Learning resource: should I become a translator?

Should I Become A Translator?


OK – this looks a bit like a careers counselling session! But it’s not, honest. Today we’re going to inspire you to consider using your amazing and innate language skills to make your living.


A download of this learning resource will be available soon.


Nothing special for this one!

Introduction activity

Ask the group how many languages they think are spoken in schools across London? If you’re not in London, try and find the number of languages spoken in your area. The answer to the London question is in the video – so let them watch it to find out.

Watch the video

 Enquiries & Activities

1. Reading and Writing   Daniel Hahn – an amazing translator man – says that young people who love to read and write might consider translating as a career. Why do you need to love reading and writing to become a translator? Ask each other in pairs and feedback to the rest of the group. Who loves reading and writing in the group? Why? Can you try and get someone who loves reading and writing to persuade someone who doesn’t why they should love it? Should they love it? Perhaps it’s OK not to love to read and write? Get as many views out in the open as possible.

2. Advocating the writing of others   The awesome translator Frank Wynne (with the deep voice!) says that not all young people will want to become translators but that those who particularly love books and writing – and want to advocate the writing of others – will be interested. Why do you need to advocate the writing of others to be a translator? What does that mean – to advocate the writing of others? Is the writing you’ve translated somehow not your own? Again in pairs discuss this and then feedback to the group. This question is about authenticity and originality. If you can, get the group to imagine a spectrum where on the one end there’s only one definitive translation of a book and the book in the original language is the only original book (so the translation – though the definitive one – is less real somehow), and on the other end there’s an infinite number of  translations of the so-called original book and they’re all uniquely different books in their own right. Where do people in your group stand on this? Another way of getting to this point is to hold up three books – one which is the original, and two which are translations – then ask the group: how many books are there? People could justifiably say one, two, three, none or more – but the key is they must provide reasons for their point of view!

3. Made Up Words   Get your group to shout out made up words and write them up on the board. Like Wibblywoo and Schweet (use the English PEN Made Up Words book if you need inspiration). Now get participants to choose one of the words and try and define it. They are encouraged to be as wild and imaginative as possible! Get some of them to read their made up definition out loud. Talk about the importance of vocabulary for free speech, how our ability to speak freely is in direct proportion to the number of words we have at our disposal. Comment on how English has a large number of words – anywhere between 600,000 and a million – and is often described as having more words than most languages (linguists disagree on this). However, if this is the case, does it mean that translators are expected to have more words in their vocabulary? Discuss ways of increasing your own everyday vocabulary. Further enquiry: Ask participants for important words that they use every day and that they couldn’t do without. Write these up on the board – if you’re feeling brave, try and write a spontaneous song or poem using all the words! Get all the participants to read it, or sing it!, out loud with you.

4. Letter to Yourself   Get the participants to take a sheet of blank paper and tell them they are going to write a letter… to themselves. They can either write the letter to themselves today, right here, right now, or they can write the letter to their younger self or their older self. For example, if they’re 15, they should write to their 5 year old self, or 30 year old self. What will you write? What advice would you have wanted when you were younger? What will your younger self be telling your older self? Perhaps not to forget something – but what? Describe where you are right now in your life. Say what you’ve learnt so far about translation and linguistic diversity. Do you want to become a translator? If not, what do want to become? Write about your ambitions. It’s been proven that if you write down your ambitions, you’re more likely to achieve them!

5. Research   Make a group enquiry around how you would research what life is like being a translator. What would someone need to do to become a translator? Mind map this as a group and write the results up on the board. Which websites might you need, who might you visit, which courses might you need to take? What would really qualify someone to become a translator? Is this question like what qualifies someone to become a poet? Are qualifications enough? Reflect on any qualifications your group are undertaking at the moment – what does it mean to be qualified? How will they feel once they have got a qualification like this? Is life experience worth more than qualifications?

6. Translator v Writer  Is a translator a writer, like Frank says? Divide the group into two groups – one side is the translator, the other the writer. The translator group should argue that a translator is indeed a writer. The writer group should argue that a translator is not a proper writer – and they should give an account of what a proper writer is like. Give reasons and try and work out what your opponent group will say, so you can respond in time.

In your own time

Find a book that’s in translation. Find out about the translator and write a letter to them, via the publisher or their agent. They might have a website – so check that too. Ask them questions you’d want to ask any translator. Do this with other people in your group and share their answers in a group presentation. If you need hand getting in touch with a translator, contact us at English PEN!


This learning resource was written by Philip Cowell. Should I Become A Translator? is part of a series of five learning resources called Brave New Voices, funded by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The animation was created by Valgas Moore and directed by Azhur Saleem. Thanks so much to Daniel Hahn and Frank Wynne for being interviewed in the PEN stationery cupboard!



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