When thinking about a career in translations, many people have to answer the question of what skills are required to succeed. Is language proficiency enough? Or is there something else? Below, I briefly describe skills that in my opinion every professional translator needs to master.
This skill is needed in numerous professions, but in translations any deficits in this area are clearly visible. Especially that in practice translation is seldom simply replacing source words with target language – usually it requires transcreation and localisation as well. When working on a translation, we must repeatedly ask ourselves the same questions in order to deliver high quality end-product. Do I understand the source text correctly? Does the translation make sense? Is it understandable and clear to me? Will it be understandable and clear to the target audience? Continuously reassuring yourself by answering the same questions guarantees that our text will meet any requirements your client may have, and that it will play the desired role in communications with the end-client. Although it seems obvious, we rarely think that we can create something senseless or completely incomprehensible. And practice proves otherwise. Haste, leaving one job in order to handle something more urgent, insufficient expertise in a given field, and even the so-called “leftovers” (i.e. the remains left after editing or rephrasing your sentences) may result in parts of text that are silly or unclear, or in the worst-case scenario misleading to the recipient. It is obviously unacceptable in translations, so you should constantly control and check yourself.
How can you say that a given translator is a poor one? According to a popular belief in the industry, one characteristic feature of poor translators is that when stumbling across something difficult and/or unclear, they simply omit it. Such practices can be spotted literally everywhere – from literature to technical contents. Leniency and the “good enough” approach seldom leads to good results. Sooner or later, the client will realise that the quality of their materials is not what they expected (and paid for). It comes to light even sooner in translation agencies, where the majority of translations undergoes the linguistic assurance (LQA) validation process. Such texts are proofread by an independent linguist, whose task is to verify whether the quality is sufficient. If not, the translator will be reprimanded, will not receive full remuneration for a given job, and after subsequent such slip-up, their cooperation will be terminated. It’s a high cost, especially on such a competitive market. That’s why it’s worth it to spend an hour searching for a correct term, instead of spending days or weeks searching for a new client.
It’s crystal clear – to be a good translator, you need to know how to translate. But what exactly does that mean? Is a good translator always a proficient linguist? I don’t think so. Translation skills comprise excellent proficiency in both source and target language. Translated texts must be free of any errors. What’s more, even more important than language proficiency is the knowledge of the culture of both countries. Without this knowledge, one can at most translate simple, basic texts that can easily be done by many, including amateurs with lower rates, less experience, and smaller expectations. It is also important to be able to translate texts from one language to another in a natural manner that is clearly understandable and intuitive to the target audience. Today, when people generally have access to the Internet and countless online resources, another valuable skill is the ability of searching, finding, and – what’s even more important – verifying information. It’s caused by the fact that globally speaking our society has transitioned from the stage of gathering information (as this can be easily found in abundance online) to the stage of verifying collected data based on reliable, renowned sources.
Many translators claim that they see themselves as professional writers. I find this belief to be partly true. As mentioned above, any good translator is expected to have proficient command of their mother tongue. Even if they do not know academic terms or definitions justifying particular linguistic choices, they are experienced enough and have enough “linguistic intuition” to be able to translate from one language to another in a natural and error-free manner. In fact, each customer who regularly subcontracts translation jobs states that one of the crucial requirements is to ensure that the translation reads as if it was originally written in the target language. Contrary to appearances, it is not that easy and requires a lot of practice, excellent language skills, and intuition. The absolutely minimum requirement is that a translator does not make mistakes, as these are inexcusable in the target language, and every proofreader or verifier will not only report and correct all such errors, but sometimes they will also expect that such translator is held responsible. It’s not a matter of bad will or pettiness. Simply, any target text of poor quality means more work for the proofreader, and poses a risk that the client may lose their credibility and respect for their brand, hard-fought for over many years. So it’s understandable that when you pose such risk to them, they probably won’t be interested in further cooperation with you. A good starting point for evaluating your proficiency in your mother tongue is the oftentimes belittled punctuation. Only this area usually shows many people that they have gaps in their knowledge and they need to fill them in order to deliver error-free translations.
Another key factor many people do not realise or do not think about is the fact that the translator’s task is not only to translate words, but first of all to convey the meaning. Therefore, without sufficient understanding of the source text, it is virtually impossible to create a convincing, error-free, and natural translation. Of course, there are certain areas omnipresent in our daily lives, in which we all have some basic knowledge, and any gaps can be filled directly before commencing work or even during the translation process. However, the rule of thumb says – if you don’t understand what you are reading, the recipient won’t understand what you’re writing. During my many years of working as a translator, I have seen examples of that in almost any area, including those seemingly less demanding, which resulted from the fact that a particular translator did not feel comfortable or qualified enough, and they couldn’t create a natural text free of concrete errors.
Every professional translator must develop and expand the abovementioned five skills, which are necessary to succeed in this profession. Any gaps will result in translations of poor quality, awkward, unnatural, or even incomprehensible or wrong. Obviously, this list is not exhaustive, and apart from these skills there are also other less significant abilities valuable when working as a translator. However, in order to have a successful career, you have to evaluate yourself in these five areas and usually make some effort to improve and achieve a satisfactory level. Otherwise, you will always need somebody to correct or enhance your texts.