So, ya wanna be a translator? (Stephen Rifkind)

The choice of a profession is a difficult decision at any age, often clouded by legitimate doubts regarding personal suitability. It is a daunting challenge to project one’s uncertain skills on an unfamiliar profession. In regards to becoming a translator, thorough familiarity with both your native and the source language, especially written language, clearly is a requirement. Beyond that prerequisite, contrary to the impression that the knowledge of the translation process is the key, the most important elements in choosing whether or not to become a translator are subject area knowledge and love of proper language.

To clarify, the technical aspects of translating are not a matter of inborn skill but of willingness to learn. In other words, unless a person took a dedicated course or program in translation, everybody starts out relatively inefficient and ineffective as in any learning curve. While natural talent may determine the starting and top level, technical skill is a largely a matter of practice. Most translators, especially older ones, began in the profession without any idea of exactly how to do it. To give a personal example, my first translating experience was instantaneous translation of the first four Harry Potter books as I read them to my young daughter. This lack of knowledge does lead to some early failures and serious embarrassment years later when looking back at those early translations but with time and effort, translators become technically proficient.

By contrast, an extremely important factor in determining the path of a translators is previous knowledge. When advising new translators, my first question is always about specific areas of knowledge that they have acquired in their life. While not immediately obvious, everybody has fields in which they can understand the language, know the terminology and write the lingo. For example, electrical engineers know the difference between the word coax as a verb and noun*, a classic shibboleth. When people try to translate material beyond their areas of expertise, the result is low quality at best. In worse cases, such poor judgment can lead to financial losses in the case of legal and financial material and even death in the case of medical documents. This source of this knowledge may be the home, studies or work. Regardless, subject familiarity is an important asset in deciding which documents to translate. For example, expertise in tax matters or auto engines are of great interest in potential customers and cannot be attained from studies only. Thus, people considering whether to become professional translators need to make an inventory of their areas of knowledge and, if they decide to act on it, direct their efforts in those directions.

However, beyond knowledge and skill, excellent translators have a passion for language, the insistence that the text sounds as perfect as can be. In practice, the search for a single term can easily take 30 minutes. While in some cases the distinction between terms may be critical, such as in medical technology, in a majority of cases, the translator is more bothered than the customer is. Furthermore, every language has its own song, its unique syntax. Outstanding translators thus aim for seamless translations, ones that don’t sound like translation. Such polishing takes time and effort, which are not always reflected in the fee. Thus, to be a proficient translator requires a certain amount of obsession with the quality of the language of the translation. The professional translator not only receives satisfaction from receipt of the payment in the bank but also from the quality of the produced document. Love of the belle phrase is a prerequisite for entering this profession.

For those of you considering becoming a professional translator, I can say that it is an interesting profession that expands the mind. The prerequisites are mastery of your native tongue and a foreign language and a willingness to learn the technical aspects of translation as well as, more importantly, solid subject knowledge and a passion for language. If you have those attributes, you can become a truly professional translator.

*Coax as a verb means to force while coax as a noun is a coaxial cable, used in cabel television.

** Captioning pictures is vital for the blind. All pictures from Pixabay.

Stephen Rifkind

Originally posted on Tip of the Tongue, Stephen’s excellent blog

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella