Below are five questions you might wish to consider if you are thinking of pursuing a career in the translation business. If you can answer all the questions in the affirmative, you will stand a chance of surviving in the translation business. If your answer to any of these questions is negative, you will probably never be a happy translator.
Are you a good writer? More than anything else, a good translator is a good writer. This plain truth tends to be overshadowed by the native speaker myth that has obscured the translation business for years with the implicit claim that a native speaker is necessarily also a good translator. Not so. If you are unable to formulate effectively and creatively in your native language, you will never be a good translator. Even if creativity in a translator is not equivalent to creativity in a literary writer, the all-round professional translator should have access to a repertoire of styles and registers to suit particular genres and audiences. Creativity is less important in specialised translators, who usually work within one and the same register. Their main concern should be to master every nook and cranny of their specific field in terms of content and terminological insight, as well as all the phrasing and the particular style that goes with it. But even specialised translators will not make much of a living if they lack insight into the essentials of their mother tongue. Whatever your field of translation, you should be an absolute virtuoso in juggling with alternative sentence structures to find the one that offers just the right balance of rhythm and content for each of the myriad of linguistic challenges you will face in every single text. Note that your ability to do so should not depend on self-assessment. Feedback from professionals in the field is essential for you to get an idea of your creative skills in this regard.
Do you have an excellent passive knowledge of a foreign language? It is safe to say that in order to be a good translator, your passive mastery of the source language should be as impressive as your active mastery of the target language. Of course anyone who speaks a few words of some language or other can have a go at translating it, but when you face an entire text in a language that you do not fully understand, your translation is bound to fail. This is because of the multitude of challenges awaiting the translator in terms of interpretation. Indeed, interpretation – or, more appropriately, misinterpretation – is a phenomenal problem that will continue to challenge even the most experienced of translators. By interpretation we do not simply mean the meaning of individual words – after all, that’s what you have dictionaries for – but also, and more importantly, the meaning of idioms – shifts of meaning that may arise in words due to the presence or proximity of other words and that only native speakers of the language will automatically grasp.
Do you like working at the computer for hours on end? Translating is a largely sedentary profession. If you are an outgoing sort of person, if you love action and physical challenges in your work, if you are fond of changing environments and hate sitting in front of your computer hammering away at your keyboard for prolonged periods of time, then you might be well advised not to opt for translation as a full-time job. The translator’s mind may be a dazzling hotspot of linguistic activity, but the translator’s physical repertoire is limited. To translate essentially means to sit, stare at your screen, surf and type. Do you like going places, meeting people, exchanging views? Then choose another job.
Do you like a lonely job? Some translators are quite fond of consulting with others, debating the merits of particular linguistic choices or finding fault with translations done by others (indeed, the latter sometimes appears to be their favourite pastime). Even so, these behaviours are usually little more than online derivates of true social contact and only underline the fact that translating is essentially a very lonely job. You will probably be working at home or, if you are lucky, at your desk in an office all day and no matter how often you feel it is necessary to confer with others, your translation is the fruit of collaboration between yourself and your computer. If you like working with people, if you can’t wait to go to meetings or, even better, conferences or trade shows, if, in short, you are a person who would be happy if his job – like a manager’s – consisted mostly of talking, then beware that translation will bring none of those social amenities. As a translator you are pretty much left to your own devices. What you will need most of all is concentration – and concentration is by definition best achieved in isolation.
Can you deal with criticism? Most good translators are highly language-conscious and, by extension, will be aware that language means power. They will be aware that their linguistic skills are their principal asset – the instrument that brings them status, power, influence and money. Because they so much depend on those skills, they are acutely aware of the need to maintain them and keep them in good order, yet at the same time also feel peculiarly reluctant to accept criticism. You should be aware that translation is an extremely error-sensitive skill – innumerable things can go wrong in a single text, and sometimes even a simple spelling error can spoil your professional image. To make matters worse, your translation is likely to be read – and judged – not only by your client but by countless other people as well, and the notions of what it takes to create a good text vary considerably. Some people don’t like sentences with subclauses. Others don’t like Latinisms. And others may criticise you for taking liberties with the source text. A professional translator will be able to take such criticisms for what they are worth, but is also aware that he needs the response of readers to sharpen his skills. This is because a writer is never exactly aware of the effect of his writing, until he receives feedback from others to reflect what he has written, and how he has written it.
To sum up, a good translator is a professional with a versatile linguistic repertoire and creative writing skills who is able to work in isolation and willing to submit his work for feedback from others.