Careers for Foreign Language Majors in Language Services

What kind of careers can foreign language majors pursue? There are far more options than you might initially realize. When I first chose to pursue a degree in Spanish, I did not have a clear plan for how I would apply my interest in languages in the working world later on. But when it came time to graduate, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there were far more career options than I had initially realized.

When I chose Spanish as a major in college, I hadn’t heard of the language services profession, a $50-billion-dollar industry. Little did I know that I would build a career in that industry. I first worked as a Spanish interpreter, then moved into research and strategy, later into marketing and software, and eventually into localization.

Many of the careers profiled in Found in Translation may be of interest to foreign language majors. The book highlights that there is nearly always a way to apply your language skills within other areas that interest you. Many foreign language majors are not just looking for a job, but a career that responds to a calling. If you follow that passion, your work in languages can lead to a professional vocation that brings great purpose to your life.

1. Saving Lives and Protecting Rights

The first chapter of Found in Translation explores what it’s like to use your language skills to do work that has a direct impact on the lives of individuals in society. When the book was profiled on RadioLab, the hosts gave listeners a glimpse into my real-life work as a remote telephone interpreter when I served as a the voice of a person calling for help on a 911 emergency call. That’s not the only scenario in which language skills can help save lives. If you’re interested in using your language skills in the field of healthcare, you can also read this article from Health Affairs about what it’s like to be a medical interpreter.

Sample jobs in this area:

  • Telephone interpreter
  • Healthcare interpreter
  • Medical interpreter
  • Bilingual health care worker
  • Community interpreter
  • Machine translation researcher
  • Cognitive linguist
  • Translation tool developer
  • Medical translator
  • Pharmaceutical translator
  • Bilingual first responder
  • Bilingual physician
  • Bilingual nurse
  • Foreign language subtitler for television
  • Dubbing and foreign language voice-over specialist
  • Minority language activist
  • Language rights advocate

2. Waging War and Keeping the Peace

Found in Translation also discusses what it’s like to work in high-stakes interpreting, such as international conference settings among diplomats, and during times of war. The unbelievable story of Peter Less, an interpreter who was instrumental in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice, features prominently in the book. The book also profiles what it’s like to do linguistic work at the United Nations, the European Parliament, for federal intelligence agencies, and even what it’s like to interpret for the President of the United States.

Examples of jobs discussed in this chapter include:

  • Court interpreter
  • Legal translator
  • Military interpreter
  • Military translator
  • Military linguist
  • Escort interpreter
  • Multilingual transcription specialist
  • Media analyst
  • Language specialist
  • Linguistic analyst
  • Bilingual intelligence specialist
  • “Fixer” (local interpreter for journalists, often in war zones)
  • Government translator
  • Government linguist
  • Conference interpreter
  • Diplomatic interpreter
  • Linguistic expert
  • Certified court interpreter
  • Federal court interpreter
  • Bilingual contract negotiator
  • United Nations interpreter
  • Department of State interpreter
  • FBI linguist
  • Presidential interpreter
  • European Union interpreter
  • Staff interpreter
  • Bilingual journalist

3. Doing Business and Crossing Borders

There are many jobs for foreign language majors in the field of business, especially in the areas of translation and localization at companies with an international presence. Found in Translation discusses how some of the world’s biggest brands employ individuals, many of whom were foreign language majors, in a variety of jobs, including Starbucks, Apple, IKEA, HSBC, Harley Davidson, United Airlines, the Bellagio, NASA and major manufacturing companies in the automotive industry.

Types of jobs foreign language majors can pursue in this category include:

  • Native content writer
  • Multilingual marketer
  • International marketer
  • Marketing localization specialist
  • International branding expert
  • International SEO specialist
  • Automotive translation specialist
  • Technical writer
  • Tour guide
  • Community translation moderator

4. Additional Jobs for Foreign Language Majors

In addition to those jobs covered in the book, many job types that exist within localization teams, particularly at high-tech companies:

  • Localization specialist
  • Localization manager
  • Project manager
  • Program manager
  • Globalization enablement manager
  • Product localization specialist
  • Internationalization engineer
  • Vendor manager
  • Localization quality assurance specialist

Other jobs for foreign language majors discussed throughout the book include:

  • Celebrity interpreter
  • Literary translator
  • Fashion translation specialist
  • Cosmetics translation specialist
  • Pharmaceutical translation specialist
  • Marketing translation specialist
  • Keyword researcher
  • Beauty pageant interpreter
  • E-learning translation specialist
  • Culinary and wine translation specialist
  • Transcreation specialist
  • Basketball interpreter
  • Baseball interpreter
  • Soccer interpreter
  • Olympic interpreter
  • Chief interpreter

And these jobs are just examples of the many and varied career opportunities that exist within the language services industry.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Not all foreign language majors can do each of the jobs described above. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself to help figure out which areas might interest you:

  • What languages can I speak, write, and read with native fluency? The answer to this question may eliminate or open up certain job types. For example, professional translators usually only translate into their native language, and not vice versa. While there are exceptions, the target language requires native proficiency. If you wish to be an interpreter, you work in and out of both languages. This might not require native fluency, but requires extremely high proficiency in at least two languages.
  • Do I enjoy working within a language, or between languages? This is another important question I like to ask college students who major in a foreign language. If you simply enjoy using a language, you might not necessarily want to work in the interpreting or translation profession. There are many jobs for which you can work directly in your language of choice. But if you’re fascinated by the challenge of conveying meaning from one language into another, language services might be of interest to you.
  • Am I passionate about language, about some other area, or both? If you love language for the sake of it and enjoy studying the various components of it such as grammar and philology, you might be interested in a career in linguistics or education. If you have other interests, you might be able to explore a specialization in one of those areas by approaching it with a job in translation or localization, for example.
  • How interested am I in technology? Localization professionals work in technology, and as such, are often very interested in technology. For example, even though I didn’t work in software early on in my career, I was building blogs and websites from the 1990s onward. In doing so, I gained experience with a specific category of software (content management). Usually, people with a strong interest in tech or digital experiences gravitate toward localization.

Hopefully these ideas serve as inspiration for foreign language majors and others who are exploring language careers. If you found it helpful, be sure to check out Found in Translation to read even more real-life examples of language professionals in action.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly Kelly is an award-winning global marketing executive and cross-functional leader in B2B SaaS, with experience at both startups and large public companies. The author of three books, her latest is "Take Your Company Global" (Berrett-Koehler). She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and global business. Nataly is based in New England, having lived in Quito (Ecuador), Donegal (Ireland) and the rural Midwest where she grew up.

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