What does it take to be a translator?

  • What does it take to be a translator?

    A professional translator is usually perceived as someone who knows two or more languages fluently and renders written words into another language. Well, this is a very general definition of translator because it takes a lot more than two languages to become one. Knowledge of foreign languages is, of course, a prerequisite to this profession, however, a professional translator has to fulfill other requirements to be able to do his or her job responsibly.


    Translation and bilingualism

    First of all, it has to be sad that not all bilinguals or polyglots are translators or interpreters because knowledge of two or more languages is not enough to become one. Of course, a professional translator has to know his or her working languages inside out but also has to know how to render texts into another language. There are lots of techniques that a potential translator must be aware of in order to start translating. Has to know differences between languages as well as many linguistic procedures in order to translate well.

    First things first – know your mother tongue

    Although the knowledge of foreign languages is the main requirement to become a translator, the knowledge of your mother tongue is even more important. I know what you will say – everybody knows their mother tongue well, if you were brought up in this language and raised in a country where it is used. Well, it’s not necessarily true. People who live in Poland, for example, they speak one language, they understand each other, but not all of them are linguists and they make lots of mistakes they are not even aware of. Therefore, translators have to be first of all masters in their mother tongue, know all subtle nuances and intricacies of their native language. Language changes all the time – there are always new words, rules that you have to know.

    Translators are also writers

    Let’s not forget about writing skills as well because translators have to possess them to be able to do their job well. Because translation is not only about replacing words in one language with those in another language. They have to build phrases and sentences and then texts that will be understood by those who, in an ideal situation, will not even know they are reading a translation. Style is very important here and a translator has to adjust it to the type of a text. Otherwise, it will be only a bunch of meaningless words.

    Translation as a passion

    Yes, to become a translator you have to be passionate about languages and different cultures. What does it mean? Learning new languages can be fun but not all of us like to learn grammar, phonetics, punctuation rules etc. Translators, on the other hand, have to know them all because sometimes only one word or wrongly used tense can make a huge difference. That’s why they have to have an inquisitive mind, they have to learn a lot all the time. And it does not mean to learn new languages. Sometimes two languages are enough, but one has to know them inside out – and this takes time. Knowledge of different cultures is so important because all nations are different. Translators have to be aware of many cultural nuances and differences in order not to make terrible mistakes. For example, whereas in many countries black is perceived as a color of mourning and sadness in other countries it is used during ceremonies.

    Language is not enough

    All professional translators will tell you the same thing – it is not enough to know languages well in order to translate. You also have to have knowledge in other subject areas, for example, marketing, law or medicine in order to translate documents in these fields. Furthermore, one cannot be best in everything so don’t try to convince everybody that you can translate every document. For example, a translator specialised in medicine is not always an expert in law and a legal translator is seldom good in marketing. This is why sometimes experts from these areas are preferred instead of linguists. Although linguists have usually better writing skills.

    Translation and language studies

    Last but not least, there is always a question if a good translator has to have a diploma in translation. Although there are many translators up there who did not study languages or translation I will always recommend such studies because it gives you at least an idea what translation is about. Not only you will know your languages well, but also you will know how to solve translation problems and know the difference between good and bad translation. You will also be more sensitive to linguistic rules and able to avoid mistakes.

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    Hanna Gembus

    Hanna Gembus is a professional Polish English and Polish German translator and communication specialist based in the United Kingdom providing translation, content, interpreting and market research services to small, medium-sized and large companies and organisations. She specialises in business, marketing and e-commerce, using linguistic and cultural knowledge to help both start-ups and established companies improve their presence on the market and increase sales. http://langoa.eu

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