Honing Your Translation Skills


Photo Credit: Niketh Vellanki via Unsplash

Translators do not wake up one day capable of translating any and every text. Like any other skill, translation requires motivation, cultivation, and time to perfect. What’s more, translation relies heavily on tacit knowledge, or knowledge that cannot simply be transferred to someone else by verbalizing it or writing it down. If translation simply involved a 1:1 relationship between words and concepts, computers would have replaced us long ago. Good translators have internalized years (if not decades) of linguistic, cultural, and field-specific knowledge to become the professionals that they are. How do they keep their knowledge up to snuff? The best translators work hard to ensure that they keep internalizing new knowledge to hone their translation skills. Here are just a few of the ways they do it.

Read, read, read

All good translators are prolific readers. They spend a good amount of time reading good writing, whether it be prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. They also read in all of the languages in which they work. Reading good writing allows translators to internalize good grammar and more varied vocabulary. Ever find yourself using a great word you recently read? The more great words translators read, the greater their own words will be, too.

Write, write, and write some more

Regardless of the intended audience, good translators also practice writing. While translators write day in and day out for their work, they are not usually writing with their own voice. Finding one’s own words and committing them to paper is an excellent way to practice formulating cogent phrases, which will make for better writing and better translation. More powerful still is editing one’s own writing and thinking critically about how it is written.

Keep up with industry trends and terminology

It is critically important for translators to keep abreast of the trends and ever-evolving terminology in their fields. One good way to do this is to regularly read news and trade journal articles related to their areas of expertise. Another, more challenging option, is to attend industry conferences. If you do not have the means to attend trade conferences halfway across the globe, you can largely make up for it by being motivated to read what comes out of them.

Maintain source (and target) language proficiency

Many people think it’s impossible to lose your native language. As anyone who has lived abroad for any length of time (I myself lived abroad for six years from 2005 until 2011) will tell you, the longer you are immersed in another language, the more foreign your native language will start to feel. Some people who move abroad may decide to give up their mother tongue altogether. It is critical for translators to practice their languages outside of their translation work. If you live abroad, this means regularly traveling back to your home country (and/or cultivating a community of native speakers to interact with if going back to your target language country is difficult or unsafe). If you live in a country where your native language is spoken, sufficient exposure to your source language(s) also needs to be a priority. Corinne McKay and Eve Bodeux made a great podcast earlier this year on how to do just that that everyone should listen to.

Continuing education

Continuing education is yet another way that good translators ensure that their knowledge about their industries, latest technologies available, and best practices in their field is up to date. Most translator certifications require continuing education credits in order to maintain certification (for good reason!), but good translations, even if they are not certified, still attend continuing education seminars every couple of months. It is now easier than ever to attend remotely, too.

Challenge your translation skills

Yoyo Ma never would have become the musician he is today if he had only mastered Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and had been content to play that one song for the rest of his life. Translators, like all other skilled professionals, get better through practice. One of the best ways to practice is to challenge yourself with more complex and more difficult translations. You have an ethical responsibility to your clients not to practice on texts that you are being paid to complete, so you should set aside time to work on ever-harder texts to continue learning how to work through more complex translation problems.

Critical feedback

Finally, good translators seek constructive feedback. Egos aside, it’s hard to know how good your work is without a critical evaluation from someone else. Have your work read by someone with more experience than you who is able to provide a truly objective opinion. Use that person’s feedback to identify areas for improvement and conscientiously work to address them.


Learning, especially for translators, is a lifelong process. And while perfect is a word that hardly ever applies to translation, practice is indispensable for translators to continuously improve. Good translators actively work at sharpening their skills and are never satisfied with what they already know. Be curious, be creative, and have fun becoming a better translator!

What do you do to hone your translation skills? Leave a comment or tweet me at @Bentranslates.


13 thoughts on “Honing Your Translation Skills

  1. Pingback: On traduit à Québec 2017: Interview with Conference Organizer Grant Hamilton | Ben Translates

  2. Pingback: Advanced Credentials for Translators | Ben Translates

  3. I speak both English and Spanish. I am interested on becoming a medical traslator. How do I go about becoming a certified translator? What schools are out there that are accepted by hospitals and other entities?


    • Hi Alvaro, it sounds like you are more interest in medical interpreting, not translating. I’m not sure where you are located, but there are many, many training programs for ESEN medical interpreting in the United States. A simple Google search will help you find those resources. There are also several national accrediting bodies that offer courses and certifications. I am not an interpreter, so I am not the best resource to ask. Good luck with your pursuits!


  4. I want to be a french-english literary translator. Does that mean I have to study Literature in a french university? Is that the best option?


    • There is no “one” path to any profession, and literary translation is no exception. To be a literary translator, in addition to having impeccable knowledge of the source language and nuances in language, the biggest skill you need is to be able to write exceptionally well (like a regular author, in fact) in your native language. Some literary translators decide to get an MFA in creative writing in their native language (there used to be an MFA in Translation at Mills College in Oakland, CA, but I can’t seem to find the page anymore…), others study comparative literature, and some are just voracious readers and writers who pursue that avenue on their own. I suggest looking objectively at yourself and determining where your skills need work, and then focusing on that while beefing up the skills you already have. Good luck!


  5. I am American, but live in Italy. I am an educator looking at the possibility of changing fields and am interested in the possibility of becoming a translator. I have always loved reading and writing. I am having a hard time finding practical advise on where to begin. I know I need to practice translating and get a certification some how, but do you have any advise or suggestions for me to begin this adventure? Thanks so much.


    • Hi Thea. There are so many resources available! There are lots of blogs (e.g., http://www.thoughtsontranslation.com/, https://atasavvynewcomer.org/) and books (The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban, How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, Third Edition by Corinne McKay, and more). Find someone locally in the Associazione Italiana Traduttori e Interpreti who can give you more practical advice about how things work in Italy (setting up a business, getting a VAT number, marketing yourself, translator circles you can join, etc.). You’ll need to find your niche (based on your expertise and your interests), perhaps take some courses or get a certificate in translation (there are lots of programs at Italian universities), and then start finding clients. Hope it helps!


  6. I speak both English and Arabic. I am interested on becoming a traslator. How do I go about becoming a certified translator? I want to learn online
    Could you help me
    Thank you


    • Hi Nour, there are many paths to becoming a translator. You need good source language, flawless target language skills, a good specialization, and a good network. One free online resource I like to recommend is the ATA Savvy Newcomer blog, which has dozens of helpful blog posts about getting started: https://atasavvynewcomer.org/. Certification should only be a goal after you’ve been working professionally for several years, as the exam is very difficult . Best of luck to you!


  7. Hi Ben,
    Your article is very useful for me. Can I repost your article to my WeChat Public Account? Most of my followers are translation enthusiasts and college students. I think your article will inspire them. Thanks.


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