What makes a good translator?

Published: 23rd March 2010
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In most countries, anyone can call himself a translator and carry out business activities in that capacity - even if he has nothing to show for it, such as a diploma or other certificate of proficiency. This article aims to set a number of standards in terms of a translator's professional skills, helping both the buyers of translation services to select a suitable supplier and junior translators to identify the areas they need to work on.


Perhaps the single most important requirement for a professional translator is linguistic authenticity - the quality that enables him to produce a readable text that is convincing in its own right and of such genuineness that no-one would suspect they are actually reading a translation. Linguistic authenticity calls for two basic derived requirements: an excellent grasp of the source and superb adroitness in the target language.

One obvious requirement for a professional translator is that he should have an excellent command of the source language. This goes far beyond a mere knowledge of vocabulary and grammar: the translator will have to be able to grasp the innumerable subtleties and intricacies of language that the author of the original document uses to express himself. If the translation is to have the same register, connotation and effect as the source text, the translator must be able to distinguish sincerity from irony, formal jargon from slang and academic phrasing from colloquialisms. He must be able to recognise idioms for what they are, rather than translate them literally. And he must be aware of the various shades of meaning words can have, depending on the context in which they are used.

However, it is at least as important for a translator to have an excellent command of his native tongue. This requirement is sometimes overlooked, especially when the primary concern is merely to 'unlock' a source text and find out what it says. In nine out of ten cases, however, the translator is not just expected to decode a source text but will have to rewrite it in a manner that reflects its style and is suitable to the target audience. This calls for a great deal of dexterity and creativity, on the translator's part, in using his own language. He will need to master a wide variety of registers - formal, colloquial, idiomatic, ironic - and use them as required. In practice it turns out, unexpectedly perhaps, that translators who fail professional criteria do so primarily because of insufficient skills in their own language.

In addition to the ability to operate various language registers, a professional translator must have the linguistic skills sets required for translations in specific specialty areas. A legal text obviously calls for an entirely different type of style and terminology than, say, a technical document or a company brochure. While it is true that some translators are specialists, call themselves medical, legal or technical translators, for example, and need little skills outside that particular area, many others have a more all-round profile, which means they will need to develop a thorough insight into the vocabulary, style and phrasing - both in the source and target languages - of a variety of sectors.

Accuracy and reliability

Professional translators will also have to meet the dual requirement of accuracy and reliability. By accuracy we mean the ability to translate the exact contents of the source text, and by reliability the ability to translate nothing more or less than that.

Accuracy requires concentration. The less concentration, the more likely a translator is to misinterpret phrases, make spelling errors, copy the wrong figures, confuse terminology etcetera. Accuracy is an important determinator of client satisfaction. Especially if the client is unable to assess the linguistic quality of a translation, he will go by his assessment of the things he can judge: spelling, copying errors etc. - in other words, the translator's accuracy. Accuracy is therefore a primary requirement: translators who are structurally inaccurate will never achieve true professionalism, no matter how advanced their linguistic repertoire.

Reliability calls for a modest and serviceable attitude. A reliable translator is one who tries to produce as faithful a version of the source document in the target language as possible. This means that he will make every effort to cover the content and intention of the source text in full, while refraining from any personal interference with that source. Nothing should be lost in translation, but nothing should be added either. Due to the requirement of reliability, translation can become a balancing act between the need to remain faithful to the source and the desire to produce an attractive, readable or meaningful text. Ideally, a translation should be no more readable or meaningful than its source, although we are aware that this only applies as an academic criterion. In commercial practice, clients will expect translations that meet the quality standards of the target language and audience, irrespective of the quality of the source.

Practical constraints

Finally, professionalism in translation presupposes an ability to deal with practical constraints. It is all very well for a translator to produce a perfect translation of a 300-word source document after two days' work and consulting seven specialists - in the world of practice those resources simply won't be available. Outside an academic context, a translator needs to be able to translate a text within a specific deadline, and with a limited set of resources, which still meets the client's reasonable standards of linguistic and professional quality.

To sum up

The main criteria by which translators should be assessed are authenticity (in terms of a perfect grasp of the source and creative skills in the target language), accuracy (covering the full content and avoiding mistakes) and reliability (making sure nothing is lost nor added in translation), and the ability to deal with practical pressures and limited resources. If you are a junior translator, these are the qualities that will be expected of you. If you are a potential buyer of translation services, these are the criteria to use in your supplier selection process.

I am Jeanette de Vries, aged 45, and working as a (legal) translator for about 12 years now

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