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Who is a good translator and who is not?
by Tuomas Juntunen
01/18/12
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With the huge number of translators out there on the market, how can you be sure that the one you choose is up to the job? What does it take to be a good translator?


First, it's not a job everyone can do. Even being bilingual doesn't necessarily make you a good translator. Translation is not simply a matter of looking up words in a dictionary, one by one - if it were that simple, we could all do it. The reason why it's complex is that languages express ideas in different ways - with different grammatical structures, different word orders and different nuances of meaning.


A good translator is one who can understand the *ideas* being conveyed by the source text, and then reformulate them in the target language so that they sound as if they had originally been written by a native speaker of the target language. To do this, the translator needs to have a mastery of both languages and great flexibility of thought.


Another essential factor is experience. Translators get better at their job with experience - not just experience of translating, but also real-life experience. A translator needs to have excellent general knowledge and research skills, as well as a very keen eye for detail.


Finally, a good translator should know his or her limits. The knowledge required to translate a complex medical, legal or engineering text takes years to acquire - it's not something you can learn overnight. Good translators know that in order to do a text full justice, they need to have a knowledge of the relevant field and terminology. They won't take risks with a text they don't feel fully comfortable with.


For the best possible result, you need to ensure your text is handled by someone with a mastery of both the source and target languages. Ideally, the translator will be a native speaker of the target language; in some rare language combinations this may not always be possible, but at the very least, the translation should be proofread by a native speaker of the target language to ensure that the finished result will read well.


The other important aspect to consider is the translator's experience in and knowledge of the subject area of your text. There's no point giving a text about biochemistry to someone who knows nothing about the subject. No dictionary can list all the terms used in a given field, especially in fast-developing areas like science, so an inexperienced translator working with a technical dictionary cannot hope to achieve an accurate or authentic-sounding result. An in-depth knowledge of the latest developments in nanotechnology isn't something you can pick up in a few hours, especially if you have a tight deadline to work to! Remember: if your text is going to be read by an expert, they'll expect to see the kind of language they're familiar with and understand. Mistakes not only reflect badly on you, they can also be costly - leading to reprinting of books or manuals, for example.

Author: Tuomas Juntunen, a professional project manager in translation industry since 2000.


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