Month: April 2015

The Ten Commandments of How to be a Good Translator

  1.  A good translator is also a good cultural manager. That means understanding the heritage of both your source language and your target language, and the sensitivities of a culture. It means not translating sandalias de esclavaas “slave sandals”, yes, Zara we mean you. Stop using Google Translate and start paying decent translators a decent wage.
  2.  A good translator will say no when they have too much work on. Clients will appreciate a clean-cut “I won’t be able to do this until next week” to a rush job, or worse, an outsourced job to some poor student. In most cases, amazingly, you’ll suddenly find that it’s not the end of the world if you can only deliver next week.


  1. A good translator knows their own worth. They won’t give volume discounts because their work doesn’t suddenly lessen if the job gets bigger. Unless they are using one of the latest CAT tools and translating some law book or instructions manual, in which case, fine: although I think they deserve a generous bonus for taking on such boring work!


  1. A good translator doesn’t need to wear a suit to deliver excellent copy. In fact they will sometimes be wearing pyjamas or sports gear when doing their best work. And might even not be freshly showered (shock horror!) as they translate your press release about the swanky, star-studded after-show parties at Berlin Fashion Week.
  2. A good translator will, at some point in their career, be criticised or told a piece they delivered was not up to standard, but we all live and learn. Ask a fellow translator for their opinion and ask the client exactly what they don’t like about it. Everyone has an off day, but it’s important to find the source of the client’s unhappiness. Was it the client’s boyfriend’s friend of a friend who spent a summer learning the said target language who reckons it was bad? Or was it the client’s customers or PR agency? There is a difference.


  1. A good translator is a word nerd with at least four books stacked on their bedside table. Preferably in both their target and source languages. They will understand jokes in both those languages and will know that someone who has “ein Ei auf’m Kopp” most likely isn’t walking around with an egg on their head, but is just a bit of an idiot. They will also know the difference between kissing an Irish lad* and giving a Glasgow kiss**. And they’ll know their plates of meat from their mince pies***.
    *Kissing someone from Ireland is considered lucky.
    **In the UK, a head butt is sometimes referred to as a Glasgow kiss.
    ***Cockney rhyming slang: plates of meat = ‘feet’ and mince pies = ‘eyes’.
  2. A good translator will only translate into their native language. Even if you grew up bilingual, your strongest language will most probably be that of the country you were immersed in before and during puberty (the so-called “critical period” for language acquisition).


  1. A good translator will try hard not to get offended when someone verschlimmbessert their great translation. Verschlimmbessern = a portmanteau of verschlimmern and verbessern, aka actually make a text worse with so-called corrections. If the client thinks the word “indispensable” is better than “prerequisite” then let them have their way. However, if they think that “an utilitarian” is better than “a utilitarian” then copy and paste the applicable passage from your trusted style guide* and politely explain to them that they are mistaken.
    * (The correct option is ‘a utilitarian’ because the article behaves according to the sound of the first letter, rather than according to whether it is a vowel or consonant. ‘u’ from utilitarian sounds like a consonant, which is why you use the article ‘a’.)
  2. A good translator will usually have a specialisation or two. That means if you ask them to translate a medical text, and their field of expertise is architecture, they will say no and refer you to a colleague.


  1. A good translator will have a colleague proofing their work for them and vice-versa. That way, if they’re having a bad day, it isn’t reflected in the text and any embarrassing clangers or bloopers can be quickly eradicated before delivery. And because it’s reciprocal you’ll both be learning on the job. I learned today that ‘arctuate stitching’ is a thing in jeans manufacturing! Who knew?

Bonus Commandment

A good translator has a sense of humour. There is no greater joy than discovering that the fashion rookie who wrote the puff piece you are translating on emo fashion in Berlin has written “Susie and the Bandshees”* by mistake. But be careful with the commentary function in Word. My colleague and I often use it for personal banter, but sending it to the client with comments included could be potentially embarrassing (and yes, I am speaking from experience).

*Anyone born before 1985 knows the correct spelling is Siouxsie and the Banshees!