I used to think I should be a proofreader. I’m one of those people for whom typos jump off the page and slap me in the face. I thought I could turn that into an asset.

And now, as a translator known for meticulousness, I am often asked to proofread other translators’ work. At first, I found this flattering, a sort of confirmation of my professional reputation. But at least half of the translations I proofread turn out to be so poorly written that I would not be surprised to learn that the translator simply used Google translate and turned it in as their own work. Or that the translator was not a native English speaker. I have ended up rewriting a good share of this work, which takes time for which I’m not compensated. I end up in a bad mood every time this happens.

Now, all translators have to start somewhere. At first the work will be slow and painstaking. You will make mistakes. In fact, everyone makes mistakes, even highly experienced professionals. I don’t begrudge a few mistakes or a few typos. What gets my goat is when I have to fix someone else’s lack of professionalism. A few days ago, I was asked to proofread a translation from French to English. The syntax and word choice were closer to French than to English, and the translator used apostrophes as thousands separators in the numbers. My conclusion was that the translator either was not a native English speaker or may have been raised in Switzerland with one English speaking parent, but never actually lived in an English-speaking country. Being raised bilingual doth not a translator make.

If you want to be a translator, there are a few skills and qualities you will need to develop. Here’s a short list:

  • A good translator is a good writer. If you can’t write an easy-to-read paragraph, you should not be in the translation business. Learn to write. Take a creative writing class. Brush up on your English grammar and syntax. Write sentences that flow and that the reader can easily understand. Use a synonym dictionary to find the best word and avoid repetitions. It doesn’t matter what type of document you’re translating, your work should be well-written.
  • A good translator has extensive familiarity with the source language. Not only do you need to study the language in school and spend a year or two in that country, you should also read the literature. Study the classics, read journals and magazines. And while you’re doing so, imagine how you would say the same thing in your own language.
  • A good translator has immersed him or herself in the culture. Hang out with the people. Join a club, make friends, make that culture your own. This will give you a better understanding of where the author is coming from when it’s your turn to translate their work.
  • And finally, a good translator makes extensive use of multiple translation resources. There are dozens of Internet sites providing multilingual dictionaries, sample translations, glossaries, and so forth. There are translator forums where you can ask questions and get advice, generously and freely given by people who have been in the trade for decades. If you have the slightest hesitation about a word, hop onto one of these sites for help.

In today’s world, it’s easy to get a poor translation. Google translate is free, and will give the reader more or less the gist of a source text, provided it is written with relatively simple vocabulary and syntax. A professional translator has to be better than that. No one wants to pay for sloppy work. If you want to earn a living as a translator, your work needs to be excellent.

Naturally, everyone needs to start somewhere and your first try won’t be brilliant. But you need to make it the very best you possibly can. Reread your own work, don’t expect the proofreader to rewrite it. Ask yourself, “Does this feel like a translation, or does it read like a well-written document?” Yes, this will take you extra time. But it will make you a much better translator in the end.