By Marion Rhodes
CTA Social Media Director
Recently, CTA members had a very lively discussion over their email list about the merits of a graduate degree for translators. If you don’t have an MA in Translation or an equivalent diploma, chances are you may have thought about going to grad school at some point or another. There are many good reasons why you might want to pursue such a qualification. But, there are also very good reasons not to. Even after our lengthy email thread about this topic had died down, there was no clear-cut decision one way or another. In the end, the only thing we determined was this: Whether or not this course is the right one for you depends on your individual situation.
No matter what your profession, the benefits of a graduate degree may be lost on you if you don’t know how to make the most of them. More importantly, having a master’s degree in translation doesn’t make you a great translator. As long as you have a basic understanding of linguistics and practical experience in your chosen specialty, you may very well be a successful translator even without a piece of paper to prove it. On the other hand, maybe you are better served getting a master’s degree in the field you’d like to focus on, such as a law degree for legal translation work. People are as different as the conditions under which we became translators, so there is no one size fits all approach to this topic.
While some CTA members reported that their master’s degrees helped them immensely in their jobs, others said they had great careers without ever setting foot into grad school. We did come up with some really great things to think about, though, and I thought I’d share some of the considerations in favor of and against getting a master’s degree in translation.
– Competitiveness: The trend today is that more and more translators are starting out with an MA in translation. In the near future, we may see more people with advanced degrees in translation than without. As these translators expand their skills and gain experience, their market value goes up and may surpass that of a translator with equivalent experience but without a degree.
– Intellectual challenge: Education is never a waste of time or money. You always get something out of it. Most grad school assignments mimic real-world projects, providing you with practical experience and the added benefit of getting feedback on your work. Many institutions are now including terminology management, CAT tools and project management in their curriculums, besides semester-long offerings in commercial, legal and technical translation. And don’t forget the opportunity to work with seasoned professionals, which may help get your foot into an industry that’s not always easy to break in.
– Credibility: Whether or not it is justified, some clients may think of you as more professional if you have a graduate degree under your belt. They may feel more comfortable working with someone whose proficiency is confirmed by an educational institution.
– Differentiation: Especially in language combinations that are more saturated with translators than others, you may need a differentiator to get ahead of the competition. An advanced language degree is such a differentiator.
– Affordability: This is relative, of course, but if you are already working as a translator, any investment you make in a translation degree is tax deductible as a business expense, helping at least somewhat with the costs of such an endeavor.
– Expense: Besides the cost of tuition, you have to consider the loss of income as you will be spending your time studying and completing assignments rather than working for clients. Getting a master’s degree means taking about two years out of your professional career during which you will have very little time to freelance. Also, the funds you spend on a graduate degree might be better invested directly into your business, such as marketing efforts or technology to help increase your productivity.
– Loss of free time: Graduate degrees are demanding as it is, and if you plan on pursuing your degree in addition to freelance work, you will be very, very busy. If you have a family, be ready to make many sacrifices. Not only you, but every member of your family needs to be prepared for that.
– Alternative avenues: There may be other ways to establish yourself ahead of the competition, which may be better suited for your individual circumstances. If you are looking to underscore your credibility as a translator, consider getting a certificate in translation such as the one offered by New York University, or taking the ATA certification exam.
– Arduousness: Grad school is challenging and demanding. It takes discipline, effort, and a willingness to make sacrifices. It is not for everyone, and there is no shame in that.
There is no right or wrong when deciding whether or not to go for an MA. As one of our members pointed out, if there is a recipe for success in our industry, it’s the right mix of education, certification and top-notch business skills. Only you will know what is “right” in your case. In the end, independent professionals may be better served by focusing on being business oriented and ethical at all times rather than how many degrees they have.