What skills does a good translator really need to be successful? Are translation skills enough or are there other skills that are just as important for success in the profession? In our experience at Lingua Language Center, these are the three most important skills for any translation service.
Of course, translation skills form the basis of every translator and are a prerequisite for success in the role. In order to translate well, you need a very deep understanding of the source and target language, strong terminology research skills and a highly developed ability to transfer ideas from one language to another. This is the focus of most of the courses that make up the translation degrees and certificates available. However, translation skills are not the only competencies needed by professional translators. There are two other crucial areas that determine the success or failure of translators in the profession.
Edith Grossman, a well-known translator, said that serious professional translators consider themselves writers. Ascertified translators, we agree with her. Translators must be masters of their target language and possess an exceptionally strong sense of writing style. This is why it is standard practice for translators to work from a foreign language into their native language, at least in the major language pairs. Most people can express themselves better in their native language than in a foreign language, no matter how long they have studied its nuances. While some translation degrees and certificates include written courses, many do not. This appears to be a serious omission that may be causing graduates to fail.
Subject Matter Skills
The third aspect that is absolutely critical to success is appropriate subject matter skills. Because translators not only translate words, they also translate meaning. If you do not understand the subject matter of a text, you will not be able to produce a convincing translation in the target language.
This seems obvious, but it is surprising how often it is overlooked. Translators without a background in engineering, law, medicine, business or finance are tasked with translating detailed materials on these and other subjects for online or print publication.
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 specialized areas, ideally acquired through study or professional experience in the field. It seems that this factor is almost overlooked in many translation grades. It is therefore not surprising that specialized texts are often poorly translated, resulting in obviously inferior translations.
The triad of translation skills
To produce texts of the standard required for publication, translators need highly developed translation, writing and subject matter skills.
Lack of any of these skill sets tends to result in second-rate translations with sections that are clumsy, inaccurate or simply incorrect. But the good news is that we can always improve our skills, through reading, research, study, deliberate practice, feedback and collaboration with our peers.
In addition to these three core competencies, complementary skills in technology and business can help us thrive as translators. But the primary professional skills form the building blocks that every translator needs to be successful.