The online home of copywriter and translator Rose Newell
Office: +49 (0) 30 120 19670
Mobile: +49 (0) 176 567 70240

What makes a good, successful and happy translator: PART 1

I love what I do.

Working when I want,

on what I want,

for whom I want.

Working as a freelance translator is a profession and lifestyle that suits me perfectly, so I would recommend it to anyone with a similar mindset and the appropriate skills. In fact, I often do. However, I think a little more analysis of what makes a good, successful and happy translator would be helpful both for those considering the profession and those looking to improve their skills, income and happiness. I will divide this into three parts, released on a weekly basis. Welcome to part one.

What makes a good translator

First off, you need to be good at translation. It sounds somewhat obvious, but in my experience reviewing translation test pieces for agency clients, some people still have not got this part nailed before they start sending off these test pieces to potential clients. So what makes a good translator?

Source language skills

You should be able to understand the majority of texts without the aid of a dictionary, to the standard of an educated native-speaker. You do not have to be able to write to the same standard (particularly in terms of grammar, which few non-natives will ever fully master), but you should be able to understand concepts as well as any native.  A good translator will use a dictionary and other resources to find the precise words to express the concepts, terms and ideas in the target language, but should also remember that such tools are there to assist only, and cannot do the work for them.

Whilst many translators have at least a Bachelor’s degree in either translation, languages or a field related to their specialism, there are some excellent translators out there who do not. The same goes for the various diplomas, additional degrees and memberships, to some extent. Whilst these are an indicator of talent, the ultimate test is satisfied repeat clients, who also pay the translator concerned a fair wage. This is not to say these qualifications and memberships are by any means worthless, just that, by themselves, they are no guarantor of success, nor is one without them doomed to failure.

In addition to the pure linguistic skills, you should also be familiar with how the language is currently used, together with commonly used slang, dialect, and new words borrowed from other languages (if appropriate).

How to improve

  1. Spend time in the source country.
  2. Purchase and refer to language guides.
  3. Read newspapers and journals in the source language.
  4. Read texts appropriate to your specialism in the source language.
  5. Take language courses and obtain qualifications.

Target language skills

Exceptional skills in one’s target language is an area that is surprisingly often neglected. A translator’s job is to communicate, so you should be able to communicate accurately, appropriately and concisely. Therefore, you should have a broad, expressive vocabulary and excellent, in-depth knowledge of the grammatical nuances, quirks and rules of your target language.

You should be experienced in reading the sort of text you wish to create, in both your source and target language (see “Specialisation”). You should therefore be able to spot a translation that is too literal and feel confident in selecting a less-literal, more-free translation that better suits the norms of the target language and field.

As communicators, our role is to ensure smooth transfer of information. The reader should not stumble over anything that looks less usual. Your personal preferences should not dominate too significantly over what is more usual – e.g., if writing in British English, regardless of the historical reasons for any Z that became an S, it is best to write an S – since a Z will come across as American English or an error, alienating the text from the intended audience.

The same applies to any spelling or grammatical variations, particularly on compound nouns, e.g. “bone meal” – where the variants “bone-meal” and “bonemeal” are significantly outnumbered in terms of Google hits. Wikipedia, whilst not always a reliable source in terms of factual information, is a good indicator of accepted common usage. In the case of “bone meal”, Wikipedia has gone with the separated form. Of course, the norms vary – this is where Google is your friend.

How to improve

  1. If you have been away from your target country for a while, it is especially important to spend time there to get re-acquainted with modern usage and refresh your knowledge.
  2. Do not be ashamed to purchase and refer to language and style guides – these are especially helpful for addressing common grammatical errors.
  3. Read newspapers and journals in your target language.
  4. Read texts appropriate to your specialism in your target language.
  5. Consider further education (Masters, diplomas, seminars, shorter courses) in your specialist area, translation and writing skills so you can ensure an appropriate writing style for the texts you translate.
  6. Get into the habit of checking yourself on any term you are not 100% sure of. Check yourself against the opinion of friends, family, and the internet (especially Google, as described above).

Specialisation

Specialisation is incredibly important in translation. Why? Nobody can be an expert in everything, but as a translator, you are expected to be an expert in translating each individual text you translate. If the texts are on related topics, you will have less vocabulary to learn each time. Your understanding of the field will also grow, improving your natural ability to perform a “logic check” on your translated text – i.e. you can tell whether a text works logically, not just linguistically. Put simply, specialist translators are better translators.

An ITI survey, unsurprisingly, illustrated a link between specialisation vs. generalisation and income, especially at the top end of the scale. It also revealed that some specialisations pay better than others. “Patents” pay the most (but are probably the most specialised and time-consuming), followed by “Defence”, closely followed by “Legal” and then “IT”, “Banking and Finance” and “Medical” all on similar levels. Much lower down comes the more general specialisation of “Business”, followed by the more passion-related fields of “Art History” and “Classical Music”.

A good translator chooses a specialisation relevant to them – appropriate to their academic training, professional experience and/or hobbies and interests (obviously, all three is a brilliant combination!). When choosing your specialisation, think first about your interests – as that is what you will enjoy, but then also seriously consider whether you have academic, professional or other relevant experience to back that up. If you do not have such “credentials” to back up your claims of expertise, then you will probably find good clients are less willing to work with you, you will receive less offers of work, and you will be offered lower rates.

Also bear in mind that not all specialisations experience the same level of demand. The demand for a particular specialisation (and the prices paid for it) can vary dramatically between the language combination and region. It depends a lot on the industries and end-clients working in the source language.

Remember that different fields also vary in terms of how long they take to translate. This has an additional impact on the rates paid across the various specialisms.

The other matter to consider is how many fields to specialise in. The ITI certainly seems to suggest choosing a single specialism. General discussions with other translators seem to suggest anywhere between one to four, although one to two seems to be the norm, with a couple of closely-related or highly-specific fields.

As mentioned before, it is best to choose something you are interested in, so you can keep up to date with developments and proper terminology through websites, blogs, magazines, journals and books written in both your source and target languages.

How to improve

  1. Choose a specialism relevant to your academic, professional and other related experience, as well as your hobbies and interests.
  2. Consider the time and research texts in your specialism will require, and charge accordingly.
  3. Keep your total number of specialisms to a manageable minimum – one to four, and if more than two – it is better that these fields are closely related, e.g. Business and Finance, IT and Technology, Marketing and Journalism.
  4. Keep up-to-date on the latest developments and terminology through various media in both your source and target languages.

Computer skills

Basic computer skills are a must in this job, whilst advanced computer skills are a very considerable bonus. A translator spends all day at a computer and, if freelance, will need to be capable of learning how to meet and overcome new challenges and problems on a regular basis.

The software we work with and documents we receive, as well as the computers we work on, are not always problem-free, so being able to solve the majority of problems yourself is a huge advantage. If your basic office or computer management skills are lacking, it may be worth asking someone to teach you or taking a course.

Typing speed is also very significant. If you do not touch-type and spend a long time looking for the letters, or, alternatively, rely on dictation software which then requires manual correction, you will find your speed, ergo productivity and ultimately income, greatly reduced. This struggle and need to constantly observe the keyboard may also lead to increased back problems as you crane over the keyboard, compared to your touch-typing colleagues. As such, you will also tire faster and may find your professional pleasure impaired, too.

Online research skills are incredibly valuable – for everything from checking for the most common term by comparing hits for set phrases on (put the exact phrase you want in ” ” marks on Google, e.g. “this exact phrase”), to researching a field or finding appropriate references and glossaries.

Excellent computer skills can also offer significant advantages, such as:

  • The ability to figure out, use and optimise more efficient but less-shiny translation memory tools such as OmegaT and its close friend Okapi Rainbow, for example.
  • …Some of the most handy software, like those above, are also free open source (GNU), saving plenty of money for other valuable resources such as dictionaries and journals.
  • You will be able to solve problems yourself and much faster in the event of  a technology failure – which will improve your reliability, please your clients and save you time.

How to improve

  1. Ask friends and fellow translators for advice.
  2. You can learn a lot from Google, forums, blogs and online magazines.
  3. Consider taking a course to improve your skills.
  4. If really stuck, see if it is possible to partner up with someone who can reliably provide you with some IT support – either casually or professionally.

Education

A good level of education is another huge advantage, and for most agencies and many direct clients, a must. A Bachelor’s degree in your specialist field, translation or your source language are particularly helpful, whilst any degree helps to develop and illustrate a standard of research skills, commitment and writing skills in your native language.

A Master’s degree is also not uncommon among translators – either specifically in translation, a related field, or a chosen specialism. This can be particularly advantageous in developing further research skills, linguistic ability and technical expertise. It is also a considerable plus when marketing yourself to potential clients, especially to direct end-clients. It is, however, by no means a must, especially if you are coming into translation with a decade of experience in your specialist, professional field, living in your source country, for example.

Professional translation qualifications (Master’s in Translation Studies or DipTrans) can also be a big help, although qualified membership status in the ATA, ITI or IOL is probably the more valuable side to this – and you may be eligible for this without taking a full Master’s or DipTrans (e.g. ITI accepts a degree PLUS a membership exam). Also be aware that many successful translators do not have or consider that they need such memberships (if they have more demand than they can keep up with and charge decent rates, why bother?), whilst such qualifications alone do not guarantee commercial success (wait for the next instalment for advice on that!) or even skill.

Ongoing education is also useful – and can be found in evening classes, online courses, one-off events, day-seminars, short courses and summer schools. Keep an eye out on the publications of your professional associations, as well as local and national universities offering relevant courses.

How to improve

  1. This is an easy one – if you want to improve, you can obtain a Bachelor, Masters, DipTrans or other professional qualification.
  2. …But do not ignore the private-study option, if you are interested in education alone and do not need the printed proof…
  3. …But if you want the paper, you could undergo private study and just sit the exam in some cases…
  4. …Or follow an online course with final exam under similar conditions.
  5. Education also comes in the form of evening classes, online courses, one-off events, day-seminars, short courses and summer schools. Keep an eye out for anything relevant, anywhere.

Resources

A good translator also has access to the best resources to assist them in their work – so a stable, fast internet connection is vital, as well as general and specialist bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, style guides, computer software and hardware.

Where computer software and hardware are concerned, remember the advantages of computer skills – the best and most appropriate software and hardware is not always the most expensive. Use some research skills to help you make your choices. Good, efficient, reliable software and hardware can make your task a lot quicker and easier.

Also consider a subscription to a journal or subscribing to related RSS feeds to keep informed on your specialist areas. A great RSS feeder is RSSOwl. In fact, RSS readers are great for keeping up to date with your favourite translation blogs, too! You can subscribe to my RSS feed to ensure you do not miss parts 2 and 3 by clicking the orange RSS logo in the top left corner, or here!

How to improve

  1. Get your wallet out! In most countries such expenses are also income tax and/or VAT deductible, so there is no excuse!
  2. Enjoy the wealth of free resources available online – from twitter to online newspapers, software, and RSS feeds.
  3. …Start off with RSS by downloading the free RSS reader RSSOwl and subscribing to the Translator’s Teacup!
  4. …Or join Twitter today to get chatting to myself (@lingocode) and other informative successful tweeps. Check who I follow for a list of friendly fellow translators, writers, technology geeks and translation bloggers!

I hope you enjoyed these tips! Please come back next week for part two – How to be a successful translator – which will be full of tips on how to be successful in freelance translation!

37 Comments
  1. it is really great help to me….though I have started to translate an interesting topic on my native language from English…I couldn’t finish it.one among these reasons could be the things that you provide me…hopefully by understanding this I will finish my translation on soon future…thanks indeed for your passionate help. I hope I will get further help from you.

  2. Thank you! Many great tips for writing a CV and a motivational letter (I’m student).

  3. Hi! Thanks for such a clear-cut and informative article. As a translation student, I was wondering how people specialise if their main education is in translation itself? Any advice on specialisation?
    Greetings from Slovenia

  4. Great article, Rose! I wish I’d read it when I started out as a translator, it would have spared me a lot :) Wouldn’t have had to learn everything the hard way :) Keep up the good work!

  5. Good article!!! These tips not only helps the translators, it also helps our organization as we are into translation service company ( viesupport). These tips will surely help us to improve.. Many thanks for your suggestions:-) awaiting to read next week article..

  6. Dear Rose,

    Thanks for sharing such an enlightening article. It has definitely shed some light on areas of marketing for me to work on! I intend to use this article as a reference for some blog entries I plan to make (not plagiarising, of course) if you don’t mind – clearly stating your authorship of this great work!

    Saudações do Brasil,

    PAUL

  7. excellent article from an elegant translator… i love my native language… i love translation process to create the reflection of a text to my lovely language… and i love using star transit cat-tool software to create my medical database instead of all the others. i love my online languages…and………… my all respectful colleagues…because i believe that we, the translators are very special people….

  8. Great article and very useful for a newcomer in the industry (only two years of experience). Translator is one of the few jobs where one needs to always keep intellectual and IT skills up to date (not only these).
    As an english-portuguese > french freelancer in French Guiana, I’m looking for the best professional courses online in order to stay competitive.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. Excellent article Rose!

    Looking forward to Part-2.

  10. Great article, Good for you.
    I’ll be waiting for part II and part III

    Regards,
    Hassna Medany
    English- Arabic Translator.

  11. Each and every time I read a piece for you I try to use an amazing description for you but I end only with this word “useful”, now I have a new word that is “the sharer” I mean the one who shares everything that s/he might ever have. Thanks and keep it on, waiting for the next cup :).

  12. Great article. Precise, to the point tips. Shows good experience. Look forward to seeing its part 2.

  13. Wow! a really informative article. As a freelance translator in the early days of “start up” this has given me heaps of useful information and tips. It has also reafirmed my belief that a narrow field of specialization is the best approach.Not only am I specialzing in the area of my degree (Spanish and International Tourism Management), but this is where I have my work experience and a huge passion. I am currently working in Peru for my second consecutive year to gain a greater cultural understanding, so I think I’m on the right track!
    Thanks for all the tips, I will watch this space….!

    • Good luck, Heather, keep me posted on how you get on! Keep tuned for next week for the tips on being successful as a translator. The final part, how to be happy, is a vital part for when things have gotten going – learnt through my own mistakes as successful self-employment brought out my unhealthy workaholic trait! ;)

      • Hi Rose, thanks for your reply. I am interested in dowloading some software to assist me with my translation work. I guess I’m old fashioned in the sense that I use only my notes and my dictionary(bible!) as reference tools. After reading your article I realise that I need to up-date myself, but as my work is not yet bringing in a great income (and that’s an understatement!), I want to try a free tool rather than invest money that I need for other things at the moment. I’ve been looking at the Omega T website but the software sounds rather complicated. My question is; is this software user-friendly for a beginner? or is there an easier tool to start off with?
        Your advise on this one would be fab! ….”Thanks”

        • OmegaT is excellent… I, too, wonder that it might not be user-friendly for some. I really could not recommend anything better, though! I think, however, that ALL the translation suites are quite complicated.

          I think as things go, however, OmegaT is pretty simple to use – and the instructions show up the second you open it. It also is a lot more stable than some of the expensive products. I ought to do a beginners guide to OmegaT at some point… it is on my list, after part 2 and 3 of this!

          Using ANY translation memory software to its full potential is complicated – that’s why you will find courses for some of the major players (Trados, MemoQ, etc.). The best low-budget one appears to be Heartsome, whilst I have also heard many good things about MemoQ (slightly more expensive). I personally dislike Trados, whilst Across makes me want to slit my wrists. I stick to OmegaT. It is less shiny than the rest, but it does a great job. To answer your question, I think they are all hard for a beginner to use, but OmegaT is probably easier than many.

  14. Great article!
    I have a strong desire to continue learning both on my field of specialization as on the art of translation.
    I have the bliss of being a “specialist translator” dedicated to the oil and gas indrustry, which I was part of for 9 years before becoming a translator.

  15. I’m glad to see more from you. Nicely done.

  16. Thanks so much for this article. I am always eager to improve my skills and to find ways to work more efficiently and improve the quality of my work. I can’t wait to read part 2!

  17. great article anyway, to learn translation ABC
    ;-)))

  18. “or, alternatively, rely on dictation software which then requires manual correction”

    very few corrections with the latest releases of DNS, as 9 or 10

    • I imagine this depends a lot on your natural manner of speaking and accent… I find a lot of corrections are necessary for me, and I have a very clear voice and neutral accent – but am female and speak with a slightly higher pitch than “average”! People with accents have even worse trouble.

  19. You should be able to understand the majority of texts without the aid of a dictionary

    LOL, I can close up shop tomorrow then!
    ;-)))

    I can’t live without my dictionaries/references outfit, and I consider this habit a must, as I never rely on what me or others have already translated

    • Well… Perhaps you raise a valid point, in that this depends a little on your specialism – there are some texts that even a native would have to research to understand.

      • I completely agree. I specialize in one area (legal translation) and have a lot of experience, and still there is not one day I don’t open at least one dictionary. Not to mention the online ones.
        Even in works that don’t require thorough research, there are always words I want to be sure of, in order to be as accurate as possible. :-)

        • I quite agree. I use dictionaries a bit like a thesaurus: I already tend to know what word I want to use, or a word that would fit, but the various translations help me to pin down the precise nuances I wish to express. At other times, it helps me confirm I have definitely chosen the right word. Dictionaries are great. :)

  20. Great article! I look forward to reading next week article! I’ve just subscribed to this blog. I think these tips are helpful not only for beginners but for all translators because a good translator should never stop learning. Thanks a lot for your suggestions!

    • Many thanks! Yes, we never stop learning!

      • i love your text about this major…because i will be a great translator. thank you for your halpful website

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

Rose Newell

Copywriter. Translator for German to English.

Rose Newell

Copywriter
German to English translator

Be understood

Sometimes it's all about
being understood.
You need a translator who understands more than just English and German.
You need a translator who understands your business, your markets, your customers, and most of all, your language.
I understand.
So I can make you understood.

Contact