Qualities commonly needed by all translators

To be a translator you need many skills.

Some are specific translation skills, others are general entrepreneurial skill sets. Please find below an introductory list. There are links to more detailed pages.

Translation skills

Ability to write well and adhere to a given framework

This is one of the basic translation skills.

A translator must enjoy writing, experimenting with words, testing out what goes where best.
Sometimes translators are given target word counts or even character counts that they must not exceed. Adhering to such specifications can require some linguist acrobatics or lateral thinking.

You’ll find more information on writing well on our writing/translation skills pages.

The ability to transfer style, tone and cultural elements accurately from one language to another

If you attend a university to gain an appropriate language qualification, your course will teach you many important translation skills. One of them is the skill to transfer a document’s style adequately, taking into account the purpose of the text and the social setting. Visit our extensive guide to UK universities offering translation-related courses.

You can improve/acquire cultural competence in many ways but visiting/living in the second language country is the best option.

Other possibilities to improve cultural competence include: actively watching foreign language TV and films; listening to radio stations in your second language; studying online foreign language content; reading the literature of the relevant country. Continuous translation practice in a number of subject areas will also improve your translating skills over time, especially if you can have them looked at and corrected by a native speaker.

Please be aware when watching dubbed films that the dialogue is often stilted and unnatural, in real everyday situations a native speaker would not speak like that. If you’re reading translated books you are also more likely to come across less-than-perfect language than in a book that you read in the original as translations are rarely as well-edited as original literature.

Specialist knowledge in technical, commercial, industrial or scientific areas

Ideally, you should be a specialist in at least one particular area of expertise. You can acquire specialist knowledge by studying one or more language/s and combining this with a degree in a specialist area like economics, business management (very useful for freelance translators), chemistry, electrical engineering, accountancy, finance etc. Courses should neither be too specific, thus restricting your specialist knowledge into too small an area, nor too wide, thus not furnishing you with a useful subject of specialisation. The highest earning translators are those with a full degree in a subject other than their second language and comprehensive working experience in their field, especially in a medical discipline or in law.

The best way to become a specialist in anything is by actually working in the field you want to specialise in. Conversely, you may choose to become a translator after having spent some time in the field that has thus become your area of specialisation.

Say you worked for a company that produced automotive parts or for an aluminium foil manufacturer, exporting their products. Working in such an environment can give you many specific translation skills. The list may include knowledge of specialist terminology in more than one language, knowledge of procedures and familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of this specific line of business, technology, science or industry. What is more, you may become familiar with foreign rules and business practices.

For further information on acquiring relevant specialist knowledge or translation experience, please read our page on required general and specialist knowledge and knowledge acquisition.

Attention to detail

Freelance translators and staff translators alike must aim to transfer every factual detail to the translated document and do so correctly. Apart from missing a deadline, not getting simple facts – like numbers – right is one of the deadly sins of the translation profession. If you have a text which includes figures, always check their accuracy separately from spelling and grammar. Do formatting conventions of the country whose language you are translating differ from those of the source language’s country? Also always check that you have translated the complete text. Oversights are by no means as common now as they were when translators still translated from faxed pages but it always pays to double-check. Due to their quality assurance features, CAT tools greatly simplify these tasks so that mistyped numbers and forgotten sentences become almost impossible.

Check for “false friends” and words you commonly misspell because they sound the same but mean something different (access and excess, affect and effect).

IT skills, especially word processing and CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools

All translators, whether working from home as a freelancer or as staff translator need to be familiar with word processing software. The most commonly required software suite is Microsoft Office. There are open source alternatives available which may be equally as good, if not better (AND they are free) but customers want you to use what they use, so you must know the ins and outs of the most commonly used programmes: Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

CAT tools are now an everyday aid for most translators. Staff translators probably have access to newer and more expensive software. Whereas some freelance translators still work without CAT tools, CAT tools are most important for translators who do a lot of similar and repetitive work, like software translation or computer games.

Agencies increasingly expect you to be able to use their online CAT tools.

Please read our page on essential IT skills for translators for more detailed information.

Being non-judgmental and remain neutral

Translators must be able to work on a translation job without judging the contents of the document or putting their own slant on it. They must be able to take a step back from a text and translate exactly what the original writer says, not what they themselves would prefer or think is correct.

If translators discover factual errors in documents, they should first double-check that they can prove their point. Then alert your client of the fact (in as diplomatic a way as possible) and ask him what they would like you to do about it. Some clients may insist that they want the original text to stay unchanged! In that case put your findings in writing but translate as instructed. You can also add a disclaimer to your translation to stress that the factual error is not a translation error on your part, and that you will not be held liable for it.

General business skills

Ability to adhere to deadlines

This is the be-all and end-all quality all translators must have. If you don’t have the self-discipline and foresight, organisational or translation skills which ensure that your clients receive their finished translation jobs on time, every time, your success as a translator will be limited – whether you work as a freelance translator or staff translator.

Keeping files, personal details and any other sensitive material confidential and safe

All translators must keep clients’ personal details just as safe. This applies especially when they carry out certified translations which often entails being sent birth or marriage certificates and other documents which contain a host of confidential data. Make sure none of this can be accessed by unauthorised parties. Translators working with personal data within the framework of GDPR are advised to register with the ICO.

Some clients may require you or your company to sign a confidentiality agreement before they send out any documents.

Communicate well with clients

Many problems are communication problems. Not conveying your questions well. Not letting the client know if you are running into trouble. Nor replying to emails. We have dedicated an in-depth article to client communication as it is a vital detail to get right.

Accurate, confidential, efficient and reliable English-German translations

Professionally qualified German translator into English and English into German, offering first class translation services for commercial, industrial, governmental and private clients.

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