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 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.
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.