Off topic: Would interpreting be a right career for me? - Questions from an university student
Thread poster: LoKain

Apr 29, 2007


I am an eighteen-year-old girl currently in my first year as an undergraduate at university. I am interested in a possible future career as an interpreter. However I’m not sure if, given my current language skills, I have the potential to become one. There are no practicing interpreters around me and it’s hard to hear the firsthand views of someone in this profession. Therefore I wanted to hear the opinions of the practicing interpreters on this site.

This is my current situation:
I have knowledge of: Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and English.

1. Japanese - I can speak and read this language at the native level. However, writing is at elementary-school level.

2. Chinese - Native speech. I can read and fully understand books, newspapers, etc. However, I can't pronounce or write a number of specific Chinese characters/pictograms.

3. English - Speech is with a slight Japanese accent. The level of reading and writing is (I think) on par with, or better than, normal English speakers my age.

* I have lived in China, Japan, and Canada for 6 years each.

I am very drawn to the interpreting profession because I love languages. My parents wanted me to grow up bilingual (in Chinese and Japanese) and always read books/poems at home for me in those languages, so ever since when I was young I’ve always liked learning new vocabulary and reading in a second/third language (at first just to be able to read more of those fun stories by myself, but by now it’s turned into something like a second habit). Last summer I worked at an international student exchange office in a Chinese university where one of the things I did was to interpret conversations between visiting foreign guests/students and the university staff, it was informal but I was able to meet a number of interesting guests from across the globe and really enjoyed doing it. Also I like how the profession forces you to constantly absorb new knowledge - it seems like you are doing your job and broadening your horizon at the same time! Although it must be very stressful, I think I will enjoy the process nevertheless because I love researching and learning something new about anything.

Right now my writing skills in Chinese are quite basic since I have never gone to school in that country. I think I can improve it considerably if given some time, though. Given this, do you think that I have any potential to become an interpreter? I’m especially not sure if my language skills any good enough. I have the impression that an interpreter has to be completely fluent in all aspects of whatever languages they work in. When you were my age, where you already as good at the languages that you are working in as you are now?

Right now I am majoring in finance with an emphasis on investment/insurance risks. I will probably graduate with a finance degree in four years. I wanted to minor in a language but my university (University of Toronto) did not offer any undergraduate East Asian language courses at an advanced level.

Do you have any advise on what I should do to prepare myself during the four years of university for a possible translation/interpretation related career down the road?

Thank you for taking the time to read this far during your busy day, I know that was a lot of questions. I would really appreciate any views/advice you can offer!



Gillian Searl  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:39
Member (2004)
German to English
a little advice - some research Apr 30, 2007

Hi Emma,
Normally interpreters have their languages divided into A, B and C. So I am a native speaker of English (A) and speak excellent German (B) with French and Portuguese (C) some way behind. It sound to me like you have at least 2 B languages but I am not sure which one is your A language. In which language did you do most of your education? I'm guessing English as you are now studying in English right? Are there any options for you to visit Japan or China as part of your degree? some kind of exchange student programme?
That said I think you are certainly looking at an additional training course after finishing your degree. I don't know the training courses in Canada but you would need to do some research to find the right one. As an interpreter you don't need to worry about your written B/C languages so much because you won't be writing (unless you are a translator like me - but even then you have the opportunity to research words you don't know).
So start your research early and you can take the best decisions on your future careericon_smile.gif.


A, B, and C languages Apr 30, 2007

Thank you for your reply!

I have thought about what my A language is, but I was actually unable to pinpoint a clear answer.
I went to school first in Japan for six years, then in Canada for six years. So my education has been half-half.
My first language is Chinese and I used Chinese mostly at home. I also go to China for at least two months every year.

My feeling is that the langauge that I speak best in daily life is Japanese. However, because I have been living in Canada for the past six years my understanding of history, current affairs, science etc is better in English in terms of knowing more concepts and having a wider vocabulary. Does that make sense at all??


Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:39
Flemish to English
+ ...
Where do you want to go today (and tomorrow)? Apr 30, 2007

Do you have any advise on what I should do to prepare myself during the four years of university for a possible translation/interpretation related career down the road?

Yep. Sit down and ask yourself "Where do I want to go today and for the rest of my life?" (also in career and financial terms).
I would take up a specialised field of study as an undergraduate, say law, economics, ... but not languages.
Enhance your register of your working-languages by reading a quality/specialized newspaper a day, a weekly a week and a monthly a month.
Distill all the vocabulary you do not know from these sources and put them in a translation memory or in MsAccess. Divide a sheet of paper in two, fold it and don't look at the other half.Learn your lists by heart by studying for example five words at a time. Go on to the next five words. Eliminate the words you know.

In the age of satellite dishes, watch television in those languages as much as you can.

When you have summer vacation, go and live in the countries, where your working-languages are spoken and attend summer courses there. You will learn more during those months than you will learn in a language school.

The quality interpreter schools require that you have lived at least one year in your B-languages.

Where do you want to train to become an interpreter in the combination Chinese/Japanese/English? If I am not mistaken the university of Monterey is the only one offering that combination. Where do you want to go with interpreting: the UN?
At the biggest employer of interpreters, the E.U., you need to be an E.U.-national and have E.U.-languages as working languages. Although this year, they were looking to sponsor the training of a person with A-language Chinese and B, English.
Translation as a "career"? By 2015, the role of a translator will be to rewrite machine-translated texts into their correct target-language.
By 2040 (your retirement age), the profession of translator will be outdated (at the current speed of innovation and renovation of I.T.C-technology). Do you want to sit your entire life behind a p.c.-screen translating texts?
It is not only the love of languages you have to consider: Chasing invoices, negotation rates, payments, CAT-tools, tax-implications, working against deadlines, clients looking for minor mistakes to reduce the amount on the invoice.
Back to interpreting:
You have telephone interpreting, judicial interpreting.
However, conference interpreting pays best.
How good is your memory? Normally entrance tests at interpreter schools consist of listening to a text of 4 minutes in your B/C languages and interpreting that without taking notes into your A-language. Either you have a photographic memory or you start training today.
Do you have a well-sounding voice?
So, where do you want to go today (and tomorrow)?

[Edited at 2007-04-30 10:32]


liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:39
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
Intepreting is a difficult career to get into! Apr 30, 2007

Well, only you can really decide your future, but:

1. You have to be really strong in your A and B languages.

2. From what I have learnt all the highly paid jobs are either in the United Nations or European Union...and most of the other interpreting jobs are in the major cities (London in the UK and possibly Liverpool - I can only talk of the situation I have experienced in the UK).
So, you would have to be prepared to live where the jobs are.

3. It is an incredibly difficult job to get into in the smaller cities of the UK, for example.

4. You need to be VERY persistent and not give up easily when looking for work. You will need to contact many different organisations if you don't get through as an interperter for the UN, and not everybody does/wants to/has the chance to..

5. Despite joining organisations such as the Institute of Linguists, or the Institute of Translators and Interpreters, you won't get ANY practical help in finding a job. It will all be down to yo and that's not putting too fine a point on it.

6. Initially you won't necessarily be earning loads of money, unless you land a top-paid job straightaway (who does?) so you'll need a fair bit of experience behind you.

7. It's all very well loving languages and wanting to be an interpeter, but it's important not too put your eggs all in one basker. If you can develop other skills with languages, i.e. link it to another skill like IT, Maths, Science, Teaching, you will have more opportunity to work in different fields.

8. I would say you have to be pretty exceptional to work for the EU/UN so only you will know if you are up to it!

9. As I said, there are other openings for intepreters in other organisations, but you'll have to be prepared for a long slog to make inroads into finding this type of work.

What can I say?

Best of luck!


Nicholas Ferreira  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:39
Spanish to English
+ ...
Toronto resources for you Apr 30, 2007


I just spent an hour writing an answer, but my computer wiped it outicon_frown.gif so I will have to summarize the local resources in Toronto I recommend to you:

1) We have an informal gathering (powwow) of translators and interpreters in Toronto coming up on May 26. That is a great place to bring up your questions with local experts and learn from their experience. It's fun, free and informative. For more info and to RSVP follow this link:

2) While the U of T proper might not offer advanced language courses, their School of Continued Studies (SCS) does. You can become a certified translator and interpreter in a matter of months, depending on the time you invest. The translation can be done in class or at home on your own time. The interpretation classes are in the evening once a week for 3 sets of 8-week terms.

Luckily your pairs are well covered, with SCS courses for Mandarin translation and interpretation certification (see and Japanese translation (

If you have any questions after reading the info on these, I might be able to help since I am doing some of their courses as well and am benefitting greatly from them.

3) Once you are trained and qualified, Toronto has 80-100 interpretation agencies. As liz says, you will need to "market yourself" with them to make inroads and hopefully be able to start a career. As you know well, Toronto is full of Mandarin and Japanese speakers, so I imagine the need for interpreters is similarly great, though you would need to do your own research on that.

Interpretation (and translation) is not a career to start just like that: you need to build it up, taking on more work little by little until you have enough to drop your other jobs and still pay your bills. This can take from 6 months to a few years depending on your skills, demand for your language pairs, time spent on self-marketing, etc.

I hope this helps, and if you are able to make it to the powwow, I am sure we could talk some more there. I wish you the best of luck in the meantime.


Local time: 17:39
English to Serbian
+ ...
Love the language - love the job Apr 30, 2007

Hi Emma -

With all the good advice you've been given here thus far, I'd like to add something on a personal note:

I don't usually find myself worthy of handing out advice, but your life story hits close to home with me. I have two totally different native languages (English/Serbian), a third practically native language (portuguese) and a couple of B languages (spanish, italian and french). As I recieved my elementary and secondary education in English, by the age of 17 that was really the only language I had pretty much perfected. I spoke, read and wrote Serbian and Portuguese extremely well also by this time, so well in fact that no one but yours truly (and my parents, syblings) even noticed that I lacked vocabulary and practice in these two languages. I had only practiced these two at home and with friends. After several yrs first in Portugal and now in Serbia, all three languages are basically at the same level now. I actually THINK in all three languages. You should see my journal - I don't even realize when I switch to another of the three languages mid sentence! My husband says I talk in my sleep in all three languages - lucky he speaks Serbian and English, but he misses out on the juicy dcetails when I switch to Portuguese:)

My point is - REPETICIA MATER STUDIORUM EST. Repetition is the mother of learning - always was, always will be. If you love languages and communication you will perfect the languages you know and go on to learn more. Practice whenever you get a chance. Read out loud. Reading will improve your vocabullary. I am currently learning Bulgarian (as I have a good latin base) and would love to find someone who could help me perfect Safardi (a Spanish/Portuguese-Jewish dialect) as I uderstand most of it. On the other hand, my older brother speaks five languages and cannot list any of them as his native as he's just not interested in speaking much, let alone linguistics! Like in any other carreer, ya gotta love it to know it.

Now the downside, translation is not an easy business. In certain fields and languages there is more and more competiotion and translation now also involves keeping up with modern technology, software, travelling, etc. Also, if you're a freelancer or with a freelance agency, keep in mind that there will be busy, busy, busy periods (when sleeping and eating almost cease to be options) and dead periods (when sleeping and eating are your only basic options). However, with your language pairs and at your age - I don't see you having any problem with any of those factors. With China as the fastest growing economy and Japan setting brand new production levels, there will be a whole lot of interpreting to be done between East and West:) Chin up and let your adventure begin!

I hope you go for it and wish you all the best in what I am sure will be an exciting and prosperous life:)

"You are worth the languages you speak."- Serbian proverb


Brigitte Hamilton  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:39
Member (2007)
German to English
Great links, thank you. Apr 30, 2007

Thank you for providing the great links, Nicholas! I am a budding translator who just moved into the GTA area and is looking for certification courses - my formal background is in business, but I have done a fair amount of translation and interpreting work as part of my business career, hence I have been looking into more formal translation training.

I have a question on the powwow scheduled for Toronto on May 26 - is it open to Proz non-members as well? I would love to attend and meet everyone.



Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:39
Flemish to English
+ ... Apr 30, 2007

For more information about "real interpreting" and "links to schools" :
Interpreting is not just about knowledge of languages, it is also about techniques you'll have to learn and you do not learn those from day 1. If your "trainer/teacher" is a professional interpreter (member of AIIC), you will not be able to do anything well enough to his/her liking. You will be dragged through the mud until the day you have found the knack with regard to simultaneous and consecutive.
How would you handle say a professor of economics, speaking at a very high speed and rhytm? What about intonation, gesticulation etc...
It is easy to annoint oneself "translator", you can do that overnight. Just create a profile on a website and you have become a Proz.
To do the same with the title "interpreter" is more difficult. You don't have any aids (CAT-tools) at your disposal, just your head and what is in it as well as the techniques you have been taught.
Some members here have an EMCI, meaning they passed a quality-interpreting programme? Why don't you go to "search" on this website and contact them?

[Edited at 2007-04-30 20:50]


Nicholas Ferreira  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:39
Spanish to English
+ ...
Powwow open to paying and non-paid members May 2, 2007

Brigham wrote:

I have a question on the powwow scheduled for Toronto on May 26 - is it open to Proz non-members as well? I would love to attend and meet everyone.

I see you have already signed up, so by now you know the answer is YES. Paid members and non-paying registered members alike can come, you just need to sign in on the powwow page like you did. See you there.


Thank you everyone for your suggestions. May 2, 2007

The realistic comments as well as the encouraging ones were very helpful . I will take up all of your ideas. Next year I will try to set aside at least an hour every day to read periodicals and watch news etc in one language and learn new vocabularies, try to mentally switch back and forth between the different languages, improve my memory, etc in a systematic way.

This year I was overwhelmed with the work-load in university in the beginning and didn't read as much books/magazines as much as I would have liked: next year hopefully I'll do better. Reading everyone's comments gave me a strong motivation to improve my language skills. And even if I end up not becoming an interpreter, those skills would still be useful in life in one way or another, right.

I went to the aiic website and researched about interpretation schools, it seems that most of them are located in Europe, and in Canada English/French seems to (deservedly) be the language pair that the focus of the education is on. There was only one school in Shanghai offering Mandarin/English in all of Asia in the database, and as for Japanese there were none. I'm sure there are more schools not on the database, though, in areas like Beijing or Tokyo. And a lot of things can change in four years. In the meanwhile I'll try to practice the languges myself.

Nicholas Ferreira - Thank you for the information on UofT and the powwow, I never even knew my own university's School of Continued Studies had a certification program, so much for me thinking that I knew my university!icon_smile.gif I'll definitely look into the program at SCS when I graduate. Unfortunately, I'll be in Beijing from March 10th (after the exams are done with - woohoo!) to the end of August, so I can't attend the conference.icon_frown.gif But thank you very much for the invitation, have a great time at the conference!

Varmak - Thank you so much for telling your personal story. Trust me, with your impressive linguistic history you are more than worthy to hand out advice on learning languages to any other multilingual person. Your story about your Serbian and Portuguese being good to the point where the fact that it's not your only native language is not noticable to others hits on the nail with me. My friends also can't tell that I haven't lived in China or Japan for a long time in our daily conversation. But I'm sure my lack of in-depth vocabulary will show if I, say, take a course on Macroeconomics 100 in a Japanese university. I want to immerse myself in Japanese again by going on student exchange there for at least a year, but the only thing that's keeping me from doing that is the sky-high cost of living in that country.icon_frown.gif I also switch back and forth between the three languages, sometimes if I'm talking to another person who also understands those three languages (such as my parents) I combine words from three languages and utter a completely mixed-up sentence. For example if I want to say that 'I want water', and 'I' is 'wo' in Chinese and 'want' is 'hoshii' in Japanese, then I might say 'Wo water hoshii'. Of course the syntax of the three languages are different so I have to pick one syntax to conform to, and in this case I conformed to the Japanese one, but sometimes it makes no sense and sounds quite alien! However, I haven't reached the realm of multilingualism where I sleep-talk in three languages yet... seems that I need to work harder to develop this skillicon_wink.gif I can only hope that one day I can become a translator and be as good at all of my languages as you are!

P.S. Is the below true? This is the first time I have heard about this.icon_eek.gif If so, what is going to happen to the profession 10 years from now?

Williamson wrote:
Translation as a "career"? By 2015, the role of a translator will be to rewrite machine-translated texts into their correct target-language.
By 2040 (your retirement age), the profession of translator will be outdated (at the current speed of innovation and renovation of I.T.C-technology).


Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:39
Flemish to English
+ ...
A point of view May 3, 2007

Combine machine-translation, speech-recognition, CAT tools and a hughe google-like terminology databank. Let's call this SDLTrados2015 Free Trial
Isn't Japan the land of the robots.
What is going to happen is that by 2040 a robot will do the translation for you and that the only thing you will have to do is correct possible errors.

[Edited at 2007-05-03 17:36]


Local time: 02:39
Italian to English
Flair May 6, 2007

You are quite young, but if you like the languages you mentioned and have the flair to use them especially to make other people understand each other through them (that's what interpreting is all about...communication) then why not seriously think of becoming an interpreter?



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