What to look for in a translator

Quite often, when we commission a translation service, we are unable to check on the quality of a translation until we receive some feedback from its readers; and that is how we find out whether or not the translated text is communicating the same message as our original.

When deciding who to entrust our work to, we are likely to be guided by credentials, professional references, or by certain quality promises made by the translator or language service company.

Although being familiar with the world of translation as a profession is not necessary for a client, it is important – or, at least, convenient – to take some of its aspects into account.

Below is a list of what, in my opinion, being a good translator involves and any individual or company thinking of contracting any translation services should consider.

Being a native speaker does not equate to being an expert in a language. There is a common belief that for a translation to be good it has to be done by a native speaker. However, I would argue that – although that helps – in many cases, translating into your mother tongue is not a guarantee of quality. What is far more important is that the translator has a deep knowledge and understanding of all aspects of the language they are translating into; that is, that they have the right language skills.

A translator needs to be an expert in all the languages they work with. Translating is a complex process as, a lot of the time, there is no exact equivalent for a term or expression in the target language. If we look up almost any word in a bilingual dictionary, we will see how there are numerous translations for the same term, which will depend mostly on context. A lack of proficiency in a language will often lead to misinterpretation, or to the use of a term that is inappropriate for the context.

A translator needs to have a good theoretical and practical knowledge of the subjects they translate. It is rarely possible to do an accurate translation about a subject we have very little knowledge of. Looking terms up in a dictionary is not enough. Dictionaries are limited tools, as they do not contain all possible terms, nor examples of all possible uses of a term.

A translator needs to be a good researcher and have the ability to use available tools. It is practically impossible to know everything there is to know about a subject, which is why the Internet is a wonderful tool as a source of information. However, not all sources of information found online are reliable, and the translator needs to have the ability to discern the level of reliability of that information and decide what sources to trust.

A translation that is well written may not necessarily be a good translation. A translation that is well written may not always be an accurate or faithful translation. Even though it would be fair to say that different types of translation require different levels of accuracy, as a rule, a translation will only be a good translation if, as well as reading like an original, it says the same as the original.

A good writer does not necessarily make a good translator. Someone may be an excellent story teller, or have the ability to express a concept or idea in a clear manner, but they may lack some of the skills required to be a translator, such as the ability to analyse a text, attention to detail, relevant subject knowledge, or even the necessary linguistic expertise.

Consequently, the best translator will be someone who has lived enough, worked enough and learned enough to become experienced in and knowledgeable about translation and the subject areas they work with; someone who also has a love for language and languages, and a passion for what they do.