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What makes a good translator?

This is a question that can prove tricky to answer. If you’re a translator yourself, you might wonder what is that single aspect that you should work on or market to your clients. If you’re thinking of hiring a translator for a job, you might wonder how to distinguish a good from a bad translator. In this article, I’ll share with you what I think is the single most important attribute of a good translator.

TIP! If you want to learn how to choose the right translator for your needs, read this article!

So how many languages do you speak?

It has happened to all of us. The moment you say ‘I’m a translator’, you hear the dreaded question. This is after you’ve cleared out that ‘translator’ and ‘interpreter’ are not the same thing, thus shattering everyone’s hopes that they might be actually speaking to a real life equivalent of Nicole Kidman.

It seems to be the first thing that comes to mind: you, in a booth, with a pair of headphones, interpreting for world leaders, for all 15 of them at the same time. Because a translator is not only an interpreter but also someone who can speak 15 languages to a native speaker level, right?

But, really, is it important to speak multiple languages if you want to be a good translator? Not really. Actually, most translators only work with one foreign language, or two tops. (In London, where everyone speaks more than one language, people are usually surprised at the fact that I make a living out of speaking just two.) This is because a translator needs to devote years to learning a language at a very proficient level and familiarising themselves with the culture as well.



Good translators have accents

It was also an idea that I had being a student, that until I could sound like a native speaker I wouldn’t ‘get there’. So I was baffled when I started attending lectures and conferences by great translators and realised their spoken English wasn’t really all that good. They mispronounced words, they had thick accents. I couldn’t believe it my ears…

It wasn’t until some years into my degree that I started to question what aspect of the foreign language I should be more concerned about. Was it speaking flawlessly? Sounding natural, knowing tons of vocabulary, pronouncing perfectly every single word? Or was it something else?


Understanding the language is a given

Then I started to notice: those who seem to be really good translators weren’t necessarily the ones who spoke English with ‘a good accent’. The ones who really made a difference were the ones who could understand a text perfectly, grasping all its different levels of meaning, every reference and every nuance. But there was something else, and this I realised a bit later, when I was already a professional translator.

A few years ago there was a call from a translation agency looking for translators specialised in Art History. ‘This is my chance,’ I thought as I hit Apply. I send over my CV and took a translation test, so excited that I could actually make a living combining my two greatest interests: translation and art.

Now, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I made some mistakes in the test… I was in a hurry that day and just so over the moon with the whole idea that I actually skipped two (minor) phrases in two different sentences! When I got my results back, I was in shock —how could I have possibly made those silly mistakes?! I felt like burying my head deep in the ground…


Being a good writer is a must

However, much to my surprise, the company chose me over two other candidates who had also made the cut, CV-wise. In their words, ‘There were a couple of minor issues, but the editor really liked your writing’…

Could writing nicely had gotten me the job, even having made mistakes? Was it possible? Apparently it was, since I continue to collaborate with this client in the field of museum translation 🙂




Love your language

Now, I translate exclusively into my mother tongue. And I always say ‘If I hadn’t become a translator, and if I was brave enough, I would have chosen to be a writer’. And that’s the secret. That’s to me the ‘magic formula’ to becoming a good translator.

1. You need to be really good at understanding the foreign language you are translating, its subtleties, the culture it expresses, everything; (this is a given…)

2. You should go out of your way to become a good writer in your mother tongue. (this is a must…)


Think about it, it really makes a lot of sense. Why are they paying you? So you can pronounce perfectly? Not if you’re a translator… I don’t think anyone I’ve worked with has ever heard me speaking. What translators get paid for is to write. So, the better you get at this, the more value you’ll be able to provide to your clients. Simple, right?

It is still surprising though that it took me years to realise this, and I personally had many students who still weren’t paying enough attention to their target language but were instead obsessed with ‘sounding native’. The truth is… no one cares about your pronunciation!



Translators are writers…

and no one wants to read a writer who can’t write!

So my message, especially to younger translators is: Love your target language, take pleasure in learning all about it. That’s the single most important aspect that will distinguish you from others. At the end of the day, anyone can speak a foreign language, but not anyone is an expert reader-writer!


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4 comments on “What makes a good translator?”

  1. This is a great article thank you for sharing! It’s actually a topic close to my heart because as I started to make my career change, I worried that my spoken Italian wasn’t good enough and felt like such an imposter, even though I knew it wasn’t really relevant to translating. However, I have to say that I do think it is important to have a decent level and constantly work at your source language production if you want to interact with clients who speak your source language – partly because clients may not necessarily understand the difference.

    And I agree that writing skills are so important – something could be very accurately translated, but if it’s horrible to read then you’ll love the reader (and unfortunately I see this a lot in museums!)

    1. Thank you, Fuschia! Of course it’s important to have a good level in your source language, but my point was that (at least in my case) too much importance was given to that aspect while I was studying. Having a perfect accent, repeating over and over in our phonetics class to ‘sound native’ (as if that was even possible). And, in the end, does it really make you a better translator? I don’t think so, not in my case at least. But then, it is also very true people might not know the difference and might misjudge your skills based on whether you have an accent or not. My experience in England is, however, that everyone is just amazed at the fact I can speak a second language at all! Lol!

  2. Thanks for spreading your experience.Great article, thanks for sharing such important topic with us, a pleasure to read. I really appreciate your article.

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