What Qualities Do You Need to Succeed as a Translator?

February 17, 2020

By Ofer Tirosh

With an almost non-stop demand for content, the internet is flooded with text. And due to the global nature of business, good translators are in high demand. For some translators, working in a company is preferable. Others prefer freelance work. 
Whichever route you choose, let’s look at the qualities you need to succeed. 

1. Be More Than Fluent in Two Languages

Fluency in two languages does not a translator make. True, translators must be, at a minimum, bilingual, but that alone is not enough. Bilinguals can express themselves in their languages, but a translator needs to know how to express what other people say. 

Translation isn’t just exchanging words but transferring meaning from one language to another. Sometimes it involves word-for-word “literal” translation but often it requires more creativity and subjective interpretation. 

Because we live in a world where figurative language abounds, you have to be clear about what people are communicating, subjectively and implicitly. You need to “read between the lines.” That goes way beyond verbatim translation. 

Translators need to extract specific ideas from texts. They may have to go from an expression in the source language to an equivalent concept in the target language. Consequently, you need to be more than fluent in both languages: you need to grasp, in both languages, cultural idioms and nuances as well. 

2. Enjoy Bringing Worlds Together

Succeeding as a translator means you’re a globally minded person who sees value in all cultures. You see translating as a way to bring people together; to cross language barriers, to help people communicate. Yes, it does sound idealistic, but it fits. Translators enjoy what they do because they see the value in their work. When they do, they’ll see translation as bridge building and go the extra mile to make sure communication is done right. And customers will appreciate it. 

4. Award and Updated About Linguistic Evolution

As language changes, translators must change too. in the 60s and 70s, young people used the word “groovy” to express something positive and desirable. In the 80s, it was “cool” and “awesome.” In the 90s, it was “rad.” What do they say now? That’s the perpetual challenge in translation. Is “cool” the word? Is it “cray,” “dope,” “awesome,” or something else? You’ll need to know. And the door swings both ways. A translator needs to know which expressions are current in (at least) two languages. 

5. An Expansive Vocabulary in Two Languages

As if discovering new words and expressions isn’t challenging enough, you’ll need to know the older ones too. Having a broad vocabulary in both languages will help you succeed. One way to expand your vocabulary is by reading texts on topics you commonly translate. Read older texts to learn traditional word choices. Read newer texts to pick up the latest industry jargon. 

6. The Ability to Be Clear

Shakespeare wrote: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The KISS principle is: “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” There’s no need to be verbose when a few well-chosen words suffice. Good translators know not only what to express, but also how to express it most efficiently. 

7. Self-Restraint 

Despite the urge to correct what other people say, that’s not a translator’s role. That role is to express the author’s ideas in a different language. Every author has their own writing style. Their text belong to them. It’s their property. Translators must resist the temptation to change what authors say or how they say it. They should seek to preserve and replicate faithfully the author’s intent and style in translation. 

8. Writing Skill

Because translation involves reading in one language and writing in another, you’ll need excellent writing skills. Your use of grammar must conform to rules and standards; your word choices must be accurate and appropriate, your punctuation perfectly placed, your spelling impeccable, expressions and idioms understood and replicated accurately and elegantly.

Not everyone is a born writer. For many, it’s an acquired skill. Even experienced writers require regular practice to improve proficiency. 

One way to improve writing is by reading. By reading a variety of texts in both languages, you’ll open your mind to new ideas and styles while expanding your literary knowledge and honing your own writing craft. 

9. Familiarity with the Culture of the Source Language

Your translation should precisely match the intended message in the source language. That’s why your customers come to you. With a deep understanding of the source culture, you’ll have better insights about the author’s intentions when translating. 

Try learning the colloquialisms and figures of speech, cultural and regional traditions, customs and mannerisms, regional variations and dialects. Stay up to date with trends and pop culture. Go beyond literal meaning to grasp the subtle nuances of the language. If you don’t live in the culture, immerse yourself via movies, books, blogs, social media posts. The internet makes this easy . 

10. Find a Specialization

The field of translation is broad. There’s legal translation, business translation, financial translation, medical translation, and more. So, that means you’ve got room and reason to specialize. Choose an area where you’ve got experience and knowledge. Once you’ve settled on an area, expose yourself to relevant materials in both cultures to learn the jargon and the latest trends. 

11. Readiness to Research

There are times when you’ll need help to understand concepts or expressions. If you keep asking the customer for help, you’ll undermine their trust in your expertise. To maintain credibility, you’ll need to do some research. Software such as YouAlign, LogiTerm, Linguee, and SDL Trados offer Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) to help you fill in knowledge gaps and get the job done. 

12. Computer Skills

Strong computer skills are a prerequisite for success in translation. In addition to familiarity with word processing software, you’ll need to know how to research, keep logs, records, copies, backups, work with CAT software, and create invoices on your computer. 

13. Time Management

Time is money. Time wasted is money lost. Once a project starts, the clock will keep ticking till it reaches the deadline. If you don’t have the finished product on time, you may lose a customer. Therefore, having good time management skills is vital for succeeding in the translation business. 

Create a realistic daily schedule or spreadsheet. Make checklists and to-dos. Don’t allow yourself to fall behind. Log your activities. There are plenty of software apps for doing these activities efficiently.

As a translator, you need to examine texts word-by-word and line-by-line. That can get tedious. You must focus for long periods of time. 

But that doesn’t mean you need to sit for hours at a time in front of a screen.

Schedule breaks. Each hour, stand up, walk around, and move your body. This will get your blood flowing and refresh your mind. Gently rub your eyes in a circular movement to refresh them too. 

14. Customer Service Skills

Sometimes we get so caught up in the work that we forget our customers. The following points will help you succeed in the area of customer service. 

A. Pay attention to what customers say they want, not what you think they want.

Sometimes, we fail to pay attention to customer requests. We automatically think they want something translated, and that’s it. They give us the material and tell us what they want. We go to work and only later discover that we missed an important detail. Listen to or read carefully the specific requests of your customers to save time and repetition. Confirm instructions to be sure you have the priorities and activities straight. Your diligence and responsiveness will be rewarded in the long run.

B. Deliver on time. 

Be sure to deliver work on time. Your credibility depends on it. This is where discipline and time management skills come in. They’re called deadlines for a reason. Customers are dead serious about them, and so should you.

C. Don’t promise more than you can deliver. 

To get more business, freelancers may accept all kinds of jobs. But that doesn’t help you or the customer when it’s more than you can handle. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make sure you have experience with what needs translating; otherwise, you’ll wind up with an unhappy client. 

D. Be patient.  

Sometimes people needing translation services aren’t clear about the process. They don’t know the jargon, the prices, or what’s involved. At times, you may need to walk them through the process. Your extra effort and patience may be rewarded with a lifelong client. 

E. Stay in Touch.

Keep your clients in the loop. Give them benchmarks and stick to them. Notify them of any delays, major changes or when you need more information. Don’t put things off, or you may put them off. 

F. Be courteous. 

This goes without saying, but it is often overlooked in today’s busy environment. A simple “thank you” or “please” can go a long way in helping your client feel respected and appreciated. People are more likely to return to a business if they’ve had a positive customer service experience. They may even be willing to pay a higher price if they feel especially well-treated. 

Do You Have What It Takes? 

The qualities we’ve shared here come from experienced translators who’ve been there and done that.

As you gain more experience, you can use this introduction as a checklist to see where you stand and how far you’ve come. Then, you can periodically evaluate yourself to see where improvements are needed. 

So what do you think? Are you cut out to be a translator? Can you make the grade? Why/Why not? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.  

And, if you’re an experienced translator, please impart your words of wisdom so that all can benefit.

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