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How to be a Great Translator

How to be a Great Translator

Many people believe that it’s easy to be a translator — after all, translation is simply replacing words from one language with words from the other. You just need to know two languages and you’re all set, right? Wrong. This is the biggest misconception about the translation profession.

In this article, we will take a look at what knowledge and skillsare really needed to be a professional translator. 

Advanced knowledge and understanding of two languages

To be a translator, you do, indeed, need to know at least two languages (but it is not the only thing required — more on that below). And ‘knowing a language’ well enough to be a translator is quite different from speaking a language for everyday, or even professional use. 

Being a translator requires in-depth knowledge of both languages, your native language (or ‘mother tongue‘) and the foreign language; as well as an understanding of how they work and how they correlate with one another. 

Translating is not just replacing words from one language with words from the other. Even closely related languages, like Italian and Spanish, for instance, are too different to do that. Languages have different word orders, grammar structure, and idiomatic expressions. So, translators do not replace words — they look for a suitable equivalent in one language to convey the meaning expressed originally in the other.

In-depth knowledge and understanding of the culture, history, economics, etc., of the countries that speak the two languages

Languages do not exist in isolation, they exist in societies. As such, languages absorb elements of the culture, history, and politics of these societies. Consequently, our speech is full of cultural references. There are also many cultural conventions that influence people’s speech, for instance, the levels of politeness used in different situations, and toward different people. 

For example, many Asian languages, such as Japanese or Korean, pay special attention to politeness and have complex systems of honorifics (expressions of politeness) which have no equivalent in European languages. Translating between such different languages, in either direction, requires special attention to the formality and politeness level of the situation. 

Research skills and digital literacy 

Human translators are still way ahead of computers, but there is one area where we have a disadvantage: unlike a computer, the human brain cannot store huge amounts of data. And even if you do have an incredible computer-like memory, in the modern world information is generated incredibly fast. There are always new words, cultural phenomena, political and economic events to learn and understand. 

To counter that, a translator needs to be able to do research and to use modern technology to their advantage.

Ability to deliver for clients

This would include, but is not limited to, making ethical choices, making professional decisions and understanding clients’ requests. But most importantly — never miss a deadline!

Some customers have a set of brand guidelines for their translations; there may be a brand style or tone. For example, should the tone be formal or more chatty? Do they want you to stay close to the original text or write a loose version in a more colloquial style? It is fundamental that you stick to these requirements.

If the design of the document has already been completed, you might have to ensure the translation does not exceed a certain word-count — ie. to fit the space available on the page. Pay close attention to figures and dates; some countries use different formats.

Other skills 

There are quite a few other skills that a translator needs to work successfully and to produce high-quality results. Here are a few more examples:

  • communication and interpersonal skills
  • business and marketing skills
  • customer service skills
  • self-motivation and discipline
  • time-management and organisational skills
  • a good general level of education 

Language professionals

If you don’t feel translation is for you, but are nonetheless interested in working with languages, there are many other language professions. Possible profiles include such jobs as an editor, proofreader, cultural adviser, technical literature specialist, terminologist, localisation project manager, and many more. 

There is more to language professions that you might think. They involve lots of skills, not all of them language-related, and not all of them are about translating. Language professions are often dynamic, innovative, multicultural, and high-tech. They can also be a lot of fun!

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