Good Translators are Made, not Born
Thread poster: Maria Luisa Duarte

Maria Luisa Duarte  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 05:56
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Oct 9, 2003

Dear colleagues,

Some points on how to be a good translator, what do you think?
Regards
Maria Luisa Duarte


"Like interpreters, translators need a variety of skills and traits to be successful in their art, and many of these qualities overlap. We assume, of course, that a good translator will by definition be bilingual. But the opposite is not
necessarily true. A bilingual person still needs certain other skills, expertise, and personality traits to be a good translator.

1. To be successful a translator must be fluent in two languages and cultures.
Does this mean that someone who was raised bilingually will be a better translator than someone who acquires his or her second language later in life? Not necessarily. Often people raised in bilingual households are “fluent” in two languages, but do not know the intricacies of either language well enough to translate. Sometimes they are not familiar enough with the culture that goes with the home language. If they have never formally learned the home language, they may not have the analytical linguistic skills needed to be a good translator. Some may not know how
to read or write the home language.
On the other hand, how do people become fluent enough to be a good translator if they have not been raised bilingually?
Most people who acquired their second language later in life picked up their second language skills on the
street or at work and/or formally studied their second language in high school and college. Some have advanced degrees in linguistics or in one or two languages. These people, although fluent in both languages, may never have the same in-depth knowledge of slang, colloquialisms, and
nuances of their second language as someone raised with the language from childhood.
There is no easy answer to the question of which one will make the better translator. But most good translators do have one experience in common: they have all lived for extended periods in countries where their second language is spoken. It is not enough to have grown up in a household
speaking a language if you never have an opportunity to live in a country where that language is spoken and evolving. Nor is it enough merely to study a language.
Most good translators have lived for several years in a country where their second language is spoken.

2. To be successful a translator must have a good general education in addition to the prerequisite language skills.
This does not mean that translators need advanced degrees to find work. However, successful translators usually read
a lot, have many interests, and enjoy learning about new, obscure subjects. Many translators have had other careers
before becoming translators, providing them with an area of expertise in addition to a solid general education. As in interpreting, most translation projects deal with more than one subject area.

3. To be successful a translator must have above-average writing skills in the target language. You cannot be a good translator unless you are an excellent writer in your first language. Translators are expected
to “write” technical manuals, marketing material, ad copy, and scientific studies. To do this you must feel confident about your writing skills. Only the detail-oriented translator will be able to produce the quality translation necessary
to guarantee repeat business from clients.

4. To be successful a translator must have excellent computer skills and a willingness to continue to learn new technology.
The ubiquitous computer has moved the translation industry to the cutting edge of modern technology. It is no longer enough to be a good typist. Today’s translator must
have advanced computer skills. The modern translator is responsible for developing and maintaining terminology databases, for formatting complicated documents, for transferring files for every conceivable platform. Like interpreters, translators need a variety of skills and traits to be successful in their art, and many of these qualities overlap. We assume, of course, that a good translator will by definition be bilingual. But the opposite is not
necessarily true. A bilingual person still needs certain other skills, expertise, and personality traits to be a good translator.

5. To be successful a translator must have good business skills, including marketing, negotiating, pricing, and time management.
Successful translators have found ways to market themselves so that they stand
out. They know how to negotiate fair and competitive fees for their work. They have learned how to manage their time in such a way that they can find balance in
their lives and still meet deadlines.

6. To be successful a translator must get along well with others.
The image of the solitary translator in a lonely room surrounded by books has long ago given way to reality. The modern freelance translator interacts daily with colleagues, clients, and project managers by email, telephone, and networking
in person at professional conferences. Today’s translator consults regularly about terminology conundrums, software problems, business practices, and ethics.

7. To be successful a translator must know his or her limitations in all of the areas mentioned above.
No one enters the field of translation with all of the skills and traits necessary to be successful. Many of these “prerequisites”
come with experience. But if you are aware of what is required to be successful, and you know which areas to work on, you are already on your way to success."

by Courtney Searls-Ridge, Academic Director of Translation "Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society"


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Lamprini Kosma  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 05:56
English to Greek
+ ...
Thank you Maria Luisa! Oct 9, 2003

Maria Luisa Duarte wrote:

Dear colleagues,

Some points on how to be a good translator, what do you think?
Regards
Maria Luisa Duarte


"Like interpreters, translators need a variety of skills and traits to be successful in their art, and many of these qualities overlap. We assume, of course, that a good translator will by definition be bilingual. But the opposite is not
necessarily true. A bilingual person still needs certain other skills, expertise, and personality traits to be a good translator.

1. To be successful a translator must be fluent in two languages and cultures.
Does this mean that someone who was raised bilingually will be a better translator than someone who acquires his or her second language later in life? Not necessarily. Often people raised in bilingual households are “fluent” in two languages, but do not know the intricacies of either language well enough to translate. Sometimes they are not familiar enough with the culture that goes with the home language. If they have never formally learned the home language, they may not have the analytical linguistic skills needed to be a good translator. Some may not know how
to read or write the home language.
On the other hand, how do people become fluent enough to be a good translator if they have not been raised bilingually?
Most people who acquired their second language later in life picked up their second language skills on the
street or at work and/or formally studied their second language in high school and college. Some have advanced degrees in linguistics or in one or two languages. These people, although fluent in both languages, may never have the same in-depth knowledge of slang, colloquialisms, and
nuances of their second language as someone raised with the language from childhood.
There is no easy answer to the question of which one will make the better translator. But most good translators do have one experience in common: they have all lived for extended periods in countries where their second language is spoken. It is not enough to have grown up in a household
speaking a language if you never have an opportunity to live in a country where that language is spoken and evolving. Nor is it enough merely to study a language.
Most good translators have lived for several years in a country where their second language is spoken.

2. To be successful a translator must have a good general education in addition to the prerequisite language skills.
This does not mean that translators need advanced degrees to find work. However, successful translators usually read
a lot, have many interests, and enjoy learning about new, obscure subjects. Many translators have had other careers
before becoming translators, providing them with an area of expertise in addition to a solid general education. As in interpreting, most translation projects deal with more than one subject area.

3. To be successful a translator must have above-average writing skills in the target language. You cannot be a good translator unless you are an excellent writer in your first language. Translators are expected
to “write” technical manuals, marketing material, ad copy, and scientific studies. To do this you must feel confident about your writing skills. Only the detail-oriented translator will be able to produce the quality translation necessary
to guarantee repeat business from clients.

4. To be successful a translator must have excellent computer skills and a willingness to continue to learn new technology.
The ubiquitous computer has moved the translation industry to the cutting edge of modern technology. It is no longer enough to be a good typist. Today’s translator must
have advanced computer skills. The modern translator is responsible for developing and maintaining terminology databases, for formatting complicated documents, for transferring files for every conceivable platform. Like interpreters, translators need a variety of skills and traits to be successful in their art, and many of these qualities overlap. We assume, of course, that a good translator will by definition be bilingual. But the opposite is not
necessarily true. A bilingual person still needs certain other skills, expertise, and personality traits to be a good translator.

5. To be successful a translator must have good business skills, including marketing, negotiating, pricing, and time management.
Successful translators have found ways to market themselves so that they stand
out. They know how to negotiate fair and competitive fees for their work. They have learned how to manage their time in such a way that they can find balance in
their lives and still meet deadlines.

6. To be successful a translator must get along well with others.
The image of the solitary translator in a lonely room surrounded by books has long ago given way to reality. The modern freelance translator interacts daily with colleagues, clients, and project managers by email, telephone, and networking
in person at professional conferences. Today’s translator consults regularly about terminology conundrums, software problems, business practices, and ethics.

7. To be successful a translator must know his or her limitations in all of the areas mentioned above.
No one enters the field of translation with all of the skills and traits necessary to be successful. Many of these “prerequisites”
come with experience. But if you are aware of what is required to be successful, and you know which areas to work on, you are already on your way to success."

by Courtney Searls-Ridge, Academic Director of Translation "Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society"


This is a really interesting article. Thank you for sharing these points with us!

[Edited at 2003-10-09 19:31]


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Jerzy Czopik  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 05:56
Member (2003)
Polish to German
+ ...
Good point, but Oct 9, 2003

All of us are first made, then born or am I wrong on it?
On the other side, if you don´t have this specific stuff (I don´t remember the proper word in English for it) you will never be able to MAKE yourself a good translator, which leads me back to the starting point.
IMHO good translators are MADE, but they have to be BORN. What I mean is, that it is impossible, that any born individual can be MADE a translator.

Cheers
Jerzy


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Robert Zawadzki  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:56
English to Polish
+ ...
Good incentive works miracles... Oct 9, 2003

In James Clavell's 'Shogun' if a hero does not manage to learn Japanese, all inhabitants of the village he is sent to, are to be exterminated.

Personally, I never worked under this kind of pressure, but the loved one saying 'do not lose that job' does the trick...


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Marianela Melleda  Identity Verified
Chile
Local time: 01:56
English to Spanish
+ ...
Agree with one exception Oct 10, 2003

Thanks María Luisa for bringing to us a fairly accurate description of a good translator, but I disagree in the following point:

" There is no easy answer to the question of which one will make the better translator. But most good translators do have one experience in common: they have all lived for extended periods in countries where their second language is spoken. It is not enough to have grown up in a household
speaking a language if you never have an opportunity to live in a country where that language is spoken and evolving. Nor is it enough merely to study a language.
Most good translators have lived for several years in a country where their second language is spoken."

My personal experience has been quite different from that. I have never lived in an English-speaking country, but I have certainly learnt my second language through formal studies, courses, reading a lot, and mainly in my 20-years-experience as bilingual secretary.

The people I have worked for - both from England and U.S.A. - have always given very good opinions on my translations and the way I handle my second language.

I must say of course that my field of expertise has always been formal language, both business and technical, for which I do not think it is necessary to have a sound knowledge of slangs and colloquialisms.

Of course, if you are going to translate films or novels, that would make a completely different picture.


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RobinB  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 05:56
German to English
No - Good translators are born, not made Oct 10, 2003

(Eugene Nida, among others).

I take Courtney's point about bilingualism and translation without any argument whatsoever. But even bilinguals are made, not born. Nobody's born bilingual, it's a skill acquired while you're growing up in a particular environment. And I would thoroughly agree with all the other aspects of what Courtney writes, none of which are really new anyway.

Doesn't the "born not made" argument really refer to the notion, which many of us believe is borne out in everyday practice, that good translators have innate skills that can't be reproduced through education? It doesn't mean that all naturally talented translators actually translate, of course. I'm sure Courtney would agree that "talent" is really the #1 qualification, but it's so difficult to describe or define, and the only way to find out if you have that talent is to try translating.

Structured translator education *may* help hone that natural talent (provided that it's focused on principles, not theories), but it's by no means a prerequisite. My own experience is that relatively few translators have that natural talent. This shouldn't be surprising, as it surely holds true for every profession.

Time to put on my flak jacket, I suppose.

Robin


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