What makes a good translator?
I have compiled a list of some of the qualities that I consider to define an excellent translator.
A good translator has:
- Extensive knowledge of target language. While it is obvious that an excellent translator must have working knowledge of two languages, it is also essential that they have superb knowledge of the language they are translating into (i.e., their mother tongue). This includes knowledge of grammar and syntax, but goes far beyond this to what I describe in the following point: cultural context.
- Cultural context. A good translator has an idea of how language is used in a given context. This means that they have a grasp of both professional and informal language and the appropriate vocabulary. Translating a business document entails a different type of language and focus versus translating a marketing or technical document. A good translator is a flexible writer and can adapt their style to reflect the voice of the original document but also follow an appropriate style for the publication or audience that they are writing for. This point is particularly interesting, where for example, the language used for writing a formal business letter or legal document in Spanish is significantly different from the way these documents would be written in English. This is a reflection of institutional and cultural differences regarding language expression and context. A good translator will not only understand languages, but differences in cultural expression.
- Does not rely on literal translations. It is all about the meaning. A superb translator will focus on conveying ideas and meaning versus literally translating, searching to finding the right words for communicating subtle differences in language. Running across the field is not the same as gleefully prancing across the grass. While many verbs and nouns are broadly synonymous, a good translator understands their slight differences and is able to find the best word to use. You probably would have read a literal translation if you had finished reading a translated document and were able to understand it, but it just didn’t “sound right.” In this sense, meaning and ideas were perhaps literally conveyed, but the document was not well-written (according to the cultural context). This leads into the next point…
- An overall enjoyment of reading, writing, and learning. An excellent translator is also a good writer. In addition to having a grasp of the cultural context, they also enjoy both reading and writing in their target language and are able to read a document in the source language and first of all, understand it. This potentially involves background research in subject-specific areas to be able to convey ideas, terminology, and acronyms following the conventions of that field. As a translator you are continuously learning, because it is impossible to be an expert in the subject matter of every document that you receive. A sense of curiosity and willingness to learn goes a long way in these cases.
- Subject-specific expertise. While in the previous point I mentioned that it is impossible to be an expert in every field or every document you receive, being an expert doesn’t hurt either. The most accomplished translators have also focused on the subjects that they have the most working knowledge in, where their familiarity with the subject is exactly what makes them stand out from other translators.
So, these are some points that I consider define an excellent translator. Believe me, before I started translating I would have imagined that it is much easier than it is! As you may see, the above qualities go beyond just having a working knowledge of two or more languages. I believe that, above all, a love for languages and writing, along with a sense of curiosity, are the attitudes that distinguish all good translators.