by Jose Aguinaga

What if companies interviewed translators the way they interview coders?

Welcome to the Tower of Babel. We require you to speak all languages known by the humankind. By the way, how do you feel about doing translations for free over the weekend? — Image credit: Wikipedia

Candidate: Is this the right place for the interview?

HR Person: Yes, good morning Ms. Smith, please take a seat, we were expecting you. I understand you are applying for the job of Senior Technical Translator. Is that correct?

That is correct. I speak French, Spanish, Italian, and German, and have done translations of both technical and academic documents for the past 7 years. I’m currently focusing in translating medical papers, but I’ve done all sort of translations as you can see in my profile.

That’s great. You seem to have all the requirements and experience for the position. Now, as usual, we would like to test your knowledge on some of your understanding of Linguistics, just to make sure you have the basics.

I understand you are looking for someone to translate manuals and labels for pharmaceutical products, correct?

Indeed. We are looking only for the best A players, who have a strong foundation in all the required aspects of the job.

Right. So… should we get started?

Yes, let’s get started, here I have some introductory questions tailored for the position. Question number one: how did the Arabic invasion in the Iberian Peninsula between the years of 711 and 1492 affected the Spanish language?

I’m sorry?

Do you want me to repeat the question? Here it goes again, how did the Muslim invasion in the Iberian Peninsula–

No, it’s fine, it just took me by surprise, was expecting something more related to the job in question, but I actually know that. Due to the Islamic Conquest of Hispania in the early VII century, and the presence of Arabic speaking individuals in the south of Spain until the Reconquista, the Spanish language acquired and adapted many words from the Arabic language. For instance, the word in Spanish for chess, “ajedrez” comes from الشطرنج (ash shatranj).

History of the Spanish Language, just in case you need it for your next interview — credits to Wikipedia

Excellent answer, exactly what I have here in my questionnaire, you got extra points for even giving an example. Second question: this author created “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, as an example of a grammatically correct sentence that is semantically nonsensical.

Is that a question?

Yes, of course.

I’m sorry, I just didn’t notice we were doing Jeopardy. Noam Chomsky?

Great, in which book did he write this example?

What? I have no idea, I studied Chomsky when I was back in college, now I focus mostly in translations which require no–

That’s a pity. It’s Syntactic Structures, written in 1957. Oh well, actually we only have most new grads being able to answer that part.

I wonder why…

If you invert the following tree, it will still make no sense — credits to Wikipedia

Right. So next question: the words “pater”, “father”, “Vater”, are from Latin, English, and German respectively; we can see in some cases the “p” evolved to a “v”, but in others evolved to a “f”. The words “piscis”, “fish”, and “Fisch”, in the other hand–

I’m very sorry to interrupt you, but before we go on, can I ask what these question have to do with the actual job? The job description said you were looking for a Technical Translator, and so far you haven’t tested any of my translating abilities and instead focused only in Linguistics.

Yes, I can see the confusion. You see, we are looking for the very best Translators, and it has been proven by major companies that the people that are able to do the job best have a very solid foundation in the science translation is based in, such as Linguistics and Classics.

For sure, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Latin and Ancient Greek and Master’s Degree in Linguistics, but I haven’t done any of academical work in the past years.

Oh, so you DO have the qualifications to answer these questions.

Yes, but I haven’t done any research or work in the past years that requires THAT specific knowledge. Are you doing any research or improvement on any specific field that requires deep knowledge in Linguistics?

No, we do pharmaceutical translations for our clients.

Great, so why don’t we test my abilities for translating instead? I’m pretty sure you have a few examples there that I could translate right?

Oh yes, good idea, let’s pass to the written exercises then. Please follow me to the following whiteboard, and grab a marker, we are going to do a few translation exercises to assess your skills.


Yes, here’s the following text, please translate:


…that’s Ancient Greek.

Yes, that’s right.

Do you need to do translations from Ancient Greek for the job?

Haha, of course not.

Then, why… you know what, forget it, let’s do this. Do you have a Dictionary I could borrow for a second to translate?

Oh, the goal of the exercise is to be able to translate it directly, here in the whiteboard and nothing else. If you need though, you can use pencil and paper.

Wait, what? Why? Even for normal translations I always have a Dictionary to support me for a word or two, why would you test Ancient Greek and not have an Ancient Greek dictionary at hand?

Right, studies from major companies have shown that–

Forget it. Just give me a second ok? I think I recognize that text from somewhere. Let me… “the kid who lived?”

Yes! Great work!

Is that… is that from Harry Potter?

You know, in case you want to brush up your Ancient Greek — credit to Amazon

Oh, no, that’s from the answer sheet in the “Cracking the Translating Interview: 150 Linguistic Questions and Solutions.”

No, I mean, that IS from the Harry Potter book, chapter 1. That’s the title.

How would I know? I’m not a translator.

I know, I’m just pointing out the fact that it’s from a very well known text, and probably easy to recognize for people.

Right, but that’s good isn’t it? It means people prepared for interview questions like these.

Yeah, scripted interview questions. Look, I’m really not comfortable answering questions on the spot, I usually have some time to figure out the best way to do a translation.

I see. Well, there are other things we are looking in the candidates we are willing to hire. Have you won any trans-comps?

I beg your pardon?

Yeah, you know, trans-comps, Translation Competitions. Those were you put a bunch of documents in Sanskrit, throw some beverages and pizza, and invite translators everywhere to lock themselves down for 48 hours to see who can translate those the fastest. Sometimes they add free prizes to spice things up. Have you ever won any of those?

No, I haven’t done any “translation competitions”.

That’s a shame, we are really looking for trans-comps winners.

Please stop saying trans-comps.

Ok, by the way, how are your calligraphy skills?

My calligraphy skills?

Yes, I mean, you know that we are a big company, but our team works as an independent startup, so sometimes we not only have our translators do the translation, but also do some writing as well, and the perfect candidate would have excellent calligraphy.

So you just want the same person do the job of two people? What else are you looking in a candidate, someone to package the products as well?

Yes! We call those full-package translators.

Sigh… you mentioned something about the team working as a startup? What is that suppose to mean?

It means we do Agile. Everything is in a flat structure, except when it comes to salary and responsibilities. We have a Translator Master, that coordinates all the other Translators in Sprints.

Translator Master? That sounds fancy. How many languages does the Translator Master speak? Do we get assistance from him if we are stuck in a translation or anything?

Oh, he actually only speaks English, and well, sometimes we don’t understand him very well. He’s Australian, so his accent is hard to grasp sometimes, but hey, he’s Agile certified, really good organising other people, and keeping track of what everyone’s translating.

You can’t be serious. You are asking me about Ancient Greek in an interview, and my manager wouldn’t be able to even know what that is? Can you give me a good reason on why this is a good company to work for?

Well, here you will learn things you can’t learn in any other company, while still making a great impact in the world. You’ll do something meaningful, and you will never be bored. It’s an ultra high growth environment with multiple opportunities for rapid development in many areas.

… you translate labels for pharmaceutical products.

Yes, we are changing the world, one label at a time.

Note to self: when we send a rejection letter to this candidate, be sure to include feedback that is too vague to be of any use to them, but will avoid any lawsuits.