When it comes to what makes a good translator, some of the attributes are perhaps a little more obvious than others. For example, impeccable references and a good reputation are as important as they would be in any other respectable profession.
However, there are some personal qualities that many might not associate with the translation industry in particular, which are nonetheless just as indispensable.
Language skills and experience
It goes without saying that to be a translator – or at least a good one! – requires impeccable language skills.
However, it is worth noting that linguistic expertise goes beyond just words on a page. It requires a full and comprehensive mastery of both the source and target language. It is no use a translator being a walking, talking dictionary if their grammar and spelling skills leave much to be desired.
Another prerequisite to a high-quality professional is having experience in the industry. As Alex Cazacu, senior project manager at London Translations, explains: “Proven experience and quality are two of the first things we look for. The reason for this is because a lot of people talk the talk, but they don’t always deliver on promises.”
At London Translations, we require at least five years’ experience before any translators are invited to work with us, as a means of ensuring we have the best possible pool of talent at our disposal.
It’s one thing taking somebody’s word for how good they are at a certain task, but far more preferable to be able to rely on a source you know you can trust. While a professional reference can indeed be useful, one of the best ways to ensure a translator is of the highest quality is that they are certified by one or more accreditation schemes or bodies.
For example, in the UK, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting or the Institute of Chartered Linguists are two such organisations, while there are others both in the US and Europe.
Timeliness and the ability to deliver projects in line with stringent deadlines are two of the most important attributes when it comes to this kind of work.
As with many professions, being late simply isn’t an option. A lawyer might not have the translated materials he needs in time to present a case in court, a book might miss its printing run or a whole advertising campaign might be delayed because the copy didn’t come through in time, to name just a few examples of the catastrophic consequences of a translator not respecting deadlines.
Usually, a project is late because the translator has taken on more work than they’re capable of handling, having been tempted by the money. Alternatively, it might be that a project is too difficult or technical and they didn’t allocate enough time to do their research for it.
Whatever the case, if a translator is showing any signs of not respecting deadlines, or indeed has displayed this sort of behaviour in the past, alarm bells should be ringing.
Time management skills
While this quality does indeed overlap with timeliness in some ways, time management – rather, the ability to organise, compartmentalise and keep on top of work – is absolutely vital for a translator.
“Bad time management skills are actually the bane of all translators. It doesn’t matter if they’re junior translators or university professors with years upon years of experience,” Alex explains, with this downfall more often than not leading to late delivery.
A full-time freelance translator is likely to have more than one project on the go at the same time and it is vital that one piece of work is not compromised as a result of any other.
This is one of the biggest challenges of being a translator. If they know after a while that they are not going to be able to complete an assignment, translators must tell the people they are working for – not try to push it back, get friends to help them out with the translation or wait for the client to actually call them up and ask where their work is.
People do have problems, such as falling sick, suffering power cuts or experiencing IT hardware failures, but the client must be told in order to give them enough time to redistribute the remaining work and execute damage limitation.
A translator will always need to assess a project before agreeing to take it on, by considering its length, subject area, complexity, level of expertise required and so on. It is only in doing this properly that they can finalise a price and reasonable deadline.
“It might be that a translator agrees to a certain deadline. Then, a few hours in, they try to move the deadline or renegotiate price because they didn’t have a proper look at the document,” Alex explains. Yet again, alarm bells should start to ring. “One of the most important things is that once you commit to a deadline as a translator, you must stick to it.”
Similarly, it goes without saying that a job must be done to a certain standard. If a translator is consistently making mistakes, cutting corners or under-delivering on your expectations, they may not be the professional you thought they were.
If you want to be good at your job, whatever it is, you need to exercise a certain degree of professional integrity. So they say, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
Adding to the same warning flag pile as tardiness and dishonesty is a translator who claims they can work throughout the night with no extra charges and turn around an unfathomable amount of work in a short period of time. The problem with working throughout the night is a translator will become fatigued and won’t be able to pay enough attention to the job at hand. You wouldn’t want your brakes checked by a mechanic who hadn’t slept in 24 hours or to be operated on by a sleepy surgeon! The same also applies to translation. It’s just common sense.
While it may be difficult to ascertain what translators are up to behind closed doors, keeping an eye on the warning signs of bad practice is one way to make sure you have the best possible team working on your projects. Although, arguably the best way to ensure you’re getting the highest-quality service is to trust in the likes of London Translations. We really do know what we’re doing.