Mastering without a Master’s – Part 1

When I came to the end of my undergraduate language degree, I came very close to studying for a Master’s degree in translation, but I didn’t feel I could turn down the offer of a job as an in-house translator straight after graduation. While I am happy about the path I took, I still wonder how different my career would be if I had taken this alternative route into translation.

Six experienced freelance translators told me about why they did or did not decide to study for a Master’s and how it shaped their career. Part One looks at whether those who did study for a Master’s feel they are better for having one, and Part Two examines if those without a postgraduate qualification feel complete without one.

Kim Sanderson (@sandersonkim) studied for an MSc in Translation and Conference Interpreting at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh on the advice of a school teacher that having a Master’s was the norm for freelance translators and without seeing any other feasible way into the industry.

Sarah Dillon (@sarahdillon) wanted to start up her own translation business and studied for an MA in Technical and Specialised Translation at the University of Westminster in London in order to gain guided, hands-on translation practice using real-life texts under the tutelage of practising translators, and to forge contacts and gain a good understanding of the industry.

Verena Saura (@unbabeling) entered the Translations Studies course after pursuing Arabic Studies, and is now studying Institutional Translation (economic and legal translation), all at the University of Alicante, with the opportunity to go on to a PhD. She is working as a freelance translator at the same time.

So let’s start with the fundamental question…

Why should one opt to follow a Master’s in translation?

I don’t have a Master’s. Instead, I work in-house under the guidance of experienced senior translators, who provide feedback on my work. But why do others not begin their career in this way? Sarah Dillon told me, “I would have had to compromise other aspects of my goals to achieve it, e.g. work for a couple of years for someone else for little more than minimum wage, possibly gaining a relatively one-sided view of the industry in the process.”

That is a crucial point. Industry professionals can provide an invaluable range of views on how to approach a translation. Whilst this could also be the case in working in-house with more experienced translators, the working methods and procedures are inevitably subjective and may well end up being dictated by an employer.

So besides perhaps providing a less biased and more direct route into freelance translation, Master’s courses could be an ideal way to start specialising. Verena Saura’s course offers the chance to dive into the fields of legal, institutional (UN, EU, etc.) and economics translation, so much so that this course at Alicante University entitles its graduates to apply for the title of Sworn Translator, which will be a major advantage in attracting more prestigious clients.

What’s more, Verena believes a Master’s can provide a sort of reassurance for practising translators. “I feel more confident when translating, as with these studies my background is wider and deeper. Since the very first day, I realised the knowledge I was receiving was useful for my everyday work.” This is something that an in-house job may not provide, in the early stages at least.

How relevant is the content of a Master’s degree in practice?


My impression of a postgraduate translation course was that it would be predominantly theoretical, so I questioned if it would sufficiently prepare you for practical work in the industry, but it depends on the area of translation, according to Kim Sanderson. “As I am moving towards more literary/non-business work, I feel the theory is becoming more relevant. I do think my studies in translation theory helped me think about the different ways you can treat an author’s work, such as the audience and their expectations.”

Don’t get me wrong, translation theory is obviously an indispensable element of the course, but is there too much weight placed on the theoretics rather than the practicalities?

I don’t think any course can really teach you about the work environment,” Kim said, “and it takes time to learn your own translation speed and abilities, longer than the duration of an academic year.”

But it turns out that it could be more applied than I thought. Sarah told me that her course was “extremely practical and geared towards preparing students for a career as a practising translator and other related roles in the industry. We also had access to a very wide range of speakers and visiting professionals, so there was no excuse for not leaving with a thorough understanding of the range of options open to us as translation graduates.”

The degree of flexibility in the content studied may vary between universities, but a translation degree is what you make of it. You can choose modules that are more theoretical, or ones that are more practical if available. In any case, learning how to translate well only appears to be a fraction of the degree, as Sarah quite rightly pointed out.

Students entering a Master’s translation course will generally have an undergraduate qualification in one or more foreign languages and will have studied translation at least briefly. Contrary to the myth that anyone who speaks another language can translate, however, they would certainly not be ready to start working as a freelance translator, sending off their work without it having been proofread or edited by someone more experienced. “I do think having your work revised is vital, and this is increasingly rare outside a teaching environment,” Kim continued. Whilst my work is revised and commented upon by senior translators, I cannot comment upon the extent to which translators starting out in other companies receive feedback on their work, let alone those who practise without any qualifications or experience at all.

Does a Master’s help its students to enter the industry?

language-translator-3Kim said, “My course was useful because I got my first job in an in-house translation company through an advert posted on the noticeboard at Heriot-Watt. The boss was an experienced translator, and still expected to have to train people on the job. This, in turn, helped me get my subsequent job (at what was then the Ministry of Agriculture), which was advertised in the national press, so there was a lot of competition. Incidentally, when I went freelance 5 years on, my first work came through a contact I’d made during my Master’s.”

That’s the thing – Master’s graduates are likely to end up working in an in-house role or go freelance without any contacts or leads. Is it worth the cost and duration of a Master’s to end up in the same boat as translators without a postgraduate qualification? Even with the Master’s, in-house experience is vital from my point of view.

Sarah, on the other hand, also built up contacts made during her course, but decided to take a different direction in her career and did not foster this connections. “I initially got cold feet and took the safe route of working with a management consultancy in a completely non-translation related role. My idea was to save “enough” and then leave to set up my own translation business. In any event, I didn’t take to it, and left within a year to go freelance with a cold address book and no savings. I think the sense of urgency served me well though, because I had a full book of clients within 3 months and I’ve never looked back. I literally couldn’t afford to fail.”

So even though Sarah had managed to acquire enough contacts during her course in order to go freelance immediately, she let the trail go cold by working in an unrelated role after graduation. Moreover, not all postgraduate students would necessarily show the initiative and proactivity that Sarah did in attending translation talks and events and using the opportunity to network.

Verena’s degree offered an internship at an agency – helping to break the loop of needing experience to get a job, but needing a job to get experience. It also allowed her to work in the last year of the degree, with her first jobs coming from work that some of her teachers had procured. But what next? “Then, I started looking for jobs on the internet, via Proz, and other job search sites. I worked a little, but definitely not enough for me to have jobs on a regular basis.”

What’s interesting in Verena’s case is that, despite their best efforts, only three or four out of 15 of her classmates are actually working as translators, and she cannot rely on working as a freelance translator to earn a living, even with a Master’s. However, this can perhaps be put down to the economic crisis that is hitting Spain a lot harder than the UK, with unemployment at nearly 25%.

So, what do our postgraduates think about learning to translate in-house rather than in class?

Sarah and Verena said exactly the same thing – there are rubbish translators with a Master’s, and excellent ones without one. Verena doesn’t see having a Master’s as a must to be a good translator, rather a way to specialise, to improve oneself, to feel more confident in one’s work, to get to know other translators and teachers and to see things from different points of view.

Besides the neutrality in approaching translation, it is important to lay the theoretical groundwork of a career in translation, which acts as a safety net of confidence for freelancers.

But Verena also suggested that it is ideal to strike the right balance between an academic and professional background. It boils down to what Sarah said – all good translators learn through on-the-job experience regardless of how their translation career is formed.

In Part Two, we’ll see what some translators have to say about their decision not to study for a Master’s and draw conclusions on the validity of both paths into translation.