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What does it take to be a good translator?

Dear Sirs:

I am a bilingual secretary at Company X and I also do translations in my spare time. I have attached my resume, in the event there is any interest in my working with you.

Sincerely,

Jane Doe

We often receive e-mails like this; a bilingual secretary who translates in her spare time, probably to pad her income. However, there is a problem. We don’t want part-time translators in our company. We want full-time professional translators committed to their craft, who are specialized, take refresher courses and – well – just live and breathe translation.

Back to the subject, what exactly does it take to be a good translator? As it may be seen above, it is pretty clear that one should to devote their body and soul full time to the profession to begin with – like in any other trade – however that is not enough. Based on my 10+ years’ experience in recruiting and searching for talents in translation, I have drawn the list below, which I believe to be the fundamental features of a good translator:

1. Good writing skills

A translator cannot translate properly if they don’t write well. Good writing is a basic requirement for any good translator. I often ask new translators to write something on their own before taking any kind of translation. They look at me with amazement as if I were putting them through a college entrance exam. Many people do not associate the importance of good writing skills with their responsibilities as a translator; while poor writing usually prevents their translation work from rising above mediocrity.

2. Be an avid reader

This item is directly linked to the previous one. You have to read a lot to write well. Therefore I suggest that you read as much as possible – books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Reading expands your vocabulary and increases your general culture. Your writing will certainly improve, as well as your linguistic repertoire.

3. Stay up-to-date

Once again, this item goes pretty much hand in hand with the prior one. A translator needs to stay well informed, and hence should read as much as possible. Keeping current is part of a translator’s daily routine. After all, they will probably be requested to translate material related to current issues and events, usually discussed in the media, and understanding the subject well may take you half way there.

4. Develop research skill

No matter how familiar a translator may be with any given subject, now and then an unknown term or expression will come up. This is when your research skills come into play. Google is generally a great research tool, however there are many others, such as on-line glossaries as well as Wikipedia (albeit some of its glaring mistakes), etc. Nowadays you can find answers to most of the translation questions on the Internet. Therefore, excuses are no longer acceptable; all you have to do is to explore the vast array of on-line material out there, not to mention specialized dictionaries (hard copy), which should be part of your own library.

5. Ask your peers and join translator newsgroups

If you still have a hard time finding an answer to your question, no matter how hard you try, you can always ask your fellow translators. Networking with your peers should be broad, reaching as many people as possible, since there should always be someone who knows the answer you are looking for. Another good tip is to join in translators’ newsgroups. I can suggest trad-prt as just one from an extensive list. Translators can ask their questions there to hundreds of other translators, some of which may have that elusive answer.

6. Specialize

I always ask translators I am recruiting what are their areas of specialty and I get utterly floored when they answer: “I translate in all areas,” or “I specialize in finance, culinary arts, medicine, auto mechanics, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, soccer, legal contracts, as well as social sciences.” I honestly doubt it. Even worse, such answers tempt me to get rid of these candidates faster. We have translators working for us who focus exclusively on medicine, while others specialize in legal work. I would like to mention, by way of example, a friend of mine and an excellent translator, Márcio Badra, a former bank executive who naturally specialized in translating finance, and has been very successfully at it, given his command of the jargon and his thorough knowledge of the industry.

7. Take specialization or refresher courses

Once again, this holds true for any profession, yet a translator is not allowed to disregard it. It may be a course on the new Portuguese spelling reform, translation techniques, legal terminology, or computer assisted translation programs such as those taught by Danilo Nogueira, who has an in-depth knowledge of programs like Trados, Wordfast, or Déjà Vu; it is absolutely essential to keep current. I would also like to mention specifically the courses offered by the language school Alumni, for translator and interpreter training, which I rank as excellent.

8. Master computer technology

Here I must mention a rather sad story. We sent a file in Word format to a translator about to do his first job for us. The file had been carefully laid out, including words and titles in bold, italics, and using varied fonts, plus an automatically generated and linked index, etc. When we received the translation, it came in plain text, without any of those bolds, italics, different fonts, etc. I was dumbfounded and immediately called the translator who gave me this rather bizarre answer, “I printed out the file using Word and translated it from hard copy, because that’s how I work.” No comment, and it goes without saying that it was the very first and last time we ever hired this professional (?).

So it is essential to master Microsoft Office. If I send a file with some specific formatting (exception made to PDF files, of course), I expect to receive it exactly the same. Therefore a translator knowing their way in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is always taken for granted.

9. Understand and learn to use some computer assisted translation program (Trados, Wordfast, Déjà Vu, etc.)

As the owner of a translation firm, I often hear translators complaining that “they are forced to work with Trados (or Wordfast, etc.), because agency X, for whom they have been translating so requires.” The software is assigned to be the villain. The agency uses it to make a profit on the poor translator. This may even be true in some cases, however translators seem to overlook the key issue: these programs are productivity tools, i.e., they serve to increase the translation professional’s output. However regardless of whether a job is for an agency or a direct client, using them means higher productivity in the long run, resulting in more money.

I can’t imagine a translator nowadays still doing it in the good ol’ way, i.e. without being boosted by such software. These tools increase productivity, standardize terminology, save on typing (copying numbers, for instance), just to name a few benefits. In this case, translators should overcome their skepticism and start using them.

10. Pay attention and become a perfectionist

This might seem overrated, however I think that paying attention is essential for a good translator. I have lost count of how many times I saw translators simply skipping a word (or a whole sentence!) in a translation, or typing the wrong date (which is awfully bad in a plain translation, yet unacceptable in a sworn translation) or even commit gross subject-verb concordance mistakes. A translator should pay close attention upon translating and review the work with utmost care. Taking this one step further, translators should work toward becoming perfectionists, as both agencies and direct clients expect a flawless, error-free finished product, and requiring as little rework as possible; this is the benchmark all translators should strive to achieve.