Translation AdviceTranslation, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Finding a Good Translator


The general expectation of a good translator is an individual proficient in his/her language pairs, who can deliver a quality translation which accurately conveys the intended message to the reader. Finding that person, however, can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Here is my advice on how to find that needle.

Seeking a translation agency

Many translators, particularly early in their careers, provide services through a translation agency. Usually, these translators don't actually work for the agency, which is more of a middleman between the translator and the client. Translation agencies provide advantages such as a system of quality control, facilitating business between translators and clients. Professionals may also be tested for their translation skills and ability to deliver work on time, adding an element of safety and reliability when looking for a translator.

Another perk of translation agencies is that translator profiles may include reviews and ratings from their clients. While the criteria vary by client, a substantial amount of feedback is a fair reflection of the translator's competence. In fact, a string of positive reviews speaks louder than any credentials.

It's certainly possible to find a good translator working independently, but it's more difficult. If you find such a translator, you should take it upon yourself to verify if the translator is certified, if other clients are satisfied with the translator's services, etc. This research can take valuable time, which is why agencies tend to do the heavy lifting. Not to mention, agencies may provide additional services such as supporting tools, notarized translation certifications and editing.

Translators do not translate words

Seasoned translators will tell you that just knowing a second language isn't enough to be a translator. In fact, I would say translation is more of an exercise of textual interpretation, not unlike studying literature: the translator must analyze the words, grasp the meaning behind those words, and keep that meaning in a different set of words. More than switching one language for another, translation is a process of semantic deconstruction and reconstruction. Therefore, we are talking about a whole skillset involving an analytical mind, research skills, intuition and cultural knowledge.

A good translator also knows the importance of adapting the source text to the target audience. This process is known as localization. Even countries that speak the same language tend to differ in linguistic nuances, figures of speech, slangs, phrases, etc. A popular saying in a country may not convey the same meaning in a different language. The verses of a poem may not rhyme in a direct translation. Lyrics are a daunting endeavor, due to the complication of matching the target language to the beat of the song.

Therefore, in addition to being culturally savvy, a good translator needs to be familiar with different writing styles in order to work on a variety of translation assignments, such as CVs, essays, prose, research texts, powers of attorney, letters, speeches, etc.

In my case, my native language is Portuguese (BR), but English is such a constant part of my everyday life that I feel comfortable translating from English to Portuguese and vice-versa. This is what you should look for in a translator.

Computers do not replace humans

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology continues to take over jobs in the march of progress. Translation is not one of them, to my own relief (at least, at the time of writing). Although automatic translators have slowly improved over the years, due mostly to human input, human writing by nature has a level of subjectivity that a machine just isn't capable of processing. An automatic translator also doesn't ensure proper grammar structure, especially in complex sentences and idiomatic phrases. Even grammar/spellchecking tools are infamous for failing their job on occasion.

Therefore, professionals never rely on automatic translators for their work, and you shouldn't ask them to either. Only a human mind can read between the lines to provide accurate translations.

"Can you translate this?"

It's impossible for any human being to know everything, let alone in multiple languages! A translator who claims to be specialized in all subjects is a flat-out liar. Translators should have the humility and maturity to recognize their strengths and limitations, and they should be upfront about it with their clients.

Therefore, when looking for a translator, check if the translator has at least a working knowledge of the subject. Someone who translates scientific files may not be cut out for a legal document. A translator who does both might be unable to deal with artistic writing, and so on. If the translator's profile/resume doesn't list his/her specialties, ask the translator. Request samples, show the source text (or part of it) to the translator, if possible. Good translators never accept jobs beyond their abilities.

A good translator must understand your needs, and you must explain your needs to the translator. Is the translation just for you or for someone else? Is it an application letter for college? Do you need a translation for your website? Are you publishing a book? Give clear and detailed instructions; a good translator will keep your instructions in mind and make sure the translation suits your purposes.

Honesty is the best policy

Unlike most services, translation clients are at a natural disadvantage because it's difficult to check the quality when you don't understand the target language. The best solution in this case is to consult a native speaker of the target language, especially if you want to publish the translated text.

An ideal translation should look like it was written by a native. A translation riddled with errors and/or awkward wording won't go unnoticed by a native speaker, even if the person never saw the source text. Poor translations also lead to misinterpretations, and, in the worst-case scenario, this can damage not just the translator's reputation, but also the client's image. Therefore, a good translator always treats assignments with responsibility and professionalism, double-checking their work before delivering it.

Once the terms of a project are mutually agreed on—such as price and deadline—a professional will deliver it on time. A good translator may deliver the translation early, if possible—but never a rushed product. Translation projects demand varying levels of research (even if the subject is among the translator's specializations), so the translator will make sure to deliver the best possible work.

However, despite our best efforts, translators are still human and translation is a constant learning experience. Therefore, how the translator responds to negative ratings and reviews is extremely important. If you're unhappy with a translation, make it known. A good translator should listen to your concerns and attempt to rectify the issue at no additional cost to you. Otherwise, your feedback will serve as a warning for future clients.

Good translators don't sell themselves short

There is a bitter pill to swallow, but I'd be remiss if I didn't bring it up. Being a translator myself, I know this part might sound biased, but think of it as insight into the translator's point of view.

Obviously, I can't speak for every translator out there. Each translator is different. And since translators usually decide their own prices, the costs of their work can vary greatly. Most of the time, however, the price is indicative of the translator's ability and experience. A translator may charge by the hour or by the word. Factors such as taxes, deadlines, and extra services such as a translation certification can also affect the price.

Generally speaking, you can expect a professional who translates for a living to charge as much as $0.10 USD per word on average. Once again, this can vary; some may charge more, some may charge less. A translator might even be flexible depending on what you need translated. For example, something simple such as a personal letter might be charged a lower rate than a full study on the applications of acetylsalicylic acid. The deadline is also influential; quick deliveries will certainly cost more.

However, don't forget that we're talking about a highly specialized line of work. You can expect any translators worth their salt to have years of experience and/or study under their belts. And as explained earlier, this expertise goes far beyond simply learning another language (which is a challenge in and of itself). Therefore, offering $0.03/word to a translator charging $0.07/word is almost an insult. Most of the time, these fees are not decided lightly and the costs are justified. Nobody likes spending a lot of money, but translators must make ends meet like any other professionals.

Let's talk

Something I learned in my life is that communication is the basis of a successful relationship, whether it's professional or personal.

If you're interested in a translator's services but still have doubts, it never hurts to contact the translator directly. Ask all the questions you want, request samples, try to learn everything you need to know about the professional. A little talk can go a long way.

A good translator should respond in a reasonable time period. You can generally expect a reply within 24 hours, through the agency's messaging system, the translator's personal e-mail or any other contact methods the translator might make available. And this goes both ways: a good translator should contact the client in the event of unresolved problems or situations that may prevent the completion of a translation project. Translators will also inform clients of their availability and other pertinent details. The point is that good translators are accessible and upfront toward their clients.

If you're lucky enough to be a native speaker of the translator's second language, this is also your opportunity to measure the translator's fluency by yourself. If the translator seems to communicate about as well as a native, that's a good sign.

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