FAQ #4: What Should I Major In?

“What should I major in?”

This is definitely the #1 most frequent question I get asked by young aspiring translators, so the only reason it wasn’t #1 in my FAQ series is that I’ve always resisted answering it. Why have I resisted answering it? The short answer is that I have no answer–I don’t know what you should major in!

The long answer is that there are all kinds of pros & cons to different majors, and lots of different ways of looking at this decision. After another recent flood of emails about it, I think it’s finally time for me to attempt the long answer. Aspiring translators, I hope this helps. Existing translators, please feel free to add your own thoughts (or refute mine)!

Here we go…

There’s no one answer to what you “should” major in to be a translator. I didn’t even have translation in mind when I initially picked my major (linguistics), and I turned out okay. I know translators with various different college majors that have done just fine, and I also know many translators who majored in those same things and ultimately never excelled as translators. So the major you choose isn’t the single determinant of what kind of translator you become. There are also circumstances that change how useful a given major is, such as (1) your personality, (2) your school’s strengths and weaknesses, (3) your specialty area(s), and (4) your source and target language(s).

Another key thing to consider is that not all classes you take in college will be in your major–nor should they be! You will also take classes outside your major, so you can pick one of the majors below and also reap huge benefits by supplementing those majors with strategically chosen other classes.

That said, there are four basic approaches that make sense to me.

1. Majoring in translation

If you go to a college that offers a major in translation, that makes perfect sense as a major, and I know people who have gone far with this. The first thing to establish when you’re thinking about this is whether the major offered is in translation in a broad sense (theory, practice, business models) or specifically in the theory of translation. Knowing translation theory is useful to everyone, but the usefulness of a major in translation theory may depend on your field of specialty. As I understand it, most translation theory majors focus on literary translation. (Edit 10/19/15: However, translation theory seems to be more of a graduate-level topic, so this probably doesn’t apply to undergraduate majors. See this post on B.J. Epstein’s Brave New Words–it’s mostly on PhDs, but some is applicable to BAs/MAs as well.)

Pros:

  • You get insight into the industry and the everyday work of translators that you probably wouldn’t get otherwise.
  • You get lots of practice translating.
  • You have easy access to instructors who are translators.
  • Your major makes immediate sense to clients.
  • Depending on your school’s program, you may be able to focus on a particular sub-type like technical translation vs. literary translation, in which case you can get work done on your specialty from within your major.

Cons:

  • Most translation majors are not specific to one language. In other words, while some programs may be a program in Spanish translation or a program in Japanese translation etc., it may be that your program is more generic, meaning your profs are not in the business of developing you in your working languages. The onus is on you to continually develop your working languages through other classes and activities.
  • If your school’s translation program doesn’t have any professors that speak the language(s) you want to translate, they may not be able to adequately evaluate the quality of your work. You can always contact the school or check out its website to find out this information. Even though the major many not be specific to one language, usually the school will list which languages the program can deal with, and not all schools will accept all language pairs into the major.
  • If you are not already proficient in a second language by the time you start working seriously in this major, you won’t reap its benefits. You’ll need to have at least intermediate proficiency first. If you are still in the early stages of figuring out how to speak/read the second language, you can’t begin to translate it yet because you don’t understand it yet. Of course, this is just my professional opinion; you can ask the instructors for their opinions too.
  • Edit 10/18/15: As an astute commenter pointed out–see the comments to this post–this is the most limiting major career-wise, since it doesn’t prepare you for careers other than translation.

Supplement with:

  • Classes in your working languages and cultures
  • Linguistics 101
  • Classes in your desired specialty or specialties
  • Classes in general topics, so that you don’t end up knowing lots about pharmaceutical translation but nothing about anything else

2. Majoring in your source language (or weaker language)

Not all colleges offer majors in all languages, even if they do offer language-learning courses in that language. But if your college does offer a major in your source language, it’s an option to consider. Majoring in your source or weaker language can work very well if approached strategically. And as you can see from the questions people ask me, this approach seems to match people’s first instincts:

Most colleges don’t offer a major in “translation and interpretation”. Do I major in the languages I want to translate to and from?

What is the best choice of a major for going into this field? I know you said it’s good to have some linguistics knowledge, but is that what my major should be, or would it be better to major specifically in Japanese?

For most of us, the source language will be our second language, and it’s something we’re still learning when we get to college. So for example, you may be a native English speaker with German as a second language, and you decide to major in German, the language you’ll be translating from. But what do I mean by “weaker language”? Here I’m talking about people who enter college already bilingual. Most bilinguals have one language that is weaker than the other. In some cases, one of them is drastically weaker–even if that one was their first language! But although we usually know which of our languages is the strongest, not everyone has good self-awareness about their exact strength level in their weaker language. I have encountered self-identified Japanese-English bilinguals whose Japanese is native and yet is also far weaker than my non-native Japanese, because they are fluent only in the vocabulary, grammar, register, and subject matter that came up in their childhood conversations with older relatives. Everything beyond that scope, they only understand amorphously, or they guess at but guess incorrectly (perhaps without realizing they’re incorrect). That may be an extreme case, but the overall problem is very common in the United States. If one of your languages is weaker, it’s crucial to gain a truly accurate picture of how much weaker it is, and where exactly your weaknesses lie. (For example, maybe your speaking is equally strong in both, but your writing in one is much weaker than the other.) If your weaker language is significantly weaker, then majoring or minoring in that weaker language is one strategy for overcoming those weaknesses and turning your bilingualism into a stronger asset.

Pros:

  • You’ll spend most of your time polishing your skills in the language you want to translate, which is crucial work that has to get done somehow.
  • You’ll probably also learn about the culture of the region(s) where that language is spoken, which is another crucial knowledge base. (This can be especially true if, say, your college doesn’t offer a Chinese major but does offer an East Asian Studies major with a concentration in Chinese.)
  • If your college requires a thesis, with this major it’s easy to make that a translation thesis, which is excellent practice for you.
  • It’s common for language majors to study abroad, so information about studying abroad will be plentiful and accessible.

Cons:

  • You won’t learn translation this way (unless your department offers courses in translation as part of your major), so you’ll need to proactively incorporate translation into your life.
  • It can be easy to forget about specialization if you go this route, since the burden of keeping specialization in mind will be on you. It’s unlikely that you’ll learn anything about a particular specialty (or at the very least, about a non-literary one) within this major, so you’ll need to supplement your studies.

Supplement with:

  • Linguistics classes
  • A class on translation (there may be one at your school or in your school’s consortium, even if your school doesn’t have a translation major!)
  • Classes in your desired specialty or specialties
  • Writing-intensive classes in your target or stronger language (creative and/or technical depending on your specialty)
  • Reading material like blogs, comics, and magazines so you’ll learn slang and “off-label” uses of words/grammar that aren’t taught in the classroom

3. Majoring in linguistics

I did it, and it worked for me. There are several advantages to this major for the aspiring translator, though I also gained advantages through my thesis, which was in an area of linguistics that many schools don’t offer full classes in (lexicography).

Pros:

  • Learning about how languages work in general can make it easier to probe the depths of any given language more effectively. (So, there’s synergy with your studies of specific languages.)
  • Methods of research in linguistics have some overlap with methods of research that translators use. They should also have some overlap with research methods in your area of specialization.
  • Linguists have an advantage when trying to figure out the meanings of new slang or jargon not yet in the dictionary, because they have the tools to identify patterns in the formation of these words.
  • Linguistics is a descriptive field, which gives you a better real-world understanding of how language works (and therefore how translation works) than more prescriptive studies like the classes you took in high school or even the classes you may be taking in college.

Cons:

  • While linguistics has synergy with the study of specific languages, it’s not the study of a specific language, so the onus of studying your specific language rests on you.
  • You won’t learn translation this way (but see “Supplement with” below), so you’ll need to proactively incorporate translation into your education.
  • While linguistics actually is an area of specialty already, it’s probably not the one–or at least the only one–you’re planning to translate in, so you’ll want to keep other specializations in mind.

Supplement with:

  • Classes in your working languages
  • A class on translation (There may be one at your school or in your school’s consortium, even if your school doesn’t have a translation major! The linguistics department advisor will probably know or be able to help you find out.)
  • Classes in your desired specialty or specialties
  • Writing-intensive classes in your target or stronger language (creative and/or technical depending on your specialty)

4. Majoring in your area of specialty

This is another approach that makes lots of sense, particularly for those who are already at an advanced level in their desired languages or who feel confident that they can bring their language skills up to the advanced level even outside of their major. Using this approach, you major in chemistry, political science, engineering, or whatever particular field you are interested in specializing in. You can’t specialize in anything without a strong understanding of your specialization, and majoring in the specialization makes this your primary focus.

Subcategory: Majoring in English, creative writing, or comparative literature

One aspiring translator told me this:

[…] after coming across your website (which I have found to be very useful), I am now wondering if I should switch my major to Linguistics from English; I chose an English major because I thought it to be the best major to pursue in order to strengthen and perfect my native English writing and speaking skills.

She made a great point about perfecting her English writing skills. This is a particularly good strategy if you are interested in specializing in creative/literary translation, whether it be of novels, non-fiction books, movies, comics, or any other creative/literary pursuit. To do this, you need extremely strong skills in the type of writing that you’d learn in English, creative writing, or complit classes. You also need a strong background in world literature (Shakespeare, the Bible, the literature/movies of your working cultures). Literature is a specialty just like anything else, and needs to be treated as such.

On the other hand, if you plan to specialize in medicine or law or something non-literary, it’s important to know that the technical writing involved in those fields is different from what you might learn in most English classes. So in that case, careful and strategic selection of writing-intensive courses is going to be far more useful than an English major. Some of these non-literary-writing courses may be offered by the English department, and some will be offered by other departments.

Pros:

  • You gain expertise in your specialty, plus you gain the tools to learn even more about it.
  • You have access to professors who can point you toward more contacts and resources that can bring your closer to your specialization goals–this may be the most access you ever have at one time, since unlike most of your future colleagues, your teachers are paid to provide you with this advice!
  • Majoring in your specialty usually exposes you to the styles of writing you’ll need to develop to succeed in that specialty, particularly if you let your advisor know you want to focus on this and ask for advice about it.
  • This is a particularly good option for those whose source/weaker language needs a relatively smaller amount of polishing. If your skills in your working languages are already quite strong, why not make them a supplementary focus and get ahead in your specialty?
  • English/complit/film majors can take courses on world literature/film or literature in translation, exposing them to the types of literary translation they’re interested in doing in the future.

Cons:

  • You won’t learn or strengthen your source/weaker language this way, so you will need to proactively incorporate this into your studies.
  • You won’t learn translation this way, so you’ll need to proactively incorporate translation into your studies.

Supplement with:

  • Classes in your working languages and cultures
  • Classes on translation if available
  • A writing-intensive class in your specialty if it’s not already incorporated into the major’s requirements
  • Classes in complementary areas (so if you major in the physical or social sciences, that could mean taking a statistics course early on; if you major in something literary, it could mean taking religion courses)

 

Final thoughts

As you’re choosing your major, I suggest keeping a few things in mind no matter what you pick:

  • You can always do a major and a minor. Perhaps you want to combine some of the ideas above by majoring in engineering with a minor in Chinese, or vice-versa.
  • You’re going to spend a lot of time with your major of choice, and you’ll need to survive it to graduate and get that diploma you want. So for your sanity’s sake, I suggest picking a topic you actually like. Take some classes in the major(s) you’re interested in freshman and sophomore year, and if you discover “Wow, actually I hate this topic,” then my advice is… don’t major in it!
  • No matter what you major in, I highly recommend studying abroad for a semester or even a year.
  • No one major automatically locks you into or out of being a translator.

7 Replies to “FAQ #4: What Should I Major In?”

  1. Frode

    I think you did a pretty good laying out the options and some pros and cons. However I think you’re missing one key point, and that’s looking at from a long-term career point of view.

    Translation pretty much locks you into a translation career – I actually think this is the most limiting major. It’s great for teaching you how to translate, and basically makes you able to do the job from day 1. You are however limited to fields you either have knowledge about, or use in class. A minor (if not double major) in a couple of specialty fields that are in demand is highly recommended. This goes for language and linguistics majors as well. Translation is also a skill that you can learn on your own through practice and feedback, but it’ll take you a bit longer to get going in the beginning. If you can get a job or internship in-house at a translation agency, that can pretty much substitute entirely for a translation major. As such I consider this a bit of a waste, except in cases where as part of the studies you take an exam to become an official certified translator. In the few cases where legal certified translations are needed, that can let you charge 50-100% extra, or even more. (The requirements for being able to legally certify translations will vary depending on country and region mind you)

    Language studies – great if you’re weak in a language, and combined with studying abroad gives you a great starting point for understanding the culture and history. Not so great for career opportunities outside of translation work, and fairly pointless as a major if you’re already practically bilingual. A more obscure language can also help you land jobs at companies who do business in areas where the language is spoken, and needs someone to help liaise with the locals. The foreign service in your respective country might also be interested, along with travel agencies etc.

    Linguistics – together with knowing a second language, it’s a good starting point for teaching said second language. It’s also good for analytical tools to figure out exactly what a line says, and to ensure that syntactical meaning is both retained and properly conveyed when translated. There’s also academia, linguistics research etc.

    Majoring in a specialty field from the start however is what I downright recommend. It gives you the most career choices after you graduate, and you can also easily change careers from translation to something else, or back again. It gives you experience in fields that can be really hard to get into for someone who’s not familiar with them, and if you pick fields that are in demand (law, medicine, biochemistry etc.), you’ll get more work easily and can charge more for it. If one day Google Translate suddenly becomes good enough that it takes over a lot of the translation work out there, you’ll be glad you have something else to fall back on.

    I’ve talked to a lot of people who seem to think that translators translate in both directions – for instance both Japanese to English and English to Japanese. In reality hardly anyone ever does that, and most only translate to their native tongue, even true bilinguals. The reason is that for translation what’s most important is skill in the target language. That means not only writing correctly, but also being good at writing in that language. It’s really hard to get to that level, particularly for a second language learned as an adult. This is why I suggest that anyone who wants to do literary translation should take writing classes. Write articles, short stories etc. Publish them. You may even find out you’d rather be a writer than a translator (which is a fifth major option).

    And this is also why I suggest not focusing so much on the source language skills – I remember a case several years back where there was a translation contest, and the judges were surprised to learn that the winner actually didn’t even know the source language at all. He’d just used dictionaries and grammar books to slowly parse the source text to get the entire meaning. His superior writing skills in the target language is ultimately what won him the prize. You don’t have to be perfect in the source language, but being good at it does speed up your translation speed. The more translation work you do, the more you’ll also learn of the source language, so actually just doing translation can be a great way to learn and perfect your skills.

    Finally, take some classes on how to successfully run a business. Unless you’re working in-house, you’ll be working freelance, and it’s good to know some skills relating to that. One day you may even decide to expand, and partner with or hire on other translators, and before you know it, you’re running your own translation agency.

    Reply
  2. sarahalys@gmail.comsarahalys@gmail.com Post author

    Frode, thank you so much–what a great comment!

    Your point about translation being the most limiting major is well taken. I’m about to add an addendum to the cons directing them to this argument.

    For source/weaker language as a major, I think this may also depend on where you grew up and what language you’re studying. While many of the Europeans and some of the Americans I’ve met didn’t need all the help and constant focus that majoring in the language provides, I’ve also encountered many Americans in particular who come out of college wanting to translate, yet really do not have sufficient source language skills at all, period. (Sadly, that includes some of the source language majors, too.) While your source language doesn’t have to be perfect, for the exact reasons you mentioned, you do need a fundamental competence in it. This seems particularly problematic for those who natively speak European languages and want to work from Asian languages, so my assessment may be totally biased and not apply whatsoever to non-Asian source languages! Most people who approach me are English speakers interested in Japanese or Korean, so there’s a built-in bias there. All that said, I’m quite sure that what saved me from the same fate is that I studied abroad, and worked my ass off while I was over there. So, perhaps studying abroad and *really working* to maximize your time abroad is the better approach for many of us.

    Linguistics — I think it’s actually more flexible than you mentioned, even. Many of my fellow linguistics majors have gone on to quite diverse careers where ling majors are welcomed, including computer science, various types of analytics, sociology, social work, public policy, minority advocacy, communications, etc. (Of course, several of them also went into academia, and I certainly use it when teaching Japanese.) I’m not sure this is true globally, but in the US people don’t always go into jobs directly related to their undergraduate major, so we’re used to “making a case” for ourselves and what our major has to offer potential employers. Some majors truly are restrictive (English being the common stereotype, and a specific language major certainly being limiting), but at least in the United States, ling doesn’t really fall under that umbrella.

    Re: business classes–Yes! Amen!

    Reply
    • Frode

      You do need a good foundation in the source language, but if it’s so weak that you need to major in it to become good enough, the language should ideally be a rare combination (JP->EN or KO->EN is not these days, and there are plenty of true bilinguals), or you’ll want to double-major into something that sets you apart from the crowd. Japanese is also a special case where there’s actually a lot less translation work for other languages than English, since most writing aimed at a global market goes through English first. It’s just easier and cheaper to go JP->EN->DE/FR/NO etc. than JP->DE, JP->FR, JP->NO and so on. I haven’t looked into Korean, but I imagine it’s similar for that as well.

      Re: linguistics – you’d know a lot better than me what kind of utility it sees in the real world. Your point about the undergraduate major not always matching the job is pretty much valid for any subject though. Just having a degree at all can open a lot of doors.

      Reply
      • sarahalys@gmail.comsarahalys@gmail.com Post author

        Yeah, definitely if you’re not already functional in Spanish before you get to college and you want to translate English<>Spanish, you’ve got a problem. For Japanese>English, though, it probably depends on your specialization whether the market is glutted or not. It’s definitely common enough that there’s not a lot of space for generalists, but as someone with a few different specialties, I have more work than I can handle and have to turn a lot of jobs down.

        Reply
  3. Shoko

    I grew up bilingual and studied a completely irrelevant field in college, so I’ve never had a good answer to this question except to say, “Make sure you have a fallback plan, because being a translator isn’t a surefire career, especially if you have your heart set on something specific like anime.”

    But as someone who fell into translating without ever planning to make a career of it, here’s what I’ve retroactively found useful that I picked up in school:

    – Learn a third language that’s completely different from the languages you know natively (If you’re bilingual to begin with) – Learning a third language taught me the necessity of understanding the nuts and bolts of how languages work. It made me work like I never had to in order to understand a language. And it required me to organize my thoughts on language, not just for the language I was learning, but for the languages I knew already. I’ve never taken a linguistics class. That’s not a good thing, but in lieu of that, I think this experience has served me well.

    – Business and Technical Writing – This is backing up what you said about learning to write well and what Frode said about learning how to run a business. At my school, engineering majors were required to take this course, which taught the basics of style, the thought that goes into writing well and concisely, and how to tailor your writing to your purpose. This was probably the single best course I took in college and what I learned from it has helped me to be a better all-around writer. My main point here is that learning to write better doesn’t come only from lit type classes.

    – Coding/Engineering courses – Logical/Critical thinking helps in translation immensely, and these kinds of courses force you to become good at it, because if you don’t, you basically fail. I’ve seen a lot of squishy translations where it’s clear that the translator is translating on “feel”, but what that really means is that while the translation might capture the gist of the original text, it tends to lose a lot of nuance and specifics, and can be downright wrong sometimes. Logical/Critical thinking helps me go back over my initial gut instinct translation and pick it apart, so that I can figure out which parts match up, which parts don’t, and whether that deviation is justifiable or not – basically being my own compiler and debugger. In coding and engineering courses, if you get something wrong, the program won’t run or the robot won’t do what it’s supposed to. In translation, there’s often nothing standing between you and a mistake except for you, so it really pays off if you can critically and methodically analyze your own work.

    Reply
    • sarahalys@gmail.comsarahalys@gmail.com Post author

      Thank you, Shoko! I love hearing about the Business and Technical Writing class you took–this is exactly the type of thing I was trying to get at with “writing-intensive” courses, but I never really stated it clearly with an example.

      I also really like the comments about coding/engineering courses, because I never would have thought of the connection with logic or realized that this could be such a useful way to acquire those important skills. This is a totally different perspective for me, which is fantastic.

      Reply
    • Frode

      I never thought that my coding background would provide any benefit, though I guess it does in certain ways as you mention.

      It’s also useful for things such as a understanding tags, manipulating file formats and using regular expressions though. I sometimes do things that the average translator would never consider even being possible, and it’s made my work both easier and faster in some cases. It’s what I would call “advanced translation”, since it goes so much further than just taking source A and outputting target B. It benefits me personally since I can work more efficiently, but ultimately wouldn’t make much of a difference career wise, and is more of a bonus than anything.

      Reply

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