skills learned working as a translator

Skills Learned Working as a Translator

This article is a collaboration with Day Translations. Experienced translators tend to accumulate a multitude of skills over the course of their careers as their job relies on continuous learning and improvement.

Translators who have been working consistently for years will have honed existing skills and developed new ones over time, seamlessly expanding their knowledge. The most successful translators are organised, can apply critical thinking and are great at managing their clients.

Skills Translators Learn Over Time

Working as a translator promotes continuous learning as languages evolve and working practices change (for example, new translation technology tools become available). The translators that really thrive are the ones who can adapt to change. Experienced translators acquire skills that go beyond their technical abilities in their chosen languages.

The following are skills translators learn over time, such as:

  • localisation, i.e., an in-depth knowledge of the culture as well as of a language including any regional differences that come into play
  • understanding cultural context and the ability to deal with any cultural barriers
  • ability to understand the nuances of source and target language to ensure the text has the same impact and meaning in both languages
  • problem-solving skills, for example when the source text is unclear.

Because translating is linked with good writing, another skill that translators acquire is the ability to craft a piece of content that conveys ideas from the source language to the target language clearly and with the correct intent, so that the target language sounds natural and the text flows easily.

When translators work in highly competitive and pressurised environments such as with international organisations, there are huge expectations on their performance and abilities.

Skills Translators Learn Working for Inter-Governmental Organisations

It is fascinating to observe how translators who work for international organisations develop advanced skills that really make them stand out.

A 2012 survey published by Érudit, the Canadian inter-university consortium whose mission is to share research findings, looked at 300 in-house translators and revisers working across 24 languages and across 20 inter-governmental organisations such as NATO and the United Nations. The survey found that sought-after, experienced translators ensure their client’s reputation remains intact because there is a lot at stake and their productivity is at the highest levels. Keeping errors to a minimum and therefore keeping the need for revisions to a minimum are highly desirable. This is because the source material is of a political nature and often contains sensitive information.

The survey looked at specific skills such as the ability to deliver quality translations under pressure, explain translation decisions, be able to translate a text following complicated instructions, maintain the correct in-house style and rules, and the ability to fact-check information using the appropriate sources.

The findings also included:

  • critical thinking, particularly when dealing with obscure content and when spotting inconsistencies in the source text
  • ability to ask questions to either the authors of the source text or people familiar with it to gain additional information for context
  • time management
  • knowledge of current affairs
  • understanding the audience and tailoring the translated text to ensure it addresses the audience’s needs using the right tone
  • flexibility to deal with an unpredictable workload.

One thing that really stood out from these skills is the ability to work with poorly written source text and provide a quality translation using excellent analytical skills to integrate additional sources of information and ask questions to experts who have familiarity with the source text, while also cross-checking facts from reliable sources. This is definitely a skill that comes with experience and it is extremely valuable.

New recruits, for example, may find it difficult to deal with inconsistencies in the text and their work may require more revisions than average.

Skills Freelance Translators Learn on the Job

Generally speaking, freelance translators have to find their own clients either directly or through an agency and they need to operate in a business-like manner.

One important skill that translators learn on the job is client management: it can be an art to maintain a good working relationship with clients, ensuring they are satisfied with the work and anticipating their needs but also having regular communication, dealing with different types of requests or changes in the initial brief without compromising on quality. By being client-focussed, translators provide reassurance that the work is underway and give regular updates on progress.

Freelancers also learn how to market themselves using different ways to let potential clients know about their expertise, through using social media, joining networking groups and proactively seeking referrals.

Translators who can adapt and keep up to date with the latest trends are better equipped to have a solid career.