Tips For Becoming a Translator

Tips For Becoming a Translator
Jan 02, 2014 By Trey Archer ,

So you’ve fallen in love with Mandarin and want to turn it into a career. Now what? Well, there are a few options, but the first that comes to mind is translating; especially if you’re interested in the nuances of the written word. For your convenience, here is some useful information that will help you launch a career as a Mandarin translator inside or outside of China.

China needs a few good translators
China needs a few good translators.
Source: khakiphantom

First step: Learn the language

Obviously you need to speak and read Mandarin fluently, so getting a major or masters in the language is a good start. If you started learning Mandarin after college and don’t have time to go back to school, try taking lessons and rank your fluency with the HSK test. Though many companies don’t take the HSK to heart, acing Level V or VI would prove that you have a good enough understanding of the language.

If you want to improve your translation specific skills there are several translating courses you can take after mastering Chinese. New York University (considered one of the best institutes for translation and interpretation) and the University of Toronto offer great online courses. However, both these options will set you back a pretty penny: for NYU the cheapest course will set you back $550 and UofT all courses cost $695.

Before signing up for one of these we recommend looking into local Chinese universities to see what they provide. Most Chinese language departments in China will offer one on one classes focusing on translation for foreigners.

It takes two to Tango in the art of translating: now that you’ve got your Chinese up to speed, your target language needs to be flawless, even better than your Mandarin. For example, if English is your target language and Mandarin as your source language (you are translating a written piece from Mandarin to English. You need to have the skill to translate literally but also have the ability to express meaning in your target language. You should be able to act both as translator and editor. Having a background in writing or editing in your target language will be a major bonus and China is a great place for this as there are always websites looking for writers.

Language skills are covered, now to find work

Like any job, you need experience, and like any job in China, a little bit of guanxican go a long way. However, whether you find your first job through a personal contact or the internet, you should be warned that it’s most likely going to be low paying and concern boring topics. In an interview with Chinese translator on, Brendan O’Kane stated that his first translating jobs were updating a weekly IT newsletter, and translating the script for a “faintly icky TV show.” At the start he was translating numerous articles a day, often pulling all-nighters, and doing it for peanuts. O’Kane admitted that initially it wasn’t fun, but it did give him the experience needed to progress, climb the ladder and move on to better paying, more interesting jobs.

Especially in the beginning, but also for advanced translators as well, you’ll most certainly need a dictionary just in case you stumble upon that technical, 30-stroke character that can only be used in one specific circumstance. You’ll also need a plethora of translating tools. An expert like O’Kane admits that he uses many of these for assistance: “Wenlin is very useful for literary texts, particularly texts that don’t include a lot of newer terminology; NCiku is a very useful resource for technical terms and English-Chinese (which Wenlin is nearly useless for); Adso is good for helping to make sense of particularly torturous sentences; International Scientific’s online interface… [is ideal for] scans of steal, bronze, and oracle forms of characters...” He also states that Pleco is “invaluable,” while Baidu Zhidao is phenomenal for neologism and chengyu (idioms and sayings).

Lifestyle and Pay

Like many freelance jobs the lifestyle and pay of a translator fluctuates hugely. Some get the posh, 9-5 desk job at a large corporation and are handed assignments on a daily basis. Others, mostly freelancers and part-timers, get paid per word. Some professionals are assigned large projects and get paid per 1,000 words, though these aren’t as lucrative. For this reason, it’s hard to pin point an exact salary. According to, the average translator in the US makes $53,000-$72,000 per year. Good luck finding this in China though. Here payment is often figured out using a per-word basis, pay usually ranges from 0.2-1 RMB per word (word count is based off source language).

Have a browse of both and as they often advertise for translators and may help you get your leg in the door.

Perhaps the ultimate goal for any translator is to finish the grind of translating 101-step assembly instructional manuals for home office sets and become a distinguished, self-employed translator. People like these can either be contracted by a company when work is needed, or be a reputable freelancer who is contacted by anyone who needs important documents translated. The best part of this is that you can work entirely on your own time and schedule. One often meets people when translators when traveling, they can take their work anywhere, and just have to make sure they have the ability to send back the finished translation.

What could my future look like?

In the end, translating isn’t for everyone, and you probably won’t become a millionaire doing it. As mentioned, in the beginning you’re going to be stuck with a lot of dull work. Even after years of experience, you’re still going to be glued to a computer screen for the majority of the work day. However, if you truly love the language, enjoy writing, and like the strenuous mental work needed to decipher thousands of characters, it just may be right up your alley. Furthermore, if you play your cards right, you very well could discover the day where you have no desk, no neck-tie and no office hours, just a laptop close at hand. That sounds pretty damn good if you ask me.

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Keywords: Working as a Chinese translator Translating in China Being a translator


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It's very explaining and thorough article! Very good for those who search how to build career in translating.

Jan 30, 2018 10:34 Report Abuse



Love how clearly you lay out the options for future translators.

Aug 25, 2017 19:22 Report Abuse



Very useful article. I was really interested in such an articles because of its applying purpose

May 18, 2016 20:29 Report Abuse



Thanks for this. I'm currently working as a freelance and office translator and while I agree it isn't the best-paying job in the world, the journey to becoming one has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling in my life so far. Good luck to all those who are interested in becoming translators!

Jul 21, 2014 10:14 Report Abuse



Thanks for this article, will follow some of this tips

Jun 13, 2014 00:40 Report Abuse