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.

  1. Target-language ability
  2. Source-language ability
  3. Subject expertise
  4. Translation ability
  5. New field
  6. Soft (people) skills
  7. 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?

10 comments to Becoming a better translator

  • I’m actually surprised (this being your blog) that you don’t list the technical stuff somewhere–becoming a faster typist, mastering voice-recognition or glossary or TM software, knowing how to trouble-shoot the machine you use to produce a translation, and so on. I suppose that could be stuck into your list as a sub-category (part of 1? the nuts and bolts of actually writing in the target language?) or it could be an item all its own. The better we get at this mechanical aspect of producing a translation, the more time we have left over afterward to polish all these other areas.

  • @Durf

    You’ve got a point. That might be a blind spot with me — I see proficiency with software and research as kind of baseline skills — like knowing how to type — although they certainly make a big difference in speed (i.e. income). I wouldn’t feel like I was progressing as a translator if I were just studying “Google Hacks” and working on getting my typing speed up to 60 wpm. Would you consider those types of skills to be professional advancement?

  • One thing I think that is important to remember is that not only do we need to constantly improve, but we need to make an effort to improve in those areas that seem to be hard for us.

    Many translators are averse to improving their marketing and sales skills, for example. Well, it’s good to work on those other areas but if we never improve in that area that we find difficult, our business will suffer.

  • @Clint

    I agree. That’s why I wrote in the article, “choose the area you’d least like to work on as one of your targets for improvement.” 🙂

  • I dunno, I see things like “being able to read your Japanese document without your nose in a dictionary” as baseline skills, too. This profession is built on an awful lot of little blocks. 🙂

    And actually, now that I think about it some more, I know a few translators (whom I consider enormously talented) who can’t hunt-and-peck more than 30 WPM. It doesn’t matter so much, though, since they’re still translating at the speed of thought—it’s not likely that you’re going to plow through your translation at anything close to 60 words a minute.

  • @Durf
    “I see things like “being able to read your Japanese document without your nose in a dictionary” as baseline skills, too.”

    🙂 Being very fluent in the source language is part of the cost of getting into the game. If you’re out of your depth with the source language, all the google-fu in the world isn’t going to save you. But the quest for mastery ends only with death.

    Certain technologies and skills have improved my throughput a lot. Remember back in the day when you’d have to make a trip to the library to dig out some obscure term? The Internet changed all that. I can’t remember the last time I had to make a trip to the library for research. Translation memory also helps me work a lot faster. I don’t think these skills and technologies have made me a better translator, though.

  • Your last sentence there is very apt. I do some of my best work longhand into a notebook on the train; gives me an extra chance to improve and polish when I transcribe it at the keyboard later on. The computer doesn’t make me a translator.

    I do know, though, that when I see posts on the mailing lists from people who need help dealing with basic computing tasks it makes me less likely to want to send them work. A person who uses his tools effortlessly is a person who expends more brain power on the real job at hand.

  • @Durf
    “…when I see posts on the mailing lists from people who need help dealing with basic computing tasks it makes me less likely to want to send them work.”

    Sure, you’re not likely to trust an artisan who doesn’t know her tools. But when I hire a carpenter, I don’t look at her tools; I look at the work she produces.

  • Great article… Often try to travel so I can better understand local language and traditions to enhance my skills in translation.

  • […] Ginstrom summed it up very well when he said in his post on Becoming a better translator: “No matter how good your grasp of the source and target languages, if you can’t […]

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