The 3 skill sets you need to succeed as a professional translator

June 8, 2016 by

3 skill sets for success as a translatorWhat 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.

Translation skills

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.

Writing skills

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.

Subject-matter skills

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

Translation, writing and subject-matter skillsTo 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.

By Jayne Fox BSc MITI, German-English translator. For German-English medical translation – and translation of corporate communications.

Translation skills diagram by Jayne Fox, seagull photo by Gustavo Espindola via unsplash.com.

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About the author: Jayne Fox BSc MITI is a German-English translator specialising in corporate communications for sci-tech and health care. She works with German and Swiss organisations to help them communicate effectively with international audiences.

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17 Comments

  1. Allison Wright

    I heartily agree with everything you say in this post, Jayne.
    I particularly like your Venn diagram.

    • Jayne Fox

      Hee hee, I just had to slip in a Venn diagram. I'm a big fan of set theory! 🙂

  2. Laurie Schiet-Heath

    Hi Jayne,

    I think you hit the nail on the head with these three!

    Cheers,
    Laurie

  3. Tina Colquhoun

    That is what translators do. You are describing the job - not the route to success in that job.

    • Jayne Fox

      I'm aiming to describe the skills required, and plan to look at ways to develop these in my next blog post. 🙂

  4. Herman Boel

    Even though I agree with what you have written, I don't agree with your conclusion (or title). You are doing exactly the same as a marketeer who says what marketing skills you need to have to succeed.
    In my view, succeeding as a professional translator depends on a whole package of things: translation skills, language skills, marketing skills, networking skills, pricing skills, and much much more. The more you do well with and have all these skills, the more professional you are.
    Note that this is an and-and matter, not an or-or matter. So, having good marketing skills but poor translation skills or vice versa won't help. You need both (or basically all of these skills). Of course nothing impedes you from asking help for particular skills.

    • Jayne Fox

      Thanks for your comment, Herman. Yes, there are a whole lot of business/marketing and technology skills that freelance translators need. I've only touched on this very briefly, right at the end of the post. These skills are most definitely part of the package, especially for freelancers. But in this post I wanted to focus specifically on the core skills that translators actually need to do their work. I think this has got a little bit lost lately, with the strong focus on business and marketing in the translation blogosphere. That's why I decided to write this post.

  5. coffebreak

    You're absolutely right! I think it would be great if it was some kind of test for not-yet-translator - for people who're thinking about this job... You make a test - and You know if You can be a good translator or better not to try in this profession;) Or maybe there is sth like this? If You know I would be grateful:)

    And I'm looking forward to Your next post;)

    • Jayne Fox

      There are a few options - like the DipTrans, the ITI membership exam or ATA membership exam, or a Master's degree in translation. I'll write more about this in the next post!

  6. Mohammed Ali Mohammed

    Thank you Jayne for the wonderful assay.Your words were very touching and I totally agree with you on the important of the back ground of the translator concerning the subject he is translating.

  7. Steve Vitek

    I think that an important skill that is often overlooked when it comes to toolbox of skills that is essential for just about any occupation, including that of a translator, is the ability to anticipate and foresee future trends.

    I think I will write my next silly post on this very subject.

    Thank you for giving me the idea, Jane!

    • Jayne Fox

      I'll look forward to your post, Steve. 🙂

  8. Tony

    Hi Jayne, those three skills are vital it's true but there is also a practical concern, which is that the freelance translator tends to spend long hours alone while working.
    It is not something that everybody can handle. Most other jobs are more social in comparison.
    Having been a translator for so long, I find myself teaching from time to time just to get out of the house!

    • Jayne Fox

      Getting out of the house is definitely a good idea! 🙂

  9. Beverly Hayes

    Hello, Jane! Your post touches on the skills that I addressed in my latest post:

    http://spctranslations.com/the-four-core-skills-to-make-it-or-break-it-as-a-translator/

    We certainly share the same perspective on a lot of the points you mentioned. Having a strong understanding of these skills and realizing if we have what it takes to be in this field is basically the very first step. Some skills can be learned, and some can't--it is just how it is. Thank you for your post!

  10. Karolina Łachmacka

    Hello Jayne,

    As a translation student and quite a fresh translator I agree with your main point. I think there are several basic skills we need and then some secondary ones, though these are important, too. I have recently conducted an interview with a Polish translator, Ania Plank, and she underlined the importance of specialism, too. I think it is very logical. You can't really write anything good unless you know what you're talking about. Please feel welcome to visit my little blog:

    http://www.karolinalachmacka.pl/interviews/tiqa-1-interview-ania-plank/

    • Jayne Fox

      Thanks Karolina, sounds like you're off to a good start in the profession.

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German-to-English translator specialising in medical and technical translation and corporate communications
Welcome to my blog, Between Translations! I am Jayne Fox BSc MITI, German-English translator specialising in sci-tech, health care & corporate communications.
I work with clients from around the world. From my location in New Zealand, I translate overnight for European customers.
See my websites for more information.
Sci-tech translation and corporate comms: http://foxdocs.biz
Medical translation: http://jfmedicaltranslation.com/
Email: jayne(at)foxdocs.biz