Many people assume that being bilingual automatically makes you qualified to be a translator. However, this is not the case. There are many skills and attributes that are necessary to be a successful translator, and simply being able to speak two languages is not enough.

Defining Translation

Before diving into what it takes to be a translator, it is important to first define translation. Translation is the process of converting text from one language into another. This conversion must be done in a way that accurately communicates the original meaning of the text. It is not simply a word-for-word conversion, as different languages have different grammar rules and ways of expressing ideas. A good translation will sound natural in the target language and convey the same message as the original text.

What Does it Take to Be a Translator?

So, what does it take to be a translator?

Good Writing Skills

In addition to being bilingual or multilingual, translators must have strong writing skills in both the source and target languages. Speaking a language and being able to write in that language are different skills.

Take a look at Chinese. Written Chinese, whether it’s Traditional or Simplified, uses thousands of different characters. Someone who only knows how to speak Chinese but does not know how to read or write Chinese would not be able to translate a document.

A translator must be able to understand the context of the text and convey the meaning accurately. This means that they need to be able to understand the nuances and subtleties of both languages.

For example, an idiomatic expression in one language might not make sense when translated literally into another language. A good translator will need to find the equivalent expression in the target language that conveys the same meaning.

Research Skills

Other than language skills, translators also need to have strong research skills. This is because they often need to look up information, especially in specialised text such as medical or legal documents. They need to be able to quickly find relevant data and incorporate it into the translation. In fields such as engineering and science where there are constantly new developments, translators need to be able to keep up with the latest information.

Attention to Detail

Translators also need to be very detail-oriented. This is because even a small mistake can change the meaning of a text completely. In some cases, such as when translating healthcare documents and technical manuals, a mistranslation can have serious consequences.

They also need to be able to format the text according to the client’s specifications. For example, a translator might be asked to translate a document into French but to keep the same formatting as the original material.

Another thing to keep a note of is that some languages have more phonetic characters that use longer words and sentences. If you plant to translate a document from English to Vietnamese or Spanish, expect about 20-40% more text post-translation.

Time Management and Organisation Skills

Time management is another important skill for translators. They need to work well under pressure and meet deadlines. The more experience you get in the translation industry, the better you become. The better you become, the more clients you get. However, if you cannot deliver on time, you would risk losing clients.

Translators need to be organised in order to meet deadlines and keep track of deliverables. As a translator, you would work on multiple projects at the same time, so it is important that you are able to juggle different tasks and prioritise effectively.

Cultural Awareness

Translators also have to be aware of the cultural differences between the source and target languages. This is important as certain expressions and concepts might not translate well or might be offensive in another culture. As a translator, you have to be familiar with the customs of both the source and target cultures so that you can adapt the text accordingly.

Why a Translator Should Know the Target Culture, Not Just the Language

Multilingual doesn’t automatically mean multicultural because language is only one part of culture. But to be a good translator is to be a cultural bridge-builder. It’s important to know as much as you can about the cultures of the languages you translate.

For example, if you are translating a brochure about mental health services, it’s important to know that in some Asian cultures, talking about mental health is considered taboo. So you have to advise your client that, for those cultures, the information has to be presented in a way that will allow your target audience to be more receptive to the message you want to share. Otherwise, they may just completely gloss over it or worse, throw it in the trash.

Cultural awareness is also important in marketing and advertising. In order to sell products in another country, businesses need to adapt their marketing strategies to the target culture.

For example, the number 9 is often used in pricing strategies in the US (such as $9.99) but in Japan, the number 9 is considered to be unlucky as it sounds like the word for “suffering”.

What might be considered an effective advertising campaign in one country might not work in another. A good translator would be able to advise on such matters.
Another situation would be when you are translating a document where there are images of people. When translating that document into another language, you might also have to replace certain images with ones that are more culturally appropriate.

Being a translator is not an easy job, but it can be very rewarding. If you have the necessary skills and attributes, consider becoming a translator. It is a great way to use your language skills and help others communicate across cultures.