The Skills That Differentiate the World’s Best Translators

You can find a translator pretty much anywhere. Go to any freelancer portal. Visit any translator association directory. Do a Google search. Translators aren’t hard to find. Outstanding translators, on the other hand, are like gold dust.

Professional translators spend a lot of time building up the muscles of their translation core. They dutifully study various terminology domains, learn languages inside and out, and master an array of translation tools. These are the basic requirements for entry into the profession. But once you’ve done those things, what is it that truly separates the top 1% of translators from the rest of the pack?

I have worked as a professional freelance translator, on the language service provider (LSP) side, and currently serve as a buyer that procures many millions of words of translation services for a large public company. Here are the skills that I think matter most for working translators today.

1. Curiosity

The best translators don’t just translate words. They convey meaning. They aim to connect the voice of the original author in a way that sounds authentic and engaging. They are focused on getting to the heart of what the words mean, to truly facilitate communication.

As such, they will probably need to ask a lot of questions. They’ll want to understand the goal of the text, what other parts of the experience it connects to, if any, and where it will be published, along with the profile of the audience. Having an inquisitive nature is an important part of being a great translator. Usually, translators can answer many questions on their own by doing some basic research, but if not, asking questions is incredibly important.

It’s not always necessarily a good sign when a translator asks a lot of questions. For example, it’s not great if they ask about things that were already answered in the instructions provided. But it’s a great sign when they ask purposeful and relevant questions that demonstrate their commitment to really understanding the goal of the communication and getting the true meaning across. It shows they are thinking critically about the text and its purpose before they translate. Needless to say, this is something machines can’t do, but it’s also something that the best translators naturally think to do.

2. Flexibility

My favorite translators demonstrate adaptability and creativity. They don’t just sit within the confines of the words they were given, but think outside of the box. One of my favorite ever translation tests was when a translator took the English phase “goes together like peanut butter and jelly” in a blog post and translated it into “goes together like pain au chocolat” for the French audience. They were not afraid to convey the meaning as opposed to merely translating the words. Just leaving the words alone and converting them into French would have actually destroyed the meaning for the target audience.

The best translators also aren’t afraid to delete things. True, you’re taught in translation that “omissions” are a big no-no. But that doesn’t hold true for every scenario. There are times when if you translate something, it simply won’t make sense or have any relevance for the target audience. When this happens, I love it when the translators highlight that given sentence or section and suggest we simply delete it if it does not make sense. Doing so also helps the source authors learn that perhaps their original content contained some fluff, or had writing that could be improved.

Likewise, adding explanatory text is often necessary to bridge cultural differences for the target audience. This too is a common trait that the best translators demonstrate, at least where marketing content is concerned.

3. Hustle

Believe it or not, a translator’s ability to deliver high-quality work quickly is hugely valuable, something that many buyers would pay a premium for, because it can save them huge amounts of time. Time is money! And depending on the industry you’re in, having translations ready earlier can be worth the value of the translation many times over! However, this is only the case if the translations are good. They can’t be done carelessly, or they’ll be worthless altogether, especially for marketing content.

A sense of urgency goes a long way for your customers. This isn’t just a phenomenon of the digital age. Speed and hustle have been important for decades! When I was a freelance translator, we were still in the days when printed page proofs were sent via courier service to me by a bilingual textbook publishing company in Boston. They arrived on my doorstep in the evening, often with the pages still warm from the printer. I used to work through the night to get them couriered back to my publishing clients the next morning.

To me, the hand-off happened when the pages reached me, and I was the next part of this important chain. The client depended on me! This gesture early on in my career helped me stand out from others who might have only started working on them the next day. The editors working on my books got their drafts handed in faster, and their books went to press earlier. Working with someone who had a sense of urgency gave them a clear advantage over working with other translators. I began to have steady direct and recurring customers as a result.

I’m not suggesting that every translator needs to work a crazy schedule or sacrifice work/life balance. However, a client working toward their own deadlines often needs their translators to adopt a similar appreciation for the speed at which they need to work.

And now that I’m in the buyer’s seat, it’s not just me who appreciates a sense of urgency and hustle from translators. Our internal stakeholders are the ones who benefit the most from this. Hustle is often a big part of what a buyer perceives as “a great service.” And in the always-on, instant gratification age, where continuous delivery rules in software, a translator who is willing and ready to grab the baton and keep running at the same pace as the buyer is a highly prized asset to any team.

4. Humility

Most translators take a lot of pride in their work, and consider themselves experts in at least one language combination. But with language, and especially with creative translations, there is often no “wrong” answer or output. Subjectivity rules. The solutions twenty translators might come up with for the same sentence are as varied as the personalities of the humans themselves.

So, when buyers ask translators to make changes, it’s surprising how frequently they are met with defensiveness, a lack of willingness to implement feedback, and lengthy debates about trivialities. The translator may believe they are defending their credibility, but in fact, they are talking themselves out of future jobs with the customer. No customer wants to waste time debating linguistic minutiae. While the translator might think they are “educating” the customer, the customer simply wants the changes made and to move on.

I have witnessed countless disputes in which the translator refused to change a term to what the client wanted, or had the audacity to disagree with the client’s style guide, or the clients’ own employees. This makes total sense when the mistake would actually have major consequences, or lead to an error that could impact someone’s health or life. (I’ve witnessed situations like that as well, especially with medical and legal translation.)

However, the “my way or the highway” attitude among translators is, well, a bit shocking. Especially when the requests for changes have no major consequences other than for the client to simply have their subjective (but often important) preferences met. Most other professionals, such as graphic designers, expect clients to ask for tweaks or changes in order to fit a certain style. But often, translators stand their ground almost as if it’s a moral or ethical matter. They will lean on dictionaries to defend themselves, when in reality, sometimes the customer just has a preferred way of saying something in a language. That’s their brand, and their choice, end of story.

To say it another way… the best translators are just, well, nice people who don’t have a chip on their shoulder. They don’t assume they are always right, because they’re not!

The Skills That Differentiate Translators Are People Skills

In summary, the skills that matter most for professional translators are not linguistic skills. They are people skills. Linguistic skills are the basic entry point, and taken as a given, much like “translation quality” is in general. Yet, I don’t believe these skills are much of a focus for training people who enter the profession.

Beyond linguistic quality, buyers want and expect an excellent experience working with translators, because people prefer working with people they like and can get along with. Translators too often think that the quality of their work will speak for itself. Just because you take pride in it, does not mean everyone else can. Translation is an art. But a high-quality work of art might look like a piece of junk to someone who has no appreciation for that type of art.

Most buyers will remember the experience they had, not just what they bought. And if they had a bad experience, they will remember the delay waiting at the cash register, or the snippy comment, even more than they will remember what was in the bag. This is even more true in the case of translation, where it’s hard to even quantify the value of what you are buying. What you are buying often appears to be “just words,” which are hard to put a value on when anyone can generate them for free.

For this reason, the buyer experience matters even more for translation than for many products and services a person can buy. People skills, not language skills, are what make some translators rise to the top in the eyes of the customer.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, and product development. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly works remotely from Donegal, Ireland, by way of New England, Ecuador, and rural Illinois where she grew up.

15 comments

  • Awesome! I am a freelance translator. Could you please make some recommendations for me?

    • Would suggest: 1) join the professional translator association in your home country, 2) join Women in Localization events and groups (all gender identities welcome), 3) always listen closely to your customers. 🙂

  • I’m happy I read this. Your research, observations and conclusions mentioned in this article are going to help me I’m sure. Many thanks.

  • Thanks for that great post, Natalie. Just like seeing a text from dfferent perspectives can help unearth the true meaning of a particular passage, your procurement slant on the process is revealing. I like the part about translators being too precious about their work. I’ve certainly been guilty of that. And the lone freelancer always needs to be aware of those people skills you mentioned.

    P.S. It was the mention of Donegal that got me to actually type out a reply. I’m a German-English translator currently exploring the option of fleeing Brexit by relocating my business to west Donegal.

    • Great Conor! Glad it was helpful. I wish you much success with relocating to Donegal, one of the most beautiful parts of the world!

  • I agree a 100 percent with all you have written. Even though I haven’t decided if I want to be a freelance interpreter/translator or only an translator. I’m a newbie but reading your post and working in my internship I realize I love the freedom and direction of being a translator. Thank you for your input and advise.

  • Very true. There’s a saying: some people prefer to be right to winning. I also think there are translators – me included – who stay in underchallenging jobs or market segments way too long, which naturally creates frustration and – in my experience – a knack for linguistic prescriptivism. I’ve had plenty of discussions with anti-tech translators whose rants then transition to modern “deformations” of “proper” language and “general cultural decline.”
    Another thing I’ve noticed is that many actual translators don’t have translation degrees, because translation graduates are lucky to ever see a CAT tool in university and spend 3 years hearing “don’t, under any circumstances, become a freelancer!” People with degrees may also have a sense of entitlement that just isn’t healthy for a service provider and are more prone to quitting after surviving the first 100k MTPE project in 2.5 days.

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