What to say

  • Translation is written and interpreting is spoken: they’re two different skills. Demonstrate the difference with a few examples.
  • Being bilingual isn’t enough to make you a translator or interpreter: you need additional training. Highlight education requirements and helpful life experiences. Emphasize the need for excellent English vocabulary, grammar, and writing in addition to foreign language skills. Provide information on translator and interpreter training programs.
  • Translation is more than word-substitution. Give specific examples of bad or literal translation and challenge the students to improve on them.
  • Machine translation isn’t going to replace human translators anytime soon. Provide concrete examples from Babelfish or another source and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of MT.
  • Foreign language skills pay off in the workplace. Highlight the need for language proficiency in hospitals, the schools, the courts, in social services, and in international law and business. Emphasize that language skills are an advantage in any of the well-known professions (doctors, engineers, nurses, business executives).

How to say it

Make it personal

Begin by introducing yourself and identifying the languages you use. As you talk about your work, use anecdotes from your own experience.


  • Describe how you became interested in languages and how you entered the profession.
  • Describe your working conditions (flexibility and portability of translation; travel involved in interpreting; multiple options in economic downturns; pros and cons of working in a home office).
  • Tell the students what a typical day is like, and be sure to use examples of any high-profile work you’ve done (interpreting at a well-known trial or political summit, translating or reviewing for National Geographic).
  • If you wish, include a brief anecdote or two on your most _________ experience (interesting, exciting, nerve-racking, embarrassing, etc.).

Make it interactive.

  • Ask questions and encourage the students to do the same. If you don’t already know, ask how many of your listeners speak or have studied languages other than English, how advanced foreign language students are in their studies, and what they already know about translation and interpreting. This simultaneously breaks the ice and allows you to adapt your presentation to your audience.
  • Hand out sample translations (of non-confidential material!) and the corresponding source text, highlight difficult or ambiguous terms, and challenge the students to find solutions for them. It’s also helpful to describe the research you did to arrive at your translation.
  • Recruit a student or teacher who speaks one of your languages and do a brief interpreting demonstration.

Make it concrete.

  • Compare and contrast the skills, traits and talents needed in translation and interpreting. Point out that translators are essentially writers and need excellent English writing skills in addition to high-level foreign language proficiency (teachers love this!). Describe the experience of living and working in another country.
  • Discuss the tools of the trade: computers (PC, laptop), dictionaries, terminology databases, the Internet, email, fax, computer programs, etc.
  • Handle the issue of compensation with care: use ranges rather than isolated figures, and point out that there are no standard rates within the profession. To find average incomes for full-time independent translators and interpreters, refer to the ATA Translation and Interpreting Compensation Survey for an executive summary of the latest report.
  • Provide specific information on career resources for translation and interpreting and discuss the role of mentoring in becoming a professional.

Make it fun.

  • High school students, with their wicked sense of humor, might appreciate the old joke, “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.”
  • Challenge the students to solve some translation problems. Hand out a list of literally translated foreign proverbs or common phrases and challenge the class to come up with an idiomatic translation (e.g., the French “I have other cats to beat” would be “I have other fish to fry” in English). Try to include one example that has no satisfactory equivalent, and ask the students how they would solve the problem. Stress the point that translation and interpreting go far beyond word substitution. In longer presentations, this can be a useful springboard for discussing the limits of machine translation and the role of cultural differences in translation and interpreting.
  • Use funny translation bloopers and humorous examples of machine translation. Signs and bizarre menu items also work well, but be careful to avoid any suggestion that foreigners are dumb or “can’t talk right.” Once the laughter has died down, challenge the students to come up with an idiomatic translation into English. Stress the point that a qualified professional translator or interpreter can avoid this kind of mistake through training and excellent knowledge of his or her languages and subject area. This is a good starting point for discussing education requirements and the limits of machine translation.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of bribery. Ask a few challenging questions and hand out appropriate prizes for intelligent or entertaining answers. These could include chocolate bars, posters, maps, bumper stickers or buttons in foreign languages, English-language books about a foreign country, and even ATAware. This is your opportunity to get rid of that extra tote or coffee cup!

Make it count.

  • Leaving something tangible behind will magnify the effect of your visit and ultimately produce a better return on the time and energy you’ve invested in your presentation.
  • Give the students sample translations (non-confidential ones), a handout with web addresses and other pointers to information on careers in translation and interpreting, and/or a flier about your job or a brochure on your employer.
  • Give the teacher a resource handout with pointers to further information on careers in translation and interpreting. If you have time, drop by the guidance counselor’s office and leave a copy of the resource handout there as well.

For More Information

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Statistics on the size and growth of the translating and interpreting professions.

For extra credit

Spend some time with the teacher before or after your presentation.
This could be anything from a five-minute chat about the resource handout for this level to a cup of coffee or a lunch date. One seasoned presenter reports that teachers are very eager to learn more from her and that she finds the contact with them extremely rewarding.

Cultivate a relationship with your local university.
Make them aware of your profession and offer to speak on foreign language-related subjects and at the school’s career-oriented events.

Organize a panel presentation on language careers.
Panelists could include a court or medical interpreter, an in-house translator, a freelance translator, translation company project manager, and/or bilinguals who use their language skills in practicing another profession.

Volunteer for “job shadowing.”
This involves inviting a student into your workplace for all or part of a workday to give the student a hands-on, “day in the life” experience of your profession.

Offer to serve as a resource or mentor for students who are interested in pursuing language careers.
This could range from an occasional 15-minute phone conversation with interested students to an in-depth relationship with one special student.


Sample Slideshow

ATA has assembled a sample slideshow that you can download and adapt.
Download Slideshow

More presentation materials

These sample presentations, tips, and exercises that can be adapted for your needs. If you do use any of these materials, please be sure to acknowledge the author’s contribution appropriately.

Slide Presentation
Covers differences between translation and interpreting; it’s not word-for-word substitution. Examples of false friends, metaphors, idioms, advertising, and localization.
Please acknowledge: Marybeth Timmermann

Slide Presentation
Comprehensive discussion of careers with links to YouTube video clips.
Please acknowledge: Eve Bodeux

Slide Presentation
Presentation providing an outline presentation for high school students.
Please acknowledge: Sarah L. Garriott and the Academy of Languages Translation & Interpretation Services

Slide Presentation
Good comparison between translation and interpreting; covers job descriptions, skills, and how to prepare for career. Focused on German but easily adapted to other languages.
Please acknowledge: Sarah Allen

Slide Presentation
Presentation providing career details, emphasis on communication.
Please acknowledge: Barbara Bell

Slide Presentation
Presentation developed for high school students who may be eligible for the Seal of Biliteracy. Covers definitions of bilingual/biliteral/bicultural, information on Spanish-speaking population in US, potential industries, translating vs. interpreting, and skills high school students can work on now.
Please acknowledge: Clarissa Laguardia

Slide Presentation
Presentation discussing the benefits of speaking a foreign language, careers using foreign language skills, and translation courses and programs.
Please acknowledge: Ruby Aldana

Tips for Students
Ways students can prepare for learning a foreign language.
Please acknowledge: Dana Scruggs

Tips for Presenters
2006 School Outreach Contest Winner offers ways to engage students and tips for finding student groups for your presentation.
Please acknowledge: Rosario Welle

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