What skills do professional translators really need to succeed? Are translation skills enough, or are there other skill sets that are just as important for success in the profession? Here’s what I’ve found to be the most important skills in my work as a translator.
Of course, translation skills form the foundation for every translator and are a prerequisite for success in the role.
To be able to translate well, you need a very deep understanding of both your source and target languages, strong terminology research skills, and a highly developed ability to transfer ideas from one language to the other. This is the focus of most of the courses that make up the translation degrees and certificates available from universities around the world. However, translation skills aren’t the only competencies that professional translators need. There are another two crucial areas that determine translators’ success or failure in the profession.
Edith Grossman, a well-known translator, said that serious professional translators think of themselves as writers. As a translator, I agree with her. Translators need to be masters of their target language and possess an exceptionally strong sense of writing style. This is why it’s standard practice for translators to work from a foreign language into their native language – at least in major language pairs. Most people can express themselves far better in their native language than they can in a foreign language, no matter how long they’ve studied its nuances.
While some translation degrees and certificates include courses in writing, many don’t. This seems to be a serious omission that may be setting graduates up to fail.
The third aspect that is absolutely critical to success is appropriate subject-matter skills. Because translators don’t just translate words, they translate meaning. If you don’t understand the subject of a text, you won’t be able to produce a convincing translation in the target language.
This would seem obvious, but it’s astonishing how often it’s overlooked. Translators with no understanding of engineering, law, medicine, business or finance are tasked with translating in-depth materials on these and other topics, for publication online or in print. My background is in science and commercial writing for large corporations, and I came to translation expecting similar commercial understanding and skill levels among translation professionals. So I was somewhat shocked to find that this is not always the case.
To be an expert translator in one of the major language pairs, you need to have a high level of expertise in one or more specialist areas, ideally acquired through study or professional experience in the field. This factor seems to be almost entirely overlooked in many translation degrees. It is therefore unsurprising that specialist texts are often poorly translated, resulting in obviously sub-standard translations that reflect badly on the profession as a whole.
The translation skills triad
To produce texts of the standard required for publication, translators need highly developed translation, writing and subject-matter skills.
A lack of any of these skill sets tends to result in second-rate translations with sections that are awkward, inaccurate or just plain wrong. But the good news is that we can always improve our skills, through reading, research, study, deliberate practice, feedback, and collaboration with our peers.
As well as these three core competencies, complementary skills in technology and business can help us thrive as translators. But the primary professional skills form the basic building blocks that every translator needs to succeed.
In my next post I’ll look at some ways to improve your translation, writing and subject-matter skills. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Translation skills diagram by Jayne Fox, seagull photo by Gustavo Espindola via unsplash.com.
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