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?