The Complex Work of a Professional Translator

Originally posted on March 11, 2013 by nedraff

Many professional translators attest to the fact that their work is misunderstood and often underestimated.

Today’s post serves to outline the skill-set of a professional translator; the complex approach required to produce quality translations, and to provide an insight into what it is our talented translators at TranslationsInLondon Ltd do on a daily basis.

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‘I Can Speak a Foreign Language – Can I be a Translator?’

Many people assume that if someone is bilingual or multilingual this means they can simply apply their linguistic knowledge and translate content quite easily. This is not the case – knowledge of the source and target languages forms the base – a professional translator requires an array of different skills:

Communication Skills

Excellent communication skills are required in order to interpret a source language, and convey its intended meaning in the target language. Clear, concise and fluid writing skills are essential and a quality translation service offers a communicative and collaborative service to their clients.

Cultural Understanding

As each language is so inextricably linked to the culture/country in which it is used it means that the translator needs to have knowledge of that country and culture. Cultural nuance is what makes the difference between a machine-translated text and the professional work done by a skilled translator. The majority of translators translate into their native/dominant language, and in doing so produce accurate text that is both linguistically and culturally sound.

Industry Knowledge

Specialised knowledge relevant to the subject matter is essential – can you imagine an IT expert having to outline the details of complex physics or a law graduate attempting to explain the latest fashion trends?

IT Skills (and  CAT TOOLS)

Translators also need to be savvy in terms of the technology they use for translation memory to ensure consistency and quality.

Time Management

As most projects are time dependent, translators need to have excellent time management skills to provide quality translations within a given timeframe.

Attention to Detail 

Meticulous attention to detail is required at all times, and on many levels; grammar, syntax and linguistic structure, cultural relevancy (localisation), file format, background knowledge of a given industry.


Accuracy cannot be underestimated – a mistake in the content of marketing/business material can result in a loss of potential revenue and more seriously, a mistake on the packaging of medicine can lead to injury or worse.


Accuracy and attention to detail call for a high level of patience.

Business Skills

Many translators work freelance or run their own business which means that good business skills are also required to maintain a professional service.

Language, Culture & Communication

Translators use their love of language, culture and communication to aid others in communicating their message – they listen carefully and engage with the content in order to represent cultural nuance, preference, personality – they choose their words carefully to respect the author’s meaning.

A comprehensive approach

A good translation service provides translation, proofreading and comprehensive multilingual project management, as we do here at TIL.

The Average Daily Output of a Translator

Depending on the quality and complexity of the text, a professional and experienced translator can process approximately 3000 words per day (on average). On this scale quality output will be produced by happy translators.

Perhaps those who do not understand the complexities of language and translation may assume that the work can be done quickly – as long as it takes to read the text in the source language and translate the words? Translation is not the substitution of words.

If a translation job is rushed, how can a professional translator put into action all the skills mentioned above? A rushed translation will lack the required accuracy and attention it deserves. A good translation is only as good as the original text and thorough process involved.

Clients who provide extremely poor source content – at times even illegible, and ask that it be completed in a few hours cannot expect a quality result.

I recently discussed this issue with an experienced translator based in South Africa.

She told me “people looking for translations should understand that translating is a job, not just a hobby, and translators take pride in doing the work correctly and accurately – putting their stamp and signature on the finished work”

Have your say – Do you think the complex work of a professional translator is often undervalued?


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