FAQ for Translators

Ever since I bacame a translator, I get asked a lot of about it, be it by friends or strangers. Here are the most common questions I get and my answers. I’d love to hear your answers, as well as other questions you get.

Q: Are you a translator? I thought computer did everything these days.

A: There’s no doubt that computer-generated translation can be very impressive, but it depends on the langauage pair and subject. Machine translation can be useful when you want to translate huge text volumes very quickly, or when you only need the general meaning. Some translators and editors now edit maching translations instead of translating (we call this “post-editing”), but the results are usually so bad that they’d rather translate the text from scratch.

Each language requires and provides different kind of information. For instance, when translating from English into Hebrew, the translator has to figure out if the subject is masculine or feminine. When translating from Japanese, sometimes the translator will struggle to figure out if it’s singular or plural, or if the verb is in first, second or third person. Sometimes you have to preserve the vagueness of the source. It seems to me that it will take a long time for maching translation to be able to make such decisions, that require knowledge beyond the translation itself. And that’s without even mentioning word plays or allusions.

Q: So you’re an interpreter?

A: No, I’m a translator. Translation is done in writing, while interpreting is oral. Interpreting can be simultaneous, so the interpreter speaks at the same time as the speaker, or consecutive, so the speaker pauses after each point and the interpreter interprets them.

Personally, I work somewhere in between – Typed simultaneous lecture translation. I type in real time the translation of the speaker, and it’s projected on a nearby screen, like subtitles.

Q: Do you have to learn translation?

A: It depends. In Israel, where I work, there is no oficial requirement for an academic background in translation, and there are many wonderful translators working without being trained. Other countries might have different requirements, either to work as translators or to get certified. (Feel free to comment about the situation in your country!)

Either way, there are many advantages to studying translation: taking your first steps in a safe environment, learning about translation theories and trying out different genres and fields. Translation Studies are also great for networking with both your fellow students and professors.

Q: My friends needs to translate a document into French. Should I give her your number?

A: Although I translate from French, I don’t translate into it. Try translating something into English or any other language you speak that isn’t your mother tongue – it’s much harder and the quality of your translation is probably not that great. It’s best for a translator to translate only into their mother tongue ot to languages they feel they can properly translate into (not all texts, of course, but that’s for the next question). Professional translators know their boundaries and keep them.

Q: My friend needs a translation about intestinal problems in chickens. Should I give her your e-mail?

A: Translators can only translate texts about fields they know about, as they need to be familiar with the termilnology and produce a text that sounds professionals even to mavens. Since I don’t know anything about intestinal problems in chickens (true story!), I can’t help your friend. However, I can try to help her find a translator that does know something about it.

Q: Why are subtitles and movie titles translated so badly:

A: This may only be relevant to Israel, but I suspect other countries have these issues as well, for the same reasons.

Regarding subtitles: the rates for subtitling are extremely low, so the quality of the translations is imparied. Also, we all make mistakes, and since the source and the target are appear together, it’s easier to spot mistakes.

As for movie titles: The movie distributors pick them out, and they have their own considerations, so sometimes the local movie title has nothing to do with the original.


5 Tips for Communicating with Clients (and Prospective Clients)

(This post is based on a talk I gave in Hebrew earlier this year at an Israel Translators Association short lecture event. It’s available on YouTube here.)

Several years ago I went to a translators gathering, with a few dozens of translators. My friend, who also came, described this event as “a party where everyone are wallflowers”. Sounds familiar? Most of us translators work from home, and part of the reason we do what we do is probably because it’s more comfortable for us. We like being alone. It’s great when we translate, but the problem is that as business owners, some parts of our job requires contacting other people, such as marketing, networking or collecting, and that’s when it becomes harder for us. We avoid it because we’re shy, afraid of rejection or hearing “no”, or just because we don’t feel comfortable.

If we want to succeed in our business, we have no choice but to get over it. It’s not easy, but I’ve developed a few strategies that have helped me cope with this, and I’d like to share them with you.

1. Don’t decide for the other party what they think/want – This may have been the most helpful insight for me: When contacting others, they usually have two possible responses: either “yes” or “no”. Usually we’d like to hear “yes”, with no worse answer than “no” possible. So, for instance, when we avoid approaching a potential client, we decide for them that they won’t work for us. If we do contact them and offer our services, they might say “no”, but they could also say “yes”. For that chance, as small as it might be, we should try, instead of making this choice for the client. If these are the possible answers, you have nothing to lose if you try to ask. You might even get a “yes”.

2. Buddy system – I have a colleague and friend I chat while working, consulting her on professional issues. She’s a great help when I have to contact someone, because, first of all, when I tell her I’m going to  call a client , I’ve committed to it and I have to make the call. Also, we can talk about what I should say, or discuss the call after it’s over. Make sure your buddy is a translator, or some other freelance professional, so they understand your situation.

3. Emotional detachment – First of all, we have to understand that when a client rejects us, it’s not personal. There could be a 1000 hypothetical reasons why they rejected our services, and only one of them is about us: maybe they don’t need any translations; maybe you were their 15th call in the past two hours; maybe they’re going through something personal. So when you’re rejected, don’t be discouraged! Just move on to the next prospect. It’s not about you.

Also, sometimes it’s easier to make requests that benefits other people and not ourselves. So if you find it hard to call clients and remind them of overdue payments, you can have an agreement with another translator or freelancer to take care of each other’s collection calls. You can also practice requesting things for other people or for a good cause, until you feel comfortable enough contacting other people on behalf of your business.

4. Be assertive – Assertiveness is a communication attitude that’s right in the middle between passiveness and aggressiveness. When we’re passive, we don’t respect ourselves and our boundaries; When we’re aggressive, we don’t respect others and their needs. When we’re assertive we respect both ourselves and others. Assertiveness helps us express what we want without forcing others to comply and without making others guess what we want (which is passive-aggressiveness). Assertiveness isn’t only about our business – it’s about every time we contact others.

Assertiveness is like a muscle, and developed gradually. This about when you felt awkward, so when you encounter these situations again, you can practice being assertive – you can return your salad because the greens aren’t fresh, or tell the salesperson you don’t like the shirt they’ve suggested you try on. Remember: it’s not about attacking them and saying that no self-respecting chef would use such poor lettuce, but say you don’t like or want it, while stating the facts. Start with situations you feel more at ease in, and gradually move on to more difficult ones. It will get easier. There are many books on assertiveness – just browse your favorite online bookstore!

5. Know what you’re going to say – If you’re worried you’ll be so nervous the words won’t come out, plan what you’re going to say. Write down a script, if it helps. Since we’re avoiding being aggressive, stick to the facts and don’t accuse the other party. If a client didn’t pay, I always say I didn’t get my payment. You never know – maybe they made the transfer, but the server went down?

The 5 Secret Traits of Great Translators

When you think of great translators, you think of qualities such as curiosity, proficiency in several languages or being sensitive to linguistic and literary nuances. There is no doubt all of these are very important when it comes to translators, but there are other traits that are just as important, but are mostly overlooked:

1. Decisiveness – When translating, we constantly have to make decisions. What is the right word order? Which word better expresses the nuances that appear in the source? Since we have to provide the client with a clean, ready-to-use translation, we have to reach a decision and move on to the next sentence.

2. The Ability to Let Go – Every project has its deadline, whether in a few hours, days or months. Since our time is limited (and according to Murphy’s Law for Translators every project will be more complicated than initially seemed), we must accept the fact that we can’t endlessly polish our work and that it doesn’t have to be perfect, but rather good enough and adapted to the client’s needs and requirements. For instance, some terms that are more important in terms of understanding the text or enjoying it, and others are less important. We must be able to recognize when a term is less significant and doesn’t justify a two-hour search.

3. Being Nice – My grandmother used to say, “you catch more flies with honey”. Although most of us work alone at home and have limited interactions with others, these interactions still exist. As professionals we interact with existing and potential clients, colleagues and various service providers, and we have to keep it pleasant so they’d want to keep in touch with us. Sometimes being nice can make all the difference.

4. Assertiveness – Sometimes our needs, abilities, skills and wishes don’t correspond to those of the clients (e.g. impossible schedules, projects that don’t match your specializations). We have to be able to stand up for ourselves and refuse any demands we can’t accept, all while being respectful and considerate of the client and finding a solution that all parties are happy with. If you’ll be aggressive, there’s a chance the client wouldn’t want to work with you again (see no. 3). There will be more on assertiveness in one of my next posts.

5. Humility – Put your egos aside and think of the best way to convey your text, with its content, voice and message. If you’re not a 100% sure of some term or grammatical issue, double-check them. When you receive an edited version of your work, see it as a chance to learn – we don’t always get feedback on or own work, or a glimpse to another translator’s work. Go over the corrections and see which are justified, but also know the difference between stylistic preferences and actual errors.

Can you think of other qualities that are important for translators?


Signs You are a Translator (or Should Be)

In 2012 I created a list of signs you should be a translator, with the kind help of the members of the Agenda Translation Forum on Facebook. Here it is:

(You may have stumbled upon this list before, as the Norwegian-Hebrew translator Dana Caspi translated it into Norwegian for a workshop several months ago, and it got translated into other languages. At the end of this post you can find the German version, translated from Norwegian by Ebba D. Drolshagen.)  

  • You read any text you see, be it your milk carton or conditioner bottle.
  • Language mistakes give you the shivers.
  • You obsessively correct people’s grammar.
  • You also obsessively proofread every text you stumble upon (including those on the back of your cleaning products) and edit it too, while you’re at it.
  • You always help people find the words they’re looking for.
  • You always help tourists communicate with bus drivers and supermarket cashiers.
  • That moment when you’re reading a text in your source language for fun and suddenly realize you’re translating it in your head.
  • You’re also trying to decide if you want to translate it and if your target audience will like it.
  • People always ask you about word meanings.
  • You usually know the answer.
  • When people ask you a professional question, you usually ask for the context.
  • When you read a translated novel, you keep wondering what the source looked like.
  • Sometimes you realize the novel you’re reading is actually in its original language.
  • When you read a book with lots of word plays, you’re upset or frustrated because it’s untranslatable.
  • And then you feel sorry for the actual translator.
  • You know your text better than its author.
  • You won’t rest until you find the exact word you’re looking for.
  • That moment you wake up in the middle of the night with that word you were looking for yesterday.
  • You get mad when book reviews fail to mention the translator.
  • You get asked at least once a month what’s the use for translators when you’ve got Google.
  • The number of dictionaries you own is in the double-digits zone, and the digit in the tens place probably isn’t one.
  • Your happiest moment is when you stumble upon a word you don’t know and have to look it up.
  • You call limousine services to ask about vehicle lengths and their local names, not to mention jewelry-making supplies stores, lawyers, accountants, crane operators and rock band members – anyone who can help you find the correct term.
  • When looking for that elusive term, you also enter countless online professional forums and post questions that start with “hello, I’m a translator and I’m working on a text about…”


Can you think of other signs? Please post them in the comments.


Many thanks to the Agenda group members, and especially Linda Penias Ohana, Inbal Sagiv-Nakdimon, Liron Rubins, Sharona Guri, Lior Betzer, Nina Rimon DavisTami Eylon OrtalAda Lewinski, Anna Lein, Guy Herling, Mor Rosenfeld, Ora Dankner and Yifat Ben Yaakov.

Translation Blogger Project: My Best Tip for Translators

Back in June, the Hebrew translation bloggers decided to create the first project of its kind and post our most important tip for translators, as well as a tip by another translator of our choice, hoping to creat a pool of useful and inspiring advice. I posted my tip in Hebrew back then, and I figured this would be a nice first post for my English blog.

I contacted Dorit Attar, English > Hebrew translator and editor. Her tip:

As translators, we’re constantly learning – New fields, new terminology, new work methods. My best advice for every translator, especially beginners, is to learn as much as you can from every job you do. One of the best ways to do so is to ask to see the material you’ve translated after editing and always ask for feedback and comments. If you work with translation agencies, one of their greatest advantages is that all materials are edited by experienced professionals, and this is a wonderful opportunity to learn from them. I also ask to see the final version of the translation from other clients, who are not translation and writing professionals. Not only do you get to learn about the field you’re translating, you can also learn about your client’s preferences and save them extra work on future projects.

And my tip: Don’t forget you’re a business owner, and not “just” a translator. This has several implications: First, you wear more than one hat: translator, manager, marketing team, bookkeeper, IT technician etc. You have to master each of these roles, and not just translation.

The other implication is that you should and you must invest in your business. Conferences, software, ergonomic equipment, marketing materials, literature – they all cost money, but you have to see them as investments and not just as spending. Think of these points: What do I get out of using these? Will ergonomic equipment prevent pain that will keep me from working? Will I learn new things at conferences and make new connections that will lead to more work? Will a bookkeeping program save me some time or help me keep everything in order? This sort of thinking will help you decide whether an expenditure is worthwhile. The benefit doesn’t have to be strictly professional: You should take care of your body regardless of work, and you can  also make new friends at professional events.

As for your other hats: you can also decide that you can’t do some of them, for any reason whatsoever, and outsource them to a professional.

You can read the other tips here:



Have you got tips of your own? Leave a comment!