How to Be a Good Translator

Translation is a highly skilled, rewarding and satisfying job. But how do you become a good translator?

Experienced translator Lanna Castellano has described the translator’s career path as follows:

“Our profession is based on knowledge and experience. It has the longest apprenticeship of any profession. Not until thirty do you start to be useful as a translator, not until fifty do you start to be in your prime.

The first stage of the career pyramid – the apprenticeship stage – is the time we devote to investing in ourselves by acquiring knowledge and experience of life.

Let me propose a life path: grandparents of different nationalities, a good school education in which you learn to read, write, spell, construe and love your own language. Then roam the world, make friends, see life.

Go back to education, but to take a technical or commercial degree, not a language degree. Spend the rest of your twenties and your early thirties in the countries whose languages you speak, working in industry or commerce but not directly in languages.

Never marry into your own nationality. Have your children. Then back to a postgraduate translation course. A staff job as a translator, and then go freelance.

By which time you are forty and ready to begin”.
(Lanna Castellano, 1988)

That’s a hard path to follow. I’ve been trying for years to convince my grandparents to re-incarnate and give me an exotically foreign lineage – Russian-Portuguese on my mother’s side, perhaps, and French-Chinese on my father’s – but they remain stubbornly Irish-Scottish. And not even Gaelic-speaking!

Tips for translators

But you can be a good translator even if you don’t meet all of Lanna’s stringent criteria. Here are some tips that might help:

  • Love language, especially your own. And keep studying it.
  • Learn to write well.
  • Learn about and study your passive language and the culture it comes from.
  • Only translate into your own language.
  • Select a specialist area of expertise, and study and be prepared to learn more about your specialist subject. Constantly.
  • Read: books, newspapers, blogs, magazines, adverts, style guides, cereal packets…
  • Listen: to TV, the radio, friends and family, strangers in the street, on the bus, in bars, in shops…
  • Attend workshops, seminars and conferences in your subject area – listen to the experts, absorb their language. Even their jargon – but try not to use it.
  • Keep up with current affairs.
  • Keep your IT skills up-to-date.
  • Practise and hone your skills – keep up with your training.
  • Listen to the words that you write (some writers and translators read their texts out loud to themselves). Languages each have their own rhythm. If your writing doesn’t “sound” right, try changing the word order, not just the words.
  • Use your spell-checker. Use it judiciously, but use it. Always.
  • Print out your translated text and read it on paper before delivering it to your client. Always. Especially if you use computer-assisted translation (CAT) software. Print it out.
  • Ask yourself if your translation makes sense. If it makes you stop, even for a second, and think “what does that really mean”?, then there’s something wrong.
  • Write clearly and concisely, using the appropriate sentence- and paragraph-length for your target language. Use simple vocabulary. You can convey even complex ideas using clear, straightforward language.
  • Inform your client of any mistakes, typos or ambiguous wording you find in the source text.
  • Find ways to add value for your clients.
  • Always keep your reader in mind.

As you’ve probably noticed, most of these tips also apply to writers, not just translators. After all, translation is a form of writing, and good translators should be good writers too. The important thing is to practise and hone your skills. And always use your brain. That’s what makes a good translator a reallygood translator.





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