What makes a good translator?

You’re in search of a translator – someone utterly reliable, preferably with a small spark of genius, to work on a manuscript (fiction or non-fiction), a cover blurb or marketing materials. You have a short list of names, including referrals from colleagues and a couple of translators whose websites look good. How do you choose? Here are some criteria to keep in mind.

  • A good translator approaches each translation as a form of writing, which it is. She savours the challenge of making the translated version read as though it had originally been written in the target language.
  • A good translator works only into her own language. After 30 years in this business, I must know hundreds of translators, but only two or three who can really “swing both ways.” There’s a whole set of instincts that nearly everyone has only in their native tongue.
  • A good translator understands the production process and makes your deadlines, barring dire circumstances. She provides progress reports on projects that extend over a lengthy period of time.
  • A good translator is intensely curious about the world and everything in it. A voracious reader, she views every assignment as a learning opportunity. She doesn’t necessarily have all the appropriate vocabulary for every field at her fingertips, but she knows where to look and whom to consult. I’m neither a doctor nor an architect, yet I’ve translated many documents on health care and heritage architecture, to the expressed satisfaction of my clients.
  • A good translator doesn’t need to look up every word – she carries an immense dictionary between her ears and consults it frequently. (That being said, I’ve just inherited my father’s 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and love to dive in for no particular reason…)
  • A good translator understands that there are various “Englishes” and confirms which variant of the language you require her to use, as well as which style guide you follow (Chicago Manual of Style, Editing Canadian English, etc.). She’s familiar with the rules and conventions of U.K. vs. U.S. English and follows them consistently.
  • A good translator has a sense of context and target audience, appropriate tone and level. She turns in text that requires minimal revision and flows naturally. Do I really need to add that the text will have been checked meticulously for spelling and grammatical errors – not just spell checked?
  • A good translator is acutely aware of shades of meaning – for example, the French word efficace can mean effective, efficient, efficacious or successful, depending on the context.
  • A good translator is a meticulous researcher, checking all the facts. In fact, she glories in looking things up, and sometimes has to tear herself away from source materials to address the translation at hand.

I asked Betty Howell, a long-time translator from French and German into English and teacher of translation at McGill University for many years, what she thinks makes a good translator. “A good translator has an immense target language palette to choose from: synonyms that are not interchangeable, a sense of rhythm that dictates word choices as much as the source word does, a feeling of what the audience expects to read and when that expectation is supposed to be disrupted,” she told me.

Of course, you won’t know all this about your prospective translator right up front. How do you find this rare bird? Obviously, you’ll want to check out education and credentials, and perhaps get references from a couple of the translator’s previous clients. Membership in a translators’ association is certainly a plus. And of course, experience is crucial.

Narrow your list down to two or three likely prospects and send them a sample of 500 to 1,000 words to translate (this will be paid, of course). Ask for samples of previously translated work, but be aware that these may have been heavily revised. Best course: meet the person face to face if possible (if you happen to be on the same continent and in the same time zone, which is by no means a given these days), or at least by Skype or telephone. While many language professionals are introverts, I still believe that personal contact gives both parties a sense of how well they’ll work together. The audition process may seem cumbersome, but it’s the best way to ensure a productive and pleasant working relationship.

Let me leave the last word to Betty Howell: “An older good translator learns to look forward to meeting those who need the translation, and is delighted to play a useful role in the life of others.”

Kathe Lieber has worked as a freelance writer, editor and translator (French to English) in Montreal, Canada, for more than 30 years. She has translated several (non-fiction) books and thousands of documents in various domains. She loves the incidental learning her work brings her every day.