is probably a good investment. If you are completely convinced that you want to do conference interpreting, ditto: go for the interpreting-specific MA if possible.

On the other hand, consider this: in the US, tuition, fees, meals and housing at a private university will run you about $50,000 a year; an MA will generally last two years. Schools in Europe generally charge less in tuition, but the cost of living in the European capitals will bump the total cost up significantly. And you also have to consider the issue of lost income, especially if your other option is to simply start freelancing right away. Statistics tell us that the average full-time freelance translator/interpreter in the US earns about $75,000 per year. So during those two years, you’ll forgo some $150,000 in income, giving you a total investment of about $250,000 in your degree. That’s a pretty big number by anyone’s standards, but it’s probably worth it if your heart is set on a staff position at a major international organization; hopefully you’ll get an outstanding education, you’ll be taught by highly experienced professors, you’ll make great contacts, you’ll probably have a leg up in terms of internships, and so on.

However, in my opinion, and I apologize if this verges on “rant” territory, most translation/interpreting MA programs do not offer nearly enough education in business and entrepreneurship, given the career paths that a lot of their students will take. Will some of their students work on staff at places like the UN for their entire careers? Sure. Are there enough of those jobs open every year to employ the majority of graduates? I would say not. So, realistically, a lot of people with translation/interpreting MAs, even from top-tier schools, will become freelancers.  A lot of people who earn translation/interpreting MAs want to be freelancers, whether in-house jobs are available or not. And if I invested a quarter of a million dollars in that type of degree, in an industry that is highly freelance-oriented, I would expect a top-tier education in language entrepreneurship in addition to my language skills education. Here’s an example: several top-tier music schools in the US have music entrepreneurship centers. The University of Colorado here in Boulder has one. So does Manhattan School of Music, with the lead-in, “In today’s marketplace, musicians need more than artistic excellence: they need the added edge of entrepreneurial skills to create opportunities and build successful, sustainable careers.” Substitute “linguistic” for “artistic” and I think you’ve got the idea of what our industry needs; and to my knowledge, none of the major translation MA programs in the US or Europe are really addressing this. (End of rant!)

How about certification? Being certified, by ATA or any other national translators association, will never be a negative. Compensation surveys tell us that ATA-certified translators earn more than non-certified translators.  I have also heard from several translation companies with government contracts that they are under more pressure to use ATA-certified translators whenever possible. If a client is browsing the ATA online directory, they will probably contact the certified people first. So I think that the ATA exam is absolutely worth attempting if it’s in your budget. However, translator certification, in any country, is not like the bar exam for lawyers or the CPA exam for accountants. Lots of people make lots of money without ever becoming certified. I would consider certification a definite plus, but not a must.

Translation certificate programs? Translation certificate programs are great, because they teach you how to actually translate. They’ll help you avoid the litany of mistakes that I, and lots of other beginning translators, committed early in our careers. They’re also a good deal less expensive and less time-consuming than graduate degree programs. Most translation certificate programs are taught by practicing translators and interpreters who teach in their areas of specialization, so you’ll get real-world feedback from the instructors. Caveats: expect to pay $700-$1,500 per class, and don’t assume that completing a translation certificate program will enable you to pass the ATA certification exam.

What about subject-area degrees or training? I think this is the cutting edge in terms of credentials in our industry. Subject-area knowledge has always been important, but I think it’s becoming more so. For example, translation now seems to be a popular option for career-changing lawyers: possibly because lawyers have some of the lowest job satisfaction rates and some of the highest rates of substance abuse and depression of any white-collar profession. Whatever the case, if you’re already established in the profession and want to take your credentials up a notch, subject-area training would be my pick. Whether you do free, online courses through an entity like Coursera or enroll in a full-on graduate program in your specialization, I think it would be energy well spent.

45 Responses to “Translation credentials: what are they and do you need them?”
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