Are Translators Living Abroad Better Translators?

By Chiara Grassilli
In Getting Started
Mar 3rd, 2014

Why Living Abroad Can Make You A Better Translator


Translators Living Abroad


Living abroad is a great experience for many reasons. You meet new people, you see the world from a different perspective, and you become more open and flexible.


But if you want to work as a translator or interpreter, you will find even more good reasons to pack your stuff and leave.

Living abroad makes you dive into another culture. Studying a language and “living” a language are two very different things. When you live abroad, your understanding of the local language improves much more rapidly than if you were staying in your country and studying from books. This is quite obvious, right? Well, not for everyone.

But let’s see in details why living abroad can make you a better translator and interpreter.

  1. 1. You get used to accents. This can be a shock for people who travel for the first time, but the language they teach at school is not the language you will hear when you travel. Such a thing as “the pure English ” or “the pure Spanish” does not exist. Every language is spoken in several variations and accents, with notable differences from town to town, region to region, country to country. This is a difficult challenge for a non-native speaker, but it can be won with patience and training. You must train your mind to become flexible enough to flow with the accents.
  2. 2. You start understanding cultural references. Do you know why in Italian we can say “He swallowed his coffee and left?” If you don’t come to Italy and see how ridiculously small a coffee can be, you probably think it is a typo in the text, especially if you are used to the American size of coffee. It is not a typo: an Italian coffee can be literally swallowed in one second. These real life references are what makes you a better translator when you are dealing with texts.
  3. 3. You understand idioms and fixed expressions. This is something that you can’t learn otherwise. You simply can’t. There is no way you can understand jokes, idioms and fixed expressions if you don’t live in the country where they use them.
  4. 4. You will improve your spoken language. This is not very important if you want to be a translator (a quick reminder for people who don’t work in the industry: a translator deals with written texts, an interpreter with oral speeches), but it is vital if you want to become an interpreter. There is the stereotype that interpreters have to only interpret into their mother tongue. Not only is this a stereotype, it is in fact what they teach at university and it is among the profession’s best practice. Interpreting into one’s mother tongue is certainly easier and produces more accurate results. But if you want to be a community interpreter (namely to work in tribunals or hospitals) you will work as a bilateral interpreter. A bilateral interpreter works with two people who don’t understand each other and has to interpret what they say into the language of the other person. So you must be able to understand and speak quickly in your second language. It is really rare to find interpreting jobs where you will be asked to interpret only in one direction (from a foreign language into your mother tongue). Most commonly you will work in both directions, and living abroad trains you day by day to become more confident in your second language

In addition, if you like to travel, you can easily work as a freelance translator from anywhere in the world while improving your languages skills. If you want to learn more have a look at this article and find out how to become a location-indipendent freelance translator.


Get your FREE copy of the guide “Create your Website – Promote your translation business with the right website”

Sign up and receive weekly tips to get started in translation

Sign up and receive free weekly tips

No spam, we promise.

About "" Has 112 Posts

Since an early age I have been passionate about languages. I hold a Master's degree in Translation and Interpreting, and I have worked as a freelance translator for several years. I specialize in Marketing, Digital Marketing, Web and Social Media. I love blogging and I also run the blog

10 Responses to “Are Translators Living Abroad Better Translators?”

  1. Interesting post, thanks.
    Two comments:
    I live in a place where my source language is spoken, but I once had an agency refuse to sign me up because I don’t live in a country where my target language (i.e. mother tongue) is spoken.

    Concerning accents, I agree that living in my source language country makes dialects and accents easier to understand, but I’ve found that at the same time I’ve lost the ability to distinguish as easily between accents in my native language!

    • Chiara Grassilli says:

      Hi Catharine,
      thanks for your comment and sorry for the late reply. That’s a funny episode, that agency thought you can forget your mother tongue? It is true that you could loose the ability to recognize the different accents if you haven’t lived in your mother country for a while, but if you keep using your mother tongue even when you live abroad you’ll not loose it. It is true, however, that sometimes it gets easier to think in the source language if you live in a country where it is spoken, because it almost become more familiar than your mother tongue. At least, it happens to me sometimes… :)

  2. […] Translators living abroad. Why Living Abroad Can Make You A Better Translator.  […]

  3. Marie LeMen says:

    Great subject Chiara, it’s nice to remind people that there is a HUGE difference between learning your source language in books and learning it IN the country. In my opinion you just cannot be good at translating if you have never left your homeland and lived abroad for a while. Translators should not struggle understanding the source language, look up slang and grammar they don’t understand. Most of their efforts should go to phrasing in their mother tongue. It basically should be quite easy to translate, only uncommon terms or expressions should be looked up. If you spend time trying to understand the source text, basically you should leave that job to someone better suited for it.

    • Chiara Grassilli says:

      Hi Marie,
      Thanks a lot for your comment, I totally agree: professional in the language field should live abroad for a while. I think this helps not only the linguist understanding, but also the culture behind the language, and thus the reason behind some expressions..
      Congratulation on your blog,, I find it very elegant :)

  4. Before coming to Australia, I had been studying and translating English for more than a decade in Italy, so I thought I knew the language pretty well. No way José. Australians have a strong accent, they speak incredibly fast and use tons of abbreviations, like “arvo” for “afternoon”, “telly” for “television”, etc. I felt dumb for a while. After three years, I feel more at ease, but still go through moments when I can’t understand them. I agree with you that knowing a foreign language is not enough to be a good translator. You need to be immersed in that culture as well. Actually, I feel a much better translator now.

    • Chiara Grassilli says:

      thanks for your comment. Definitely agree with you, each country has its accent and studying a language does not mean that we can understand it everywhere. I had the same feeling when I first arrived in Essex, UK, where the accent is pretty strong. I felt dumb and thought I would have never been able to understand this accent. But after a while I started grasping more and more, until a point where the sounds became familiar. Strange but true, now I can understand better even the Scottish or Irish accents… :)

  5. […] Are Translators Living Abroad Better Translators?. […]

  6. I am late in joining the party but I do agree with you!
    Living abroad increases your knowledge and skills, but you still have to practice your mother tongue everyday and try avoiding calques as they can slip into your translations quite easily! (Then, proofreading saves the day!)

    Great blog, by the way! :)

    • Chiara Grassilli says:

      Hey Giulia!
      Thanks for your comment :)
      Oh you’re right, the risk is to calque the second language and create a new, funny version of your own mother my case it would be Englishalian 😀
      What would it be in your case?