Question: What are the prerequisites of a good translator?

When looking for a translator, for a project for your company or a client, you expect the work to be of a particular standard. So, what are the qualities you look out for in your potential translator?

Answer: A good translator should:-

1) preferably have a language diploma

A diploma is a recognised level of qualification but “hands on” experience of life and work in a country where the source language is spoken can be a good complement.

When studying for a language diploma you learn all the basics of the grammar of your chosen language and how the language is expressed, rather than what you might “pick up by ear” when spending time living in the country concerned.

Not all languages have the same grammatical structure and qualifications in the basics will help you know that, for example, “the red house” in English, becomes “la maison rouge” (literally the house red) in French.

2) have a sound knowledge of a foreign language and, where possible, have experience of life in the country of the source language.

Photo by Tim Green

Living in a country, even for a few months, reinforces the language learnt whilst studying and enables you to pick up everyday language and expressions that are not part of the academic teaching curriculum.

A good grounding of the everyday language will help “install” in the mind idioms and expressions that cannot be “translated” but need to have “equivalents”. For example, it is no good trying to translate the expression” that’s another kettle of fish” word for word into French when the “equivalent” is “c’est une autre paire de manches”. The meaning is the same but the image is not.

3) have experience in a specialisation

Experience in a particular area is an added advantage when applying for work in a very specific field. This can either be acquired through experience in the field for someone already qualified in languages, or, for someone with a diploma in a specialised field, who may have gained quasi-bilingual status through upbringing, education or time spent living abroad. This latter situation will enable a translator to work more easily moving from one language to another without having to spend too much unnecessary time researching vocabulary.

My personal experience falls into the first category here. I have a language degree, obtained in the UK, and have lived in France for many years. I spent 12 years working as a bilingual secretary in a pharmaceutical research company. Through my experience of writing and proofreading protocols, procedures and reports in English, I have been able to qualify for some pharmaceutical and medical translation work as a freelancer with two different agencies.

What other features would you expect to find when choosing a translator?


Curiosity is important because, as a translator, you never know what kind of topic you might be asked to work on. Even if you have excellent general culture knowledge, there will always be something you do not know much about and will have to research. When it comes to researching vocabulary and/or expressions, patience is also a must because a translator can sometimes spend ages trying to get his/her head around the meaning of a particular sentence or expression.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.