In Part One, three freelance translators told me why they studied for a Master’s in translation and never looked back. We looked at whether the course was too heavily weighted in theoretical elements, if the content is truly relevant in practice and how the course helped get them to where they are today.
In this concluding part, three professional translators without a postgraduate qualification talk to me about why they feel a Master’s is not a prerequisite to get into translation.
Tina Muller (@TinaSMuller) studied Business Administration before proceeding to do a three-year translation and interpreting course at a language institute in Germany that focussed on translation between English and German. She is now a “state-certified translator and interpreter” for the English language.
Lizzie Whiteley (@ditto_languages) studied for a BA in Modern Foreign Languages (French and Italian) at Bristol University and attended the prestigious School of Modern Languages for Translations and Interpreters in Forli, Italy on her year abroad. She now co-runs Ditto Languages in Cardiff.
Caroline Lakey has a BSc Hons in International Management and French from University of Bath, which included a 13-month placement in a company in Paris. She also did a short translation course with University of London Institute in Paris. She is now based in Mayenne, northwest France.
Let’s start with what we want to know above all…
What reasons are there for not wanting to pursue a Master’s in translation?
There were multiple reasons identified for going straight into practising translation, but as far as Caroline Lakey is concerned, the two that stand out the most are practicality and value. “I can’t convince myself that I really need one enough to justify the various sacrifices it would entail, both for me and for my family. A discussion on ProZ convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to make the money/time back that the course would cost me.
I was also put off by the fact that most Master’s courses require you to translate in both directions, which is something I would clearly never do on a professional level. Not to mention the fact that, if I’m honest, the theory of translation bores me stupid!”
Some, if not most, translators don’t always know that they want to go into translation, so unless they start their Master’s more or less straight after their undergraduate degree, it may be rather impractical in terms of finance, location, family circumstances, the time required and, indeed, interest. Moreover, we must remember the value of our Bachelor’s degree according to Caroline. “Without wishing to sound like a snob, my first degree is actually fairly prestigious, so if I was going to put a Master’s behind it, I would want it to be a top-level one, which means investing time and money, and unfortunately I don’t have enough of either.”
This is a good point. We should not forget that a language degree is very valuable, enhanced even further by the year abroad, which provides the opportunity to apply everything we have learnt since school. The year abroad give us the opportunity to experience foreign cultures and integrate into different societies. But this need not end once our Bachelor’s degree is over.
After Tina Muller had finished her course, she wanted to see how translation was handled in the real world, yet she still wished to experience the society of the language she had studied. “Some of my friends went on to do an MA, but I had had enough of theoretical studies. I was also very eager to move to Britain for a while to immerse myself in the culture and language (and I’m still here after almost 5 years!). So I moved to Britain and after a couple of weeks I already landed a job as an in-house translator.”
Lizzie Whiteley felt the same. “After I graduated I knew I wanted to return to Italy and break translation, but finding a job from the UK proved difficult. I found out about the Leonardo Da Vinci scheme, which puts students on a short language course and then finds them a 3-month work placement. A translation agency in Florence took me on, where I quickly learnt how a translation agency worked, and after 3 months they offered me a permanent job.
While I did take some short and distance-learning courses in translation and proofreading, for me this first-hand commercial experience was invaluable and something that could never be replaced with a Master’s. The route I took was also much less costly, plus I was able to live abroad and refine my language skills at the same time.”
In such a prestigious industry, it is vital to have a means to enter this career for those who are not attracted to the idea of a postgraduate course. Naturally, it would be unacceptable to practise as a translator without any formal training, but fortunately this is largely recognised by those without a Master’s, who proceed to acquire experience in relevant fields, such as working in-house and studying on a short translation course.
How can translators break into the industry without a Master’s?
One issue is being recognised by clients as a professional translator without a postgraduate qualification, but Tina has never encountered any problems. “I have never been asked the question if I have an MA, nor has it ever hindered my success to get the job I wanted.
I worked in an agency as a project manager but only lasted 3 months there and then I went freelance. I stayed on good terms with my previous employer, so I started out as a freelancer with one client in the bag already. I marketed myself to selected translation agencies and built up a client network relatively swiftly. To this day I still work with most of those initial clients, so I do not look for more very often.”
Caroline took more time to build up experience before going freelance: “I had worked for 12 years in bilingual corporate environments, translating and interpreting (albeit informally) on a daily basis, before I went freelance. Also, having studied business and worked in large companies, I perhaps had more of an idea how to market myself than people with different experiences might.”
Our translators had clearly planned their transition to freelance meticulously, after having learnt how to market themselves. As freelancers know too well, work does not come flooding in automatically. Postgrad or not, freelance translators must market themselves as much as any local business you see in your town or city, certainly even more so without a physical presence that a bakery or florist will have.
Do translators without a Master’s learn more through experience rather than through additional qualification?
There is also the matter of the quality of translations – do postgraduate translators produce better translations? Tina is convinced that the route she took was the right one. “I don’t think an MA would have done me any harm, but I feel that my education at the language institute was so comprehensive that there was no need to study further before starting out as a professional translator. As with every other job, a translator learns most things through experience and an MA cannot replace that.”
And Caroline completely agrees. “Without a doubt. I’m sure a Master’s gives you an excellent theoretical knowledge of translation, but I’m not convinced that it teaches you how to manage customer expectations and produce decent translations under pressure with limited access to relevant information! At the end of the day, I see myself running a translation business rather than “just” producing translations.”
This is the most convincing argument, as far as I’m concerned, about not studying for a Master’s in translation. The objective of producing good-quality translations is a given. What many unfamiliar with the translation industry don’t realise is that freelancers are running a business. They are their own accountant, secretary, IT support, PA, account manager, business development manager and project manager too, skills a Master’s can’t provide, such that postgraduates are not ready to set off as freelancers as soon as they graduate.
So, would our freelancers turn back the clock and take up a postgraduate course instead?
Tina certainly wouldn’t. “I don’t think that an MA, especially straight after graduation, would have given me any more insight into the world of translation nor can it replace any experience I’ve gathered in the field so far. As a freelancer I also think very much in business terms: will it literally pay off to do an MA? My clear answer to that is no. You will not be able to achieve higher prices for your work than without an MA – I’d rather invest in a course on how to market yourself as a freelance translator.”
Lizzie sees commercial experience as what made her a better translator. “I don’t regret taking the route I did, I’ve never been refused for a job because I don’t have a Master’s. Now, when I recruit translators, I look for many things, but would choose a translator with real business experience in a particular specialist field over a translator with a Master’s. In my experience this is what makes a well-rounded, more resourceful, more punctual linguist.”
In many fields, qualifications are reflected in a pay slip, but it seems that it doesn’t work like that in translation, and those without a Master’s would do well to invest the money typically spent on an MA into technology and resources, and self-development and specialisation.
Is it better for a translator to have a Master’s or to have richer practical experience? Unfortunately, the answer to this will always remain subjective. We have seen compelling arguments from both sides, but it will depend on personality. What’s important is that all six of our translators are happy with the route they took.
Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that it is not worth following a Master’s course at all. For those looking to break into the industry but who perhaps lack direction, this is probably the best route. It provides a solid theoretical base, with the benefit of receiving feedback on translations from academic professionals, and empowers its holders with confidence in their career.
Equally, there is nothing to indicate that entering the industry directly is not appropriate. Our translators said they have never experienced any hindrances without the Master’s. Most agencies require a minimum 5 years’ experience in practising translation; this is something that both postgraduates and non-postgraduates will face. What a Master’s doesn’t give you is commercial experience, so crucially, it may be tricky to find one’s feet for postgraduates who wish to go freelance as soon as they graduate.