Five Signs of a Good Translator (That Are Beyond Translation)
If you've read my guidebook How to Vet Translators (sign up on my homepage to get your complimentary copy if you haven't), you know it's my dream to see delightful, high-quality translations blossom in all languages. To that end, I want to make sure you're in good hands when getting your content translated.
Oftentimes in my career I have collaborated with other translators. This has allowed me to observe the connections between my colleagues' translation quality and their professional traits outside the realm of translation. Looking for those professional traits will let you as a client get a sense of whether you're working with a good translator even if you don't know the language or aren't able to evaluate the translation yourself.
Besides looking into professional credentials and certifications, if I were to find a translator in a language different from my own, here are five signs, or green flags, I would look for. I recommend you take notice of them, too.
#1: Effective communication
Without fail, translators I've worked with who deliver great work know how to communicate well. Translation is about skillful use of language and excellent audience empathy. Knowing how to convey one's idea in a succinct, clear way that conveniences the other person is an instinct that overflows to other spheres of a translator's professional life. Therefore, in your initial correspondence with the translator, be mindful of how they write and how well they explain things. These all give important clues about their thoughtfulness and how they perceive and use language.
On the flip side, since the first step of translation is understanding the original text, you can also get a sense of the translator's professional skill level based on how well they understand your needs and ideas when you communicate about the project. Do they answer your questions thoroughly and satisfactorily? Are they able to understand your main concerns and assuage them? This is the same soft skill that a translator needs to do excellent work.
#2: Attention to detail
To ensure quality, a translator must be in the habit of checking their work multiple times before submission. As the truism goes, how you do one thing is how you do everything. Similar to the communication skill mentioned earlier, this is also an entrenched practice that manifests in other contexts.
I have worked with translators who misspelled my name in emails or filled out our contract incorrectly, and when I reviewed their work, the lack of attention to detail was reflected there as well. So when you're writing with a translator about your project, pay attention to whether they seem rigorous or careless with their words and approaches.
#3: Good judgment
A translator needs to make judgment calls when handling translation challenges, whether linguistic or cultural. They need to be able to decide what approaches to use for different problems. Do we rephrase? Do we add a note? Do we need to completely rewrite the content to make it work in another country?
The same level of judgment is also reflected in how a translator interacts with you, the client. You can tell a lot from a translator's professionalism and awareness of the situation at hand. Are they using the appropriate tone and register when writing to you? Do they seem to have a good handle on how to properly request your assistance or input? Your translator must be able to make smart decisions both with you and your text.
A translator must inquire about the project type and subject matter before agreeing to take on the task. I would not trust a translator who says yes to whatever job that lands in their inbox. The translation world is broad and wide, and everyone has limitations. An honest, responsible awareness of one's shortcomings is essential for a translator so that they will not lead a client astray.
You may ask the translator if they have relevant experience with your particular industry and if they think their skills are a good fit with the materials. A good translator treats their reputation and projects very seriously. You should be able to tell from your initial interaction with a translator if they care enough to do right by you.
It can be disastrous if you commission a translation only to hear crickets by the time the deadline rolls around, so make sure you find someone who has an established professional presence or you can have a contract in place to ensure project completion. You can tell someone's reliability from the initial communication, too. Are they on top of things? Do they seem that they are well organized? Or does it take them forever to reply to your email?
Reliability is more than meeting the deadline, too. It's also having a high level of conscientiousness and dedication to look up a word, to do proper research, and to triple check their work. When you're in contact with a translator, make sure to take note of every detail of your interaction and listen to your intuition about their trustworthiness.
When we talk about translation skills, it's not just about language. Yes, language is important, but there are so many soft skills—communication, audience empathy, judgment, integrity, conscientiousness, among others—that are essential, too. Even on the language front, a translator would not be able to keep up with the latest linguistic and cultural developments or achieve true fluency without strong self-discipline and dedicated hard work. Skills don't exist in silos, and you can get a great sense of how your project will unfold just from interacting with the translator.
Looking for a translator?
Hi I'm Sijin. If you happen to need an English-Chinese translator who can channel her prose, creativity, and empathy into creating a reading experience that delights your audience, you don't need to look any further. I would love to hear from you. Get in touch today, and I look forward to taking care of your text. If you have other language needs, I'm happy to tap into my network and recommend good candidates as well. Talk to you soon!