Becoming a better translator
My goal as a translator is to be continually improving.
If you're satisfied with your current skills, then you're not improving. And if you're not improving, you're stagnating.
As I see it, there are seven main areas where we can improve or expand as translators.
- Target-language ability
- Source-language ability
- Subject expertise
- Translation ability
- New field
- Soft (people) skills
- Sales and marketing skills
I try to be improving in at least one of these areas at all times.
1. Target-language ability
I read extensively in my target language. I pay attention to good writing, and ask myself why it's good.
I also write outside of translation. This was the main reason why I started this blog — to force myself to write natural English without the tether of a Japanese source text.
2. Source-language ability
I've been studying Japanese for a while, and as these things go I think I've learned it fairly well. But compared to a native Japanese speaker, there are so many gaps in my knowledge that it's embarrassing.
I can't let myself get complacent about my Japanese abilities, because if I do then I'll stop progressing. There's actually a term for this in the second-language acquisition lingo: fossilization.
I try to push myself in Japanese, reading in new topics, writing in Japanese as much as possible, and speaking with new people. I'm always on the lookout for new turns of phrase or expressions. I've also got a touch of the "translator's curse": constantly asking myself how I would translate some particularly idiomatic bit of Japanese into English.
3. Subject expertise
I'm actually fortunate in that I work professionally in the field I translate. Even so, my knowledge is incomplete. I'm not working full time in my field, and there are so many sub-fields and specialties that there's no realistic way I can become an expert in all of them.
So while I need to continually study in my chosen field of specialization, I also need to maintain humility when dealing with the engineers who work in some niche field day in and day out. Even if their English ability is sub-par, I can learn from them on the technical side.
4. Translation ability
No matter how good your grasp of the source and target languages, if you can't accurately reproduce the effect of the original, then you're not a translator; you're just a bilingual.
I look for good translations, and study them. When I read English, I'm on alert for pithy turns of phrase that can work for tough-to-translate Japanese terms. As I mentioned above, I also have the translator's curse: always thinking about how I would translate a particular Japanese phrase, and critiquing translations I see. It makes it very hard to enjoy subtitled movies, but it does put me in the mindset of thinking about translation.
Degrees and other courses in translation are one way to improve in this area. I'm sure that they can be valuable, although I'm personally self taught (notwithstanding, I've actually taught a few seminars on translation myself). If I were to do some postgraduate study now, I'd much rather go for a degree in a technical field like intelligent systems than a degree in translation. But it's certainly a viable alternative.
5. New field
In addition to deepening your knowledge of fields where you already specialize, you could branch out to a new field. It could be a small step — for example, expanding from automobiles into construction machines — or it could be a big step, like moving from finance to biochemistry.
A medical translator once offered to show me the ropes of medical translation. She was earning roughly twice what I was, working less, and was booked out for 6 months or more at all times. So it looked like a pretty good gig. But after about my third rat study, sacrificing poor little furry animals and examining the tumors that had been induced in various organs, I figured I'd stick with software, where mice only get clicked, never sliced.
6. Soft (people) skills
This is an incredibly important, yet oft-overlooked skill. Being pleasant to work with; projecting yourself as an expert without seeming cocky; projecting yourself as a professional without seeming like a jerk. I know it sounds corny, but I found How to Win Friends and Influence People (Carnagie) to be a valuable book on improving people skills.
7. Sales and marketing skills
As they say, you can have the best "skillz" in the business, but if nobody knows about them you might as well not have bothered. Sales and marketing skills can help you get your name at the top of the list, and be waiting in the wings when that next big project comes in.
I think that being the quintessential technocrats, a lot of translators are adverse to marketing. I know I was/am. Whenever I think of salespeople or marketers, I can't help picturing something along the lines of Glengarry Glen Ross.
But one of the great advances of the Internet age is that it's now very easy to market yourself without resorting to scumbaggery. Instead of the Glengarry Glen Ross approach of tricking people into buying your services, you can market yourself simply by putting your CV online, blogging, handing out business cards.
My final word of advice would be to look at the list above, and choose the area you'd least like to work on as one of your targets for improvement. We tend to like to work on things we're already good at, and let others languish. So the area you're least interested in improving is probably the area where you need the most improvement. For me, it's a toss-up between people skills and marketing. How about you?