What makes a good translator?

As I hesitantly make preparations to begin the third and final module of my MA in Translation, I thought it important to remind myself of the main skills and attributes of a good translator. This exercise, I felt, would help to signal my level of proficiency and also identify any areas that needed improving, as I enter the final critical stage of my training. What follows is a list I have adapted from the National Network for Translation showing their suggestions for the key skills required by translators.

1. Professionalism: Ethics are very important in translation. Confidentiality must be preserved when necessary, and you need to know when to refuse a job because you are not competent to do it.

2. Networking skills: People think translation is a solitary activity but in fact translators often work in virtual teams. They may revise each other’s work or share big projects. Project managers have to manage big teams of translators. Freelancers have to meet and attract clients. People skills and mixing well with others are a must! Marketing and advertising your work is also going to be very important when working as a freelancer.

3. Attention to detail: All translators need to be a little pedantic. If you shudder when you see an incorrectly used apostrophe this profession might be for you! Translators need great revising and proofreading skills.

4. Flexibility/adaptability: Translation is a fast-changing profession and translators have to be prepared to pick up new skills and offer new services such as transcription, copywriting and post-editing.

5. Organisational skills: Translation is a very deadline-driven profession. You need to be able to meet deadlines and organise your time effectively. Showing initiative is important, too.

6. Writing skills: This is extremely important. Translators are professional writers. For this, you need to know your own language perfectly: grammar, vocabulary, style. An unquenchable appetite for reading helps, and so will writing practice such as blogging, student journalism or creative writing. Spelling is also really important for translators; bad spelling can give a bad impression to clients.

7. General knowledge: General knowledge is very important for translators and can help you pick up mistakes in texts. Read the papers, watch the news, films and documentaries… it’s all part of your work!

8. Analytical skills: It is said that translators are the best readers that a text will ever have. They need advanced analytical skills to understand how the source text works, so it can be reproduced in their translation.

9. Research skills: Translators may get very different texts to translate from one day to the next and may have to pick up specialised vocabulary quickly. You learn where to find out about the coronavirus, cylinder heads, fish and foot and mouth disease.

10. Subject knowledge: Any skills you have can be turned into specialised subject knowledge to help you. It might be law, medicine or mechanics, but it could also be a personal hobby, such as a sport. Think about subjects you know really well, and think about how you could get to know them in your other languages too.

11. Curiosity: Curiosity is one of the best attributes you can have as a translator. It will help you to learn new skills, research unfamiliar subjects, look up unfamiliar words you come across, spot potential problems with translation jobs and really get to the heart of what your clients want.

12. Excellent knowledge of the foreign language: You need to be able to read widely and easily in your foreign language and understand not only what it says, but what it really means – not always the same thing! Lots of practice reading, watching TV and films, listening to radio in your foreign language will help.

13. IT skills: Translation is a very IT-driven profession these days; translators use many online communication systems and a wide range of general and specialised software for word processing, file formatting and translation memory retrieval. Tools for terminology management and machine translation are becoming increasingly embedded in the profession. Software develops fast, and translators need to be able to keep up.

14. Good cultural awareness: Language isn’t just about language but also culture. There’s a big difference between the ‘banlieue’ (suburb) in France and ‘suburbs’ in the UK. In France the ‘banlieue’ are often associated with poverty, social housing and deprivation. Even though it’s technically not the ‘real’ meaning, ‘banlieue’ might be better translated by ‘inner city’ in English.

15. Love of reading: Translators are professional writers who need to be able to write well. Wide reading is a must for developing a really good writing style. Read good novels, good-quality journalism (great for your general knowledge too), history, popular science – the more you read the better. Some translators even get paid for reading books for publishers and commenting on whether they would be worth translating.

Reading through the list, I found it difficult to identify which were the top skills to have, as I felt they were all extremely important. But what it did help me with was to identify my own strengths and weaknesses. I concluded that I have great language skills but I am a little worried about technology, and that I’m a prodigious reader, curious and knowledgeable about many topics, but I’m a bit of a procrastinator and my organisational skills could be improved. It also spurred me on to increase my networking and marketing activity through LinkedIn. On the whole, it did fill me with the confidence to believe I have what it takes to be a very good translator.

Continuous Professional Development (CPD) is fundamental to planning a successful career. Perhaps this applies even more so in a field such as translation which has seen dynamic changes in recent times. It helps us to identify an area of weakness and to take action. In an industry that is always changing it also helps us to think about things a little differently and is key to exploring new possibilities that, otherwise, may not have occurred to us. I think it is always useful to spend some time thinking about what is required to be a successful translator, and which skills perhaps need to be developed a little further. This is not only true for a translator with limited experience, but also for a seasoned professional. There is always room for improvement.

I would be very interested to know what you, as professional translators, would identify as being the top skills required to be successful? Furthermore, after reading the list, can you think of any areas you need to focus on developing?

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