On my search for a definitive answer to How many languages does a translator need?, I also came across this article by Corinne McKay on ‘Thoughts on Translation’. McKay discusses the idea of which language is ‘best’ for being a translator- something I also looked at in my post: Which language should I learn? McKay makes some important observations. I’ve condensed them into four points:
- Demand – in the USA, Spanish is the second most common language – therefore demand is quite high, however this leads on to the next point;
- Competition – there is heavy competition between Spanish translators in the USA because it’s in the same time-zone as Central and South America (deadlines can be completed in a timescale that is not different to the target market) AND because the cost of living is generally lower than in the USA, so therefore the undercut the US translation market.
- Culture – the cultures for translators can differ from continent to continent. McKay mentions that European business is more relationship based – you don’t expect to be able to stroll into an office at 9am, and have everything signed and sealed by 10am. It takes time to build trust and knowledge of the businesses and their practices. If you don’t/ aren’t willing to put in the leg work and research, then you may not expect to get much work, simply because they don’t know you enough.
- Language combinations – common languages are typically French, German, Italian, Spanish, English (in Europe) obviously French, Spanish and English have large native speaking colonies outside of Europe. This invariably means that although there is likely to be a lot of work in these combinations, competition (ES/FR/EN) is likely to be higher too, because it’s a common combination. If, however, you’re translating Estonian to French, this is likely to be a much less language combination and therefore less completion. HOWEVER this leads back to demand – depending on your specialisation (i.e. what types of text you translate – books, manuals, medical journal articles etc.) it might still be difficult to get enough work.
Another factor which might persuade you to pick one language over another, is the cost of translating per word/per hour. If you do not already know one other language in addition to your native one, I would say that choosing one to learn and translate from purely on the basis of money is probably not the way to go. Learning a language and the culture takes time, and it’s important to choose a language that you feel that you can connect to. For me, that will always be German, but I’m trying to improve my Spanish little by little so I could take on smaller or easier texts in the future.
This article by DayTranslations Blog (data from 2015, may now be out of date) looks at which languages are the highest paying. It is important to note that it isn’t as simple as learning a ‘valuable’ language and setting on your merry way to become a translator. As this article rightly points out, location also plays a large part in how common that language pair is to translate to/from. In the USA or the UK, Japanese/Chinese to English may be more uncommon. In the Asian continent, this is unlikely to be the case. Typically, Asian and Middle Eastern languages on the whole command more money, due to the amount of competition and demand.
At the end of the day, McKay also summarises the language choice into three categories: work-to-pay ratio, critical need and affinity. This is not a choice that anyone can make for you. For me, for example, German has been the language that I have studied since the age of 11 – it has a particular meaning to me and I’m comfortable with it, in a way that I am not with French or Spanish. This isn’t simply because I speak better German than the other two, it’s also an affinity and cultural aspect too.
There is no ‘ideal, quick-fix’ language to learn to become a translator quickly or easily. Getting advice from professionals in the trade, from university languages departments, and also gut instinct is ultimately what you will have to rely on to make the best decision for your job and also for your lifestyle.
The choice is yours!