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How difficult is it to get established without a degree in anything
Thread poster: RowanF

RowanF
United States
Local time: 17:21
French to English
Jun 14, 2014

Hi,

I'm currently two years through a university program in the United States. I've wanted to be a translator or an interpreter for a long time and most people say it is difficult to become established without a degree in something so that's why I went to college.

However, two years into it, I'm extremely frustrated. About a fourth of your classes are "general" classes that you are forced to take, which basically translates to wasted time. Another third are "major" classes. I chose history as my major because that's what interests me, but I have yet to have someone explain to me why paying thousands of dollars a quarter for a book and a teacher to stand in a lecture hall and basically read me the book is more effective than me sitting at home reading the book for the say $20 I spent for the book. In addition, I am not evaluated based on how well I learn but on if I learn the way they want me to. I could ace the test, but if I don't follow the various procedures they want me to, I won't do well.

The remaining classes are electives, which translates to time I could have spent a) honing my French skills, or b) pursuing my interests without spending thousands of dollars for it.

So, I was wondering if some of you could maybe describe to me how difficult it is to convince employers to take you seriously if you don't have a degree? Will I have to finish college or can I save $50,000?



[Edited at 2014-06-14 03:25 GMT]

[Edited at 2014-06-14 03:26 GMT]


 

cranium
French to English
+ ...
It can be done Jun 14, 2014

But get real world experience first. Why not sign on at an oil rig or wind farm? Choose an industry that hires people out of high school, [edited to add] where you know there is a need for translation in your combination (e.g. with French-speaking companies that export). Then learn the business from the inside out. In translation, an insider grasp of terminology is highly valued.

One plus of college is that you can form a network of future professional contacts there. But five years after getting my master's degree, I am disillusioned with the university vortex. You do not need a degree to make a good living. In translation you need top notch writing and thinking skills, both of which *can* be learned at college, but aren't *necessarily* learned.

You will have to be able to demonstrate those skills. Maybe write a blog that you can send potential clients to so they can assess your skills. Gear it to the industry you want to translate in.

As an aside, can I play Devil's advocate? After working for a while in another industry, you might even decide you don't want to be a translator after all. A recent job search at jobbank.gc.ca was enlightening:

Translator: $13-25 an hour.
Tree pruner: $15-35 an hour.

Honestly, how does this justify five-six years of university and what for many people amounts to tens of thousands of dollars of debt?icon_smile.gif I think you are wise to take a year off and explore your options - you sound like you're already half-way to that decision.

[Edited at 2014-06-14 07:06 GMT]


 

Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

MODERATOR
It's better to have one than to not have one Jun 14, 2014

Throughout my studies I've always kept the motto that "P's get degrees". The final grades you'll get from your Bachelors will be insignificant compared to the value of having the degree itself. You're obviously at the stage of your studies that you've had enough and want to get out, but let me be the first to say that having a degree is worth so much more than the cost of studying. Once you get a degree, no one can take it away from you. Once you have a degree, it'll keep paying for itself for the rest of your life.

I believe the translation industry is certainly one that gives importance to a university degree. Many of our colleagues here have PhDs! Your frustrations stem out of the American style 'generalist' degree, having to study maths/science along with your major. As this is obviously boring you, why not try exchanging to another country, maybe one that uses your source language. This could then be used as an asset within your CV for translation, along with your degree.

Finally, it's my understanding that degrees don't so much prove that you have knowledge in a certain field or whatever (many idiots have degrees!), what they prove is that you're able to complete assignments, while managing several competing deadlines, at a certain standard of excellence. That's why a translator with a degree will most often be chosen before one without a degree.


 

Diana Obermeyer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:21
Member (2013)
German to English
+ ...
The "in anything" in key Jun 14, 2014

RowanF wrote:

In addition, I am not evaluated based on how well I learn but on if I learn the way they want me to. I could ace the test, but if I don't follow the various procedures they want me to, I won't do well.


[Edited at 2014-06-14 03:25 GMT]

[Edited at 2014-06-14 03:26 GMT]


Clients do that as well. If they want things done a certain way or have certain procedures in place, you need to comply. Sometimes that can be very irritating.

Finally, it's my understanding that degrees don't so much prove that you have knowledge in a certain field or whatever (many idiots have degrees!), what they prove is that you're able to complete assignments, while managing several competing deadlines, at a certain standard of excellence. That's why a translator with a degree will most often be chosen before one without a degree.


It's the same issue - nobody cares how much you agreed with the structure and assessment of your degree. Having that piece of paper also shows that you can follow instructions. Quite an important skill in the real world.

I don't have a translation degree. There are many clients that I don't have access to as a result. Nevertheless, the market is big enough to do well without that particular qualification. Without ANY degree? That would really be pushing it. The fact that I have studied the fields that I translate in is a key selling point, together with relevant industry experience and spending years in the relevant countries.

Translation is academic in nature. I think the only people who can get away with not having any degree are those who have profound specialised industry experience, so unless you want to go and specialise first and then return to translation in 20 years time, I would say "Stick it out!"

If you really can't get yourself to do that, transfer to a different course. But really, really - you want a degree in something. And for soft subjects like history, a specific translation degree is probably far more important than in more technical fields.

[Edited at 2014-06-14 06:54 GMT]


 

Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:21
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
There's more to education than learning Jun 14, 2014

In addition, I am not evaluated based on how well I learn but on if I learn the way they want me to. I could ace the test, but if I don't follow the various procedures they want me to, I won't do well.

This surprises you?

Education is only partly about learning things; it's largely about socialisation. This is obvious when you think about a child in its first years at school, but I would argue it is as important at degree level, just more subtle. A significant portion of tertiary education is about demonstrating to the educators that you can jump through hoops. Showing, in effect, that you understand the rules of the institution and are complying with them.

In my experience, professional life is much the same. Employers also want to see signs that you "play well" within the existing system. Large firms do not want the "brilliant maverick" type, or people who think they are. They look for employees who will provide a minimum level of competence, who will work well with other employees and who won't foment dissent and revolution. In addition to suggesting that you have - hopefully - gained some relevant knowledge, a degree is a sign that you can buckle down and get things done.

Do you need a degree to succeed in life? No. A real entrepreneur probably wouldn't have taken a degree in the first place. He would be out there building his first business. Are you an entrepreneur? If you are then why are you studying a degree in History?

If you're not an entrepreneur then a degree is useful. I'm most definitely not an entrepreneur, so I chose instead a degree that offered very specific, marketable skills and have never regretted it. As for translation... In my pair (Japanese-English) I guess it's not impossible but Japanese clients would certainly look askance at somebody without a degree.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:21
Russian to English
+ ...
I think you might as well finish it, if you already started it. Jun 14, 2014

I am surprised you have such a bad experience--you might have chosen the wrong school, or department. The studies in the US--in terms of the curricula and choices, are much less strict than in Europe, where you are not always allowed to choose courses.

When looking for good translators and interpreters--the employers or agencies don't pay that much attention to your education or any certificates but rather the real language skills. If you are fully bilingual --you could care lees about your degrees, although it is good to have some type of a degree, at least, as well, which, however, won't help you much, if you don't know two languages well enough to be a translator. The most important thing is to work on your language--perhaps move to France for a few years.


[Edited at 2014-06-14 09:58 GMT]


 

Orrin Cummins  Identity Verified
Japan
Local time: 09:21
Japanese to English
+ ...
... Jun 14, 2014

Dan Lucas wrote:

Employers also want to see signs that you "play well" within the existing system. Large firms do not want the "brilliant maverick" type, or people who think they are. They look for employees who will provide a minimum level of competence, who will work well with other employees and who won't foment dissent and revolution.


In other words, mindless drones?


 

Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

MODERATOR
Machine Translations? Jun 14, 2014

Orrin Cummins wrote:

In other words, mindless drones?


Aren't they already trying their best to replace us with machine translations?


 

Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

MODERATOR
One last point Jun 14, 2014

One important thing that I should have mentioned earlier.

Translation doesn't have to be your full-time job. You don't have to drop everything to be a translator and it fits well as a second or part time job for many people here.

Importantly, university study is just the same. If you'd like to spend more time devoted to making money, then enroll part time in your studies and translate for the rest of the time. You'll earn valuable experience (as well as money) while doing it, while completing your degree and also getting a taste of what this industry is really like.

It might also be worth your while checking out your competition in the French-English directory here on Proz. You should be able to get a good idea of the credentials of some of the most active members here.


 

Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 01:21
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
You have many life choices - grab the best Jun 14, 2014

Dan Lucas wrote:
Do you need a degree to succeed in life? No. A real entrepreneur probably wouldn't have taken a degree in the first place. He would be out there building his first business. Are you an entrepreneur? If you are then why are you studying a degree in History?

I'm part of a non-degree family and we're all doing well. Neither I nor my husband have degrees yet he was a senior manager with Shell as well as running a very successful recruitment business, and I've had satisfying careers in IT, teaching and now translating. But we're oldies, so our case could be said to be different from yours.

Our daughter (now 39) did get a BSc in Mech Eng with French but she didn't do the MSc so can't call herself a "real" engineer outside the UK. Yet she's a QA manager ensuring (hopefullyicon_wink.gif) that jet engines don't fail in flight (after having taken a few years out to set up a successful Internet-based company). Our son (now 27) was thoroughly disillusioned with his first year of a Physics for Engineers degree in France so did a year in sound engineering (an interest), then an online course in games programming (another interest), then used the latter to set himself up designing industrial modelling solutions (they're a bit like video games for grown-ups, reallyicon_smile.gif) and is now in business handling the France concession of a major US IT software developer. They're both young and doing well without much in the way of qualifications.

What I'm saying is that the only thing that guarantees success is your attitude to life. Some people grab whatever opportunity they can find, even if it isn't at all the obvious one. Others spend their whole lives missing opportunities that are staring them in the face, going nowhere and blaming it on circumstances outside their control.

There's no doubt at all that a degree will open some doors in the translation industry, doors to specific jobs for specific clients; there's also no doubt that you can be a successful and high-earning translator without one. 99% of clients are interested in the immediate future only: will you be likely to hand in a really good translation of their text, on time and within budget? They need to be reassured by what they see in your CV and/or your communications with them; but that doesn't have to relate to your education.

So, either throw yourself whole-heartedly into your course and get maximum benefit from it, or find some other opportunity that you can use to launch yourself wherever you want to go. Unfortunately, none of us has a crystal ball that will tell you which is the best option for your future, not even you.


 

polyglot45
English to French
+ ...
Finish your studies but plan ahead Jun 14, 2014

Life is an obstacle course and you need to arm yourself with as many "weapons" as you can gather.
There are people who succeed in life without a degree but, in my experience, a degree opens quite a few doors that would otherwise remain shut. And sometimes, you are years down the road when you realise that a degree has got you places inaccessible without that little bit of paper.
When I was a student many moons ago, we did not have to choose a course particularly relevant to our proposed future careers. There was no real shortage of jobs, unlike today, and potential employers were more interested in the fact that we had qualified for university, completed the course and come out with a reasonable mark at the end. For them, it was a sign that we had the brain power, the staying power and the determination.
Giving up halfway could be read as weakness.
We all have moments when we wonder whether we are doing the right thing and whether we should complete what we have started. In your case, you would be foolish, at the end of 2 years, to throw in the towel.
My advice is stick it out but plan for what will happen afterwards.
If you are not an engineer or a specialist in a particular field, a translation/interpretation course would not go amiss (perhaps not even in the US).
For me, there are two acceptable routes into translation: postgraduate studies in this specific area or excellent language knowledge coupled with a technical speciality.
All the rest is random.
There will be many people on this site (largely populated by "back door entrants") who will try to shout me down but, believe me, as a qualified translator with the diplomas to prove it, I have never had to grub around the bottom end of the market, work with agencies that pay peanuts and fight my way up. Doors opened with the sesame of good credentials. It is not so easy today but all the more reason for doing things in order, the proper way and not trying to cut corners.
One day, you'll thank me for being frank


 

RowanF
United States
Local time: 17:21
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
Yes, I am suprised Jun 14, 2014

Dan Lucas wrote:

In addition, I am not evaluated based on how well I learn but on if I learn the way they want me to. I could ace the test, but if I don't follow the various procedures they want me to, I won't do well.

This surprises you?


Yes, it surprised me. For all the talk about broadening your horizons and "learning to think about the world" (as if natural curiosity is something that can be taught anyway), college is not much more than "socialization", as you put it, though I would say Orrin put it better as becoming mindless drones.

Anyway, thanks for all of your thoughts, I will continue to consider them and hopefully there will be more posts as well.


 

Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:21
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
I'm sure that my degree has opened all the doors for me Jun 14, 2014

Ever since I can remember I've always loved learning, which is why I love translating.

When I was 42, I decided I wanted qualifications that were recognised in Spain and so I enrolled on a licentiate degree course in English Philology. I told my family that it was my new hobby, albeit a rather expensive one!

I was working full time in my own business so it never crossed my mind to physically go to lectures and I chose what people say is the best online/distance-learning university in Spain. About 33% of the programme was in Spanish and the rest was in English.

Negative aspects:
- I didn't learn anything about running a business, mainly because I didn't enroll on any business-oriented courses

Positive aspects:
- I increased my knowledge of the English language
- I increased my knowledge of the Spanish language
- I learnt a lot about a great many things related to culture, literature, language in general, history, not to mention everything I learnt as regards using the Internet.
- I learnt how to decipher the most obscure texts!

It was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying periods of my life

In conclusion, why don't you study something you enjoy in a French online/distance-learning university or a university in the US that offers online degree courses in French?

Edited because I forgot to mention that in my experience no agency will be interested in your work until they have seen a scanned copy of your qualifications, though I appreciate that it could be different with direct clients.




[Edited at 2014-06-14 16:00 GMT]


 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:21
French to English
+ ...
Maybe the problem is more your institution than the system per se? Jun 14, 2014

RowanF wrote:
However, two years into it, I'm extremely frustrated. About a fourth of your classes are "general" classes that you are forced to take, which basically translates to wasted time. Another third are "major" classes. I chose history as my major because that's what interests me, but I have yet to have someone explain to me why paying thousands of dollars a quarter for a book and a teacher to stand in a lecture hall and basically read me the book is more effective than me sitting at home reading the book for the say $20 I spent for the book.



Firstly, I think your friend is right -- it's hugely difficult to get into translation at any significant level if you don't have a degree. There are other careers where you can start with virtually no formal qualifications provided that you can demonstrate aptitude. Nowadays, that sounds hugely difficult with translation unless you have a means of bypassing the usual recruitment/client negotiation stages.

Now, regarding your rant -- with the proviso that I'm from the UK and things may be different in the US -- it sounds to me that the problem may be with your specific college rather than the "system" per se. A *good *lecture is not simply a set of passages reproduced from a book. The purpose of the lecture is to enthuse you and give you an expert's particular perspective and insight into the topic and thereby kick off your reflection or guide your reading on that topic. (Incidentally, if the US system is like the UK, the lecturer is likely to be setting the exam questions on their topic, so it's also your chance to detect what are their particular bugbears/obsessions that are likely to feed into their choice of exam questions...)

If you're supposed to be studying a French degree and only 1/3 of your course is actually devoted to French, have you looked round at other institutions to see if they have better courses?

I think a degree is the right way forward if you want to be a translator, but it sounds like you're getting a bum deal at your current college -- perhaps the best course of action would be to consider switching to another institution? I assume you have tutors that you can speak to about this as well and see what they think.


 

Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:21
German to English
What's your competitive advantage? Jun 14, 2014

You indicate that you're halfway through an undergraduate program and are contemplating dropping out of college. Do you have any relevant work experience you might bring to bear as a translator/interpreter? Any special skills?

There are over 24,000 registrations on this site in your language pair. Let's assume that this is a good figure (which I doubt, as many of these people are no longer active, having left the profession, starved to death, etc., plus a lot of translators I know are not registered on ProZ).

Without a degree, what do you see as your advantage over the other 24,000 people trying to ply a trade in your language pair?

There are numerous skills you can develop in the course of university studies that may not – at first glance – appear to be directly related to a career in translation or interpretation. However, crafting an incisive sentence, doing research and thinking critically – important components of a successful university education – are vital skills for a good translator.

This is a very competitive business, and the more you can offer to the market, the better your chances will be of making a go of it.


 
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