Do You Need a College Degree?

A few months ago, a lovely acquaintance who wants to be an interpreter, asked us whether she needed a college degree to succeed as a (court) interpreter. We hadn't really thought about this, as college is such a natural step in most professionals' lives, but the question is more than valid and merited some more thought. The answer is a bit more complicated than it seems, but basically, we'd say the answer is: yes, you should probably have a college degree to make sure you put yourself in the best-possible competitive position. The longer answer is: it depends. Let us elaborate on that.

Translation and interpretation are very competitive industries, and according to some surveys (there aren't too many on this topic, actually), the vast majority of translators and interpreters hold at least a bachelor's degree, but many have advanced degrees, including doctoral degrees. However, especially in the US, these degrees aren't necessarily in T&I but in other fields. In Europe, things are quite different, as T&I programs are easily available at most universities, so anecdotally we will go out on a limb here and use our background in the industry to boldly state that most translators and interpreters who work professionally in Europe not only have college degrees, but have degrees in the actual field. Which one is better, a T&I degree or a degree in another field, perhaps in your area of specialization? That's a topic for another post.

Now, is a degree strictly necessary to work as a translator and interpreter? No, it's not. Ours is a fairly unregulated industry, and there are no hard educational guidelines, as opposed to, say, lawyers, who need to have a J.D. (or an LLM if they are coming from another country) to sit for the Bar Exam. Not so for translators and interpreters.

However, we personally only know two successful interpreters (and no translators) who do not hold a college degree. We are not saying it's essential, but it's just another tool that you need to have in your toolbox. The reality is that few professional jobs in this economy are open to non-college graduates, for better or for worse. Newcomers to the profession have to compete with colleagues who might have 20+ years of experience and hold graduate degrees, so any newcomer is well advised to get as much formal education under their belt as possible. While it's not impossible to succeed in this business without a college degree, it's unusual and it's an uphill battle.

We did some soul-searching and asked ourselves: would we work with (=outsource to) a colleague who did not have a formal college degree? This is a tough question, and the answer is: probably not, as we have a long list of superstar colleagues with impressive credentials to whom we are more likely to outsource. Would we discount someone without a college degree immediately, as many employers and LSPs might do? Probably not, but it does give us pause, and we do think earning a college degree shows initiative and determination. We are usually particularly puzzled by those who are one class or a few credits away from finishing their degrees, and unfortunately, in education, things are black or white in terms of credentials. Either you have a degree or you don't (there is no such thing as an almost-degree). While we don't want to draw general conclusions on someone's work ethic based on whether or not one has a college degree, having one does show dedication and stamina, which are important in our industry.

So, in a nutshell, we think that in order to be competitive in our industry, every newcomer should have a college degree in some field. We are not saying you won't be successful without one, but the chances of success are usually higher with a college degree. On the interpreting side, we've seen a few colleagues who do very well for themselves without a degree, but they are the exception rather than the rule. What do you think, dear colleagues? Ah, and for the record, Judy has an MBA in marketing and an undergraduate degree in business administration, while Dagy has a master's degree in conference interpreting, a bachelor's degree in translation and interpretation, and the equivalent of a master's degre in French and communications. That should be sufficient degrees for now, although we have thought about getting a PhD...


Anonymous said...

Translation is not just about speaking a foreign language. It is about a special way of thinking, and writing, and reading. My judgement, however, may not be impartial, for I really love studying. I have a graduate degree in linguistics and translation, in training English and German, and in literature translation. What's next, I wonder.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 10, 2014 at 12:22 PM said...

@milingva: Thanks for reading and for commenting. We are with you -- we also love studying, learning, and collecting college degrees!

Viviana Spicer on July 25, 2014 at 4:47 PM said...

I actually just finished reading your book The Entrepreneurial Linguist and decided to check out your blog. I am a young translator and interpreter without a college degree in languages, though I do have a degree in Global Studies. It's encouraging to see that I do not necessarily need a degree in translation to be successful.

Tommy Carney on July 28, 2014 at 2:20 AM said...

If you speak more than one language, love translating and want to work as a translator (read: middle-class), it's highly likely that you'll have a college degree. However, it's not at all evident that having a college degree helps with translation.

In fact, there is some evidence that college doesn't lead to any measurable increase in broad-based skills and knowledge in many case (

The real question is a person's skill at translation, and you can get a good idea of that from seeing their work, rather than degrees.

In software development, your GitHub account (where you display your open-source software) is the main criterion for hiring, rather than degrees.

I'd follow that model.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 28, 2014 at 9:52 AM said...

@Viviana: Many thanks for the lovely note and thanks for reading, Viviana! Here in the US, it's relatively difficult to obtain a degree in T&I, so based on our many years' experience, we would say that yes, any degree is usually good to succeed in this industry, not necessarily in T&I. The same is (mostly) not true in much of Europe, where T&I degrees are routinely offered at the vast majority of universities.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on July 28, 2014 at 9:55 AM said...

@Tommy: Thanks for reading and for commenting. You are absolutely right, Tommy: it's about skills, ultimately. But those skills are sometimes difficult to measure for potential clients, who cannot evaluate our skills, especially when translating into a language that they don't speak. And that's when it's important to have degrees and/or credentials. We think the software approach (displaying the software you have developed) is absolutely fabulous, and could serve as inspiration for our industry, although the problem of potential clients not being able to judge the work remains the same.... the difference with tech is that in tech, the folks making the hiring/outsourcing decisions are also techies, but that's not the case for language services. Interesting food for thought indeed. Thanks for bringing this up!

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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