Seven Super Skills: Progressing in Translation

Today’s post sees us move from the power of translation to the process of translation and, more specifically, to a look at the demands of this process.

There are a number of vital skills required to produce high quality translations and here I put forward a selection of what I believe to be the most important of them alongside suggested methods of developing each one. Having previously touched upon a couple of the skills on my blog, I’ve also included links to relevant posts where possible.

My specific focus on the act of translation means that skills relating to freelancing or developing a translation company are not included. For example, while the ability to deal with tight deadlines is an important element of professional translation, it is not a prerequisite for the act of translation in itself.

Finally, my thoughts and suggestions are by no means exhaustive (I’ve had to overlook and merge a lot of ideas for the sake of brevity) so feel free to share your own skills and tips in the comments section.

 

LINGUISTIC MAGIC IN YOUR SOURCE LANGUAGE:

To start off with we have the most obvious – and perhaps most misunderstood – of all the skills.

Yes, being able to understand the meaning of the source text you’re working on is of vital importance and without this necessary level of competence there is no translation. However, linguistic proficiency alone does not automatically equate to good translation despite the widely held misconceptions that a translator is just a walking dictionary or someone who simply picks ready, one-to-one equivalents between languages.

Ultimately, there is much more to translation than simply knowing a language but that’s no excuse to ignore those tricky grammar points.

How to develop:

  • Combine language courses and immersion in the source culture (time in the country, interaction with native speakers…) to develop both linguistic and cultural knowledge on a general level.
  • Pay close attention to reading skills (as opposed to speaking or writing, for example) in the source language as this is where a translator’s primary focus lies. Read books, articles, magazines – anything and everything you can in your source language(s).

 

SUPERHUMAN SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE:

As mentioned above, total command of a language and culture alone isn’t enough to make a good translator and part of the reason is that translators generally work in very specific subject areas that require specialist knowledge.

Reading technical jargon in your mother tongue alone is challenging enough and therefore it is vital that translators are intimately familiar with the inner workings of their specific areas of expertise. Contracts, patents, or medical journal entries all require specific linguistic and cultural knowledge that goes well beyond that given in general language classes.

How to develop:

  • Read anything you can relating to your specialist area to expand your knowledge and stay up to date with new developments.
  • Develop specialisms in areas that you genuinely enjoy to easily integrate research into your daily routine.
  • Sign up for MOOCs or other courses to greatly boost your subject knowledge in a comprehensive, structured fashion.

Getting to the Heart of Medical Texts

SONIC SPEED RESEARCH & PROBLEM SOLVING SKILLS:

No matter how much work you put in, there are always going to be words, phrases, or concepts with which you are unfamiliar popping up in source texts and this where another key translation ability lies. I’ve said it before but it’s definitely a point worth repeating: one of the most important attributes in a translator is not what they know, but how quickly and efficiently they are able to fill the gaps in what they don’t know.

Using the vast array of resources out there, it is amazing how quickly you can become well-versed in a previously unknown area and, while the widespread advice that you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of tackling alien projects is very valid, I say that you shouldn’t be afraid expand your horizons – know your limits but remain ambitious and embrace new projects.

How to develop:

  • Get to know which resources lead to the most effective results. (The links below cover a few different ways of tracking down that elusive word or phrase)
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with new tools to further enhance your research process.

Where to go when lost for words?

Using Corpora in Your Translation Work

 

X-RAY SPECS – CLOSE READING & ANALYTICAL SKILLS:

As well as understanding the explicit meaning of a word or phrase, a translator must be able to appreciate its many possible functions in a specific context. Beyond surface-level meanings, the use of allusions, cultural references, linguistic or rhetorical devices such as repetition or alliteration, or elements such as register and sentence length all combine to make the text the powerful entity that it is and part of the translator’s job is to recreate their effects in another language and culture. The connotations of one innocuous-looking word can be central to the meaning of an entire text (as the first link below suggests).

How to develop:

  • Think beyond what is on the page.
  • Explore texts and analyses of texts in order to encounter the various ways in which language influences us and the ways in which we can employ language to harness those techniques.

The Power of Translation: The Fox and the Grapes

Selling Cars with Sex and Lies

 

FORMATTING SKILLS & COMPUTER WIZARDRY:

This little pairing accounts for so much of the translation process as it involves the manipulation of the very platform that holds our work.

It is essential that a translator becomes an expert in using whatever programs clients demand of them and, in a manner similar to terminology mining (see above), this requires the ability to efficiently develop the knowledge you lack.

The only thing more annoying than an elusive indent sneaking into your document and blighting an otherwise immaculate page is having to spend an eternity finding a solution to the problem.

How to develop:

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, be inquisitive in your usage of a program to learn all of its various shortcuts and quirks.
  • Read online tips or take a course in a program’s usage.

 

SUPERPOWERED PENMANSHIP / WRITING SKILLS:

So often overlooked when people are developing their translation prowess, the ability to write effectively is perhaps the most important skill there is. With the end product of the translation process taking the form of a text written in your native tongue, the overall success or failure of your work is often heavily based on your writing ability.

The key factor in producing a translation is for it to be fit-for-purpose and resemble an original target language document whether you like it or not (the translator’s power of invisibility). While equivalence between the source and target texts should be of utmost importance to the translator, clients or end users are not going to be able to compare the two texts and emphasis is therefore placed on producing a translation that stands on its own.

How to develop:

  • Learn target language conventions for producing specific texts.
  • Take the time to read style guides from various sources.
  • Practice writing! Write for sites focusing on your specialist areas or write a blog and employ different writing styles of your own choosing.
  • Get feedback on your writing.

One year down: What blogging has to offer

 

ENHANCED VISION:

The reason that the vast majority of translators offer editing or proofreading services on top of their translation work is that the move is such a natural one. Editing and proofreading your own work is a vital cog in the translation process and learning how to do it as effectively as possible is of utmost importance.

The difficulty when going through your own work is that your proximity to the text makes it more difficult to spot errors – you unconsciously read what you intended to write and your intimate knowledge of the source text’s subtleties offers you a privileged reading position that won’t be shared by your target audience. As such, the key concept to work on is distancing yourself from the text to the point of reaching an objective, uninformed position from which to assess its suitability (or as close to that as possible).

There are many different suggestions on how to best achieve this distance and to efficiently correct your own writing (examples include changing the font and size of the text you’re working on, printing the text out and working from a hard copy or reading the text back-to-front) but ultimately the best method is different for everybody. Personally I like reading out loud, taking breaks between readings, and using different levels of zoom when spotting errors and consider three consecutive error-free readings to be the benchmark for a completed text.

How to develop:

  • Experiment with a range of methods to find what works for you.
  • Get a colleague to correct your work and incorporate their advice into your own corrections.

10 thoughts on “Seven Super Skills: Progressing in Translation

  1. NYAcomm says:

    Thanks for this great article, Joseph. You make some very important points, especially on specialising and having excellent problem-solving skills. I agree that these are indispensable for advancing one’s translation career.

    • jaltranslation says:

      Thank you very much, Nicole! Really glad you enjoyed it and couldn’t agree more about the two skills you mentioned – specialising in particular is absolutely central to any career in translation.

  2. Jo Rourke says:

    Really brilliant article, Joseph. I agree with all of your points – specialising in particular is a great piece of advice, but one that’s hard for new translators to take on for many reasons – two of which being the fear of closing off other potential income avenues and the daunting prospect of keeping up their knowledge in their chosen sector (especially seeing as most specialisms have a “language” all of their own!) The feeling when you finally decide to specialise though is hard to beat!

    • jaltranslation says:

      Thank you very much Jo 🙂
      You’re exactly right about specialising, it’s something that is so important but so often neglected! While it may initially seem that you’re limiting your potential work by focusing on a specific subject area, I think it’s much more limiting to market yourself as something of a jack of all trades.

    • jaltranslation says:

      It’s really tricky to get a balance between concision and comprehensiveness in just a single page (which is often recommended as the max. length for a translator’s CV…) but IT skills are definitely worth highlighting. I think I went for a general statement – something along the lines of ‘excellent IT skills’ – rather than going into detail about all the individual programs I can use when updating my CV.

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