What Translators are Made of

There are millions of multilingual individuals in the world, but only a fraction of them make capable translators – because a translator is not simply “someone who speaks languages”. There’s a little more to us than that…

Writing Skills

A text is slightly more complex than just lines of words randomly put together to (hopefully) say something. For some, the details beyond that may seem like headaches for the pedants to worry about, but when these details are wrong, the message becomes cloudy at best. Being able to speak a language (and everyone speaks at least one) does not equate to having the gift to articulate ideas in a clear, concise and flowing manner in writing, without spelling or grammatical errors. (Do all English speakers know the difference between “its” and “it’s”?) Translators are amongst those sad people who will “agonise over a comma for ages” (to quote a friend of mine) or some other detail that the reader will probably never notice – that is, unless it is wrong and causes confusion.

A translator also needs to be accurate yet agile and sometimes creative with words in order to find the mot juste. Hence literal translation never works. A good translation doesn’t sound like a translation: it sounds like an original written by an articulate native speaker who appreciates the subtle nuances between two synonyms.

Adaptability of Style

The translator needs to match the style and tone of the source text. Translating a children’s book with the flat, cold voice of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in a Douglas Adamsesque prose might not quite work. Hence, a translator must be sensitive to the tone and style of the original and be able to faithfully recreate them in the translation.

I was once commissioned to proofread the translation of a book for adults with learning disabilities and their carers. While the original text was in plain English, the translator had turned it into a medical text for experts in French. Did he misunderstand the purpose of the book? Was he desperate to show off his medical knowledge? Was the original text too plain to his taste? As a result, instead of simply checking his work and correcting typos, I had to retranslate most of the book. Getting the tone wrong would have made a joke, if not an insult, of the book for the French audience.

Cultural Awareness

You can’t separate a language from its culture; the two go hand in hand. Translators have often lived several years abroad, absorbing another culture in the process, and casual forms of CPD for a linguist can include visiting the country fairly regularly (after months of agonising over commas, boy, do we need it!), listening to the radio and reading the news in our working language(s), etc., i.e., keeping up with the language and the culture. This means that a translator can appreciate the background behind certain concepts expressed in a text and adapt the translation accordingly, or even alert the client when something cannot be translated as such for cultural reasons and must be altered altogether. While this may cause delays, for example in the case of a marketing campaign that needs redesigning, it can also save the client from a cultural (and financial) disaster.

Expertise in the Field

As much as we all have our own set of specific skills, we also have our own set of specific limits. You can’t expect a lawyer to understand a detailed medical report or a professor of economics to be fluent in art speak, let alone in a different language. Similarly, you can’t expect a translator to translate just about anything. The good news is that translators often follow a variety of career paths before offering their language services. Some will have a degree and/or several years’ experience in, say, engineering, making them the perfect language partner for a machinery company, for instance. Even hobbies can make people inquisitive and knowledgeable about a particular topic. Equally, if a text is beyond their ability, a conscientious translator will have the honesty to say so and will happily recommend a trustworthy colleague with the right expertise whenever possible.

Business Thinking

While translators may not run corporates, they still run businesses. As sole traders, they wear all the hats and understand business needs and priorities. This means that they do not deliver translation as a mere commodity. They provide a skilled and customisable service to suit your needs. Each text and each client is unique. Whatever your project, it is worth taking some time to discuss it with your language consultant to ensure optimum results.


Nowadays, BAs in translation or at least in a language are a must for any new professional, and MAs are becoming common too, along with the DipTrans (Diploma in Translation, examination provided by the Chartered Institute of Linguists, or CIOL) as a non-academic alternative. If a translator does not have any formal qualification, they should have years of proven experience.

Translators can also join professional bodies. There are two institutes for translators and interpreters in the UK: the CIOL and the ITI.  Being affiliated is a personal choice, but it demonstrates professional commitment and is proof that the person is a genuine professional, has satisfied certain criteria and has signed a code of professional conduct. These organisations’ directories are therefore the best place to source professionals.

Just like having a degree in biology does not make you a surgeon, being multilingual does not make you a translator: it’s only a foundation-level requirement.

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