Why becoming a successful translator is about more than linguistic ability

January 23, 2018
Why becoming a successful translator is about more than linguistic ability

Every successful translator needs to be able to speak two (or more) languages fluently. However, that is far from being the only secret to the success of the industry’s leading professionals. As such, this week we’re looking at which other qualities and abilities are required for a successful career in professional translation

Attitude and approach

Any translation career needs to start off with language skill, but career paths can vary widely from that point forward. Take two translators with the same language qualification and their careers can head in very different directions. Attitude and approach have a lot to do with this, particularly when it comes to working freelance. 

When you work freelance, your approach to work and ability to motivate yourself make a huge difference. Taking a proactive approach to finding clients, making the most of networking opportunities and maximising the potential for referrals can mean the difference between a fully booked schedule and days spent aimlessly scrolling through social media apps while waiting for work to come in. 

Determination can pay big dividends. Prize-winning translator Deborah Smith is an excellent example of this. Following her graduation from the University of Cambridge, Smith set about learning Korean. She had observed that few Korean texts were available in English and decided to do something about that. After just six years of learning Korean, she was awarded the Man Booker International Prize 2016, for her translation of Korean author Han Kang’s complex and moving novel, The Vegetarian. To go from not speaking a language to winning £25,000 for the quality of one’s work translating from that language certainly wouldn’t be possible without a hefty dose of determination! 

Organisational skills

Again, this is a key part of working freelance. That’s not to say that individuals with poor organisational skills can’t work as freelance translators – indeed, if they have the linguistic talent then they can certainly do so. However, it is the most organised linguists who are likely to have the most successful careers. Certainly, things like their financial administration will be superior and keeping on top of who owes what – and when each payment is due – is an essential part of successful freelancing. 

Marketing skills 

Likewise, marketing skills are also important. Those with a keen eye for marketing are likely to be able to identify and act on opportunities for work more successfully than those of their peers who aren’t natural marketers. Thankfully, marketing is a skill that can be learned and there are plenty of great books out there that can help freelancers to learn the basics and thus build up their business successful through a structured marketing campaign

Professional spirit

Taking a professional approach is of course also a part of a successful freelance translation career. Translators with their own professional-looking websites, with a series of well written testimonials from happy clients are likely to create a better impression than those with a poorly worded Facebook page and out of date LinkedIn presence. 

Part of finding and retaining new clients is giving them the confidence to trust in your abilities as a freelancer and, these days, much of that comes down to a professional online presence. 

The same is true in all elements of a freelancer’s approach. A crisp, professional greeting when answering the phone is more likely to inspire confidence than a Homer Simpson-style “…yello!”

This applies to everything from email signatures to invoice templates – it all feeds in to creating the impression of a slick, smooth-running operation that oozes professionalism at every stage. 

Lifelong learning

Finally, the most successful professional translators are those who keep on top of current language developments. The Oxford English Dictionary has over 1,000 updates made every three months. Those translators who keep up to speed will clearly be in the best position to produce beautifully contemporary translations.  

Final thoughts

It is this blend of skills and approach that makes for the most successful careers in translation. Which of these abilities do you display during your working day? And which do you need to work on? Share your comments below.