Language Learning

One [language] is never enough… How many languages does a translator need?

Recently, I was scouring the internet – whilst looking at different courses online, I discovered this site called Future Learn. They offer a wide range of different online courses, from a variety of world-renown universities. Some courses have include a fee, but quite a few are free.

I recently signed up to an ‘Introduction to Dutch’ course run by the University of Groningen.  Since my main language is English, and my second language is German, Dutch has always been a language that I was interested in learning. Unfortunately, Dutch was not available at my university, so I took Spanish instead. Using the traditional sites (Linguee, Rosetta Stone etc.) I’ve been trying to self study when I have time.

This got me thinking about language combinations for translation – specifically, how many do you need to be a translator?

I remember in one lecture in my final year, the module was split between two lecturers. In the first lecture of the day, the German students were told something along the lines of ‘If you speak German, you really need to have another language with it, like Dutch. It [German] won’t be enough on it’s own.’ This obviously made us quite concerned. Three of us only worked with German and a small amount of Spanish, whilst the other spoke French too. What were we going to do then?

An hour later, another lecturer took over. When we told her what we’d heard, she said she completely disagreed. So where did that leave us?

My experience…

From what I researched, opinion on this subject varies. Essentially, the minimum is two – your native language and one other. There are cases where some translators only translate from one language combination – DE>EN or EN>FR for example. And that’s okay – some language combinations will provide enough work for a translator to specialise in one language. It’s also important to note, however, that some language combinations are more popular than others, and therefore there will be greater competition for work.

It must be said that some language combinations – Danish, Dutch, Catalan etc., are less common and less competitive by extension. But it also must be said that the likelihood of work may well be lower. For a clearer explanation, see the infographic on Translation Rules, which shows the frequency of jobs per language compared to the number translators in the USA.

The research

When researching, I found an article on One Hour Translation about writing a translator’s resume. In this article, they suggested that:

The translator must have a good command on at least 10 different languages. This is the least limit, as when you become a translator officially, you are required to tackle loads of translation work on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, this article doesn’t really explain what they consider a ‘good command’ to mean. For example, it could be considered that after a GCSE and two years of university study that I have a ‘good command’ of Spanish. And if I were ordering food or asking for directions then I probably would have, but that doesn’t mean that I would currently accept any translation work in that language, unless it were something along the complexity of a newspaper article.

So far, so not very helpful in answering my question. A post by Adriana Tassini at Become a Translator mentions that two is definitely the minimum (source and target) but often having two source languages helps to provide enough work to keep them busy. Also she says that learning languages with similar roots is a good idea too.

Mark  Heaney at German to English Translator also makes an important point – yes it’s great to write that you can ‘translate’ from five different languages. But it’s important that A) it’s actually true, (it doesn’t count if it’s just because you got to level 10 on Duolingo) and B) that there’s quality to your language work. As I said above, although I speak Spanish, the quality and understanding of the culture is not all there. There’s no sense in putting yourself under pressure of translation a medical journal article into Korean, if your experience is in translating K-Pop songs in your bedroom.

 So what’s your final answer?

My final answer is… that there is no FINAL, FINAL answer. Two is obviously the absolute minimum. Four is possibly a good maximum – but they have to be a good four. I’m not saying that you might not have ones that are stronger than others, and it’s certainly possible to be more confident in translating more difficult articles in two languages, and more simple texts in others – but that still means that they have to be good quality!

As mentioned before, it’s a good idea to learn languages with similar roots – it’s going to be easier to learn languages that are more similar – Spanish/Italian/French/Portuguese or English/German/Dutch/Afrikaans but it’s by no means imperative.

Korean-English translator Deborah Smith, had little languages experience. After studying an MA in Korean Studies as SOAS, she became interested in learning Korean and now is a successfully published translator. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be a specific reason to learn a language, but it does matter that you give it your all.

There is no ‘best way to become a translator’ – and there’s certainly no single way of becoming a translator; lots of people come to the profession with different experiences. But building your language skills and experience is a must – and is something you need to keep doing, even when you get your first translating job!

For a comprehensive guide to becoming a translator, with tips and links visit If you have any other thoughts comment below, or follow me on Twitter @amjscorr.




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