I love what I do.
Working when I work,
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
- Spend time in the source country.
- Purchase and refer to language guides.
- Read newspapers and journals in the source language.
- Read texts appropriate to your specialism in the source language.
- 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
- 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.
- Do not be ashamed to purchase and refer to language and style guides – these are especially helpful for addressing common grammatical errors.
- Read newspapers and journals in your target language.
- Read texts appropriate to your specialism in your target language.
- 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.
- 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 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
- Choose a specialism relevant to your academic, professional and other related experience, as well as your hobbies and interests.
- Consider the time and research texts in your specialism will require, and charge accordingly.
- 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.
- Keep up-to-date on the latest developments and terminology through various media in both your source and target languages.
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
- Ask friends and fellow translators for advice.
- You can learn a lot from Google, forums, blogs and online magazines.
- Consider taking a course to improve your skills.
- 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.
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
- This is an easy one – if you want to improve, you can obtain a Bachelor, Masters, DipTrans or other professional qualification.
- …But do not ignore the private-study option, if you are interested in education alone and do not need the printed proof…
- …But if you want the paper, you could undergo private study and just sit the exam in some cases…
- …Or follow an online course with final exam under similar conditions.
- 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.
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
- Get your wallet out! In most countries such expenses are also income tax and/or VAT deductible, so there is no excuse!
- Enjoy the wealth of free resources available online – from twitter to online newspapers, software, and RSS feeds.
- …Start off with RSS by downloading the free RSS reader RSSOwl and subscribing to the Translator’s Teacup!
- …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!