The Primary Characteristics of a Good Translator


1. Translators Competence. Basic Principles. 2. Internal and External knowledge in/and Translators Competence. 3. The Primary Characteristics of a Good Translator 4. Aspects of Translator Reliability 5. Prevailing Assumptions in Translators Training

Translators Competence. Basic Principles.

For centuries, translation theory was explicably normative: its primary aim was to tell translators how to translate. King Duarte of Portugal (1391-1438,reigned 1433-1438) writes in the Loyal Counselor (1430s) that the translator must 1) understand the meaning of the original and render it entirely without change, 2) use the idiomatic vernacular of the TL, not borrowing from the SL, 3) use TL words that are direct and appropriate, 4) avoid offensive words and 5) conform to rules for all writing, such as clarity, accessibility, interest, and wholesomeness.

Etienne Dolet (1509-46) similarly writes in The Best Way of Translating From One Language into Another (1549) that the translator must (1) understand the original meaning, (2) command both the source and the target language perfectly, (3) avoid literal translations, (4) use idiomatic forms of the TL, and (5) produce the appropriate tone through a careful selection and arrangement of words.

Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (1747-1813) writes in his Essay on the Principles of Translation (1791) that the translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work, be of the same character with that of the original, and all the ease of the original composition.

Such as it has been previously seen, translators work as operators to transfer messages from language into another while preserving the underlying cultural and discourse ideas and values. To this transference of messages and the preservation of ideas and values the translator needs:

1. A good knowledge of both the source and the target languages.- All translators have to know at least two languages, the source and the target ones. As everything else in life, this can be taken up by an individual in two different ways: consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, here we must make a clear difference between acquiring and learning a language.

Language acquisition refers to the fact of becoming a speaker of an X-Language when learned straight from parents, so this is a process which takes place in the very first years of life; language learning begins later and is an utterly conscious process, which requires an effort. The acquired language is always a first language (L1), though the learned one is a second language (L2). In some cases, translators are bilingual individuals, who have got two real L1s.

Thus, the translator has to know the science of philology, because many problems can be solved only on philological principles. It saves the translator from lots of mistakes if he has a profound knowledge of both languages, those of the original and translation. The knowledge is profound when it covers all aspects of the languages: phonetics, lexicology, grammar and stylistics, which are impossible to do without to overcome grammatical, lexical and stylistic difficulties of the original and their reproduction in rendering.

2. Cultural awareness.

To succeed in rendering the translator should be a highly educated person possessing an extensive and versatile knowledge in history, geography, in the political system of the country the original deals with, as well as in the mode of life, customs, morals and manners and popular beliefs. Cultures and the intercultural competence and awareness that arise out of experience of cultures, are far more complex phenomena than it may seem to the translator, and the more aware the translator can become of these complexities, including power differentials between cultures and genders, the better a translator s/he will be. In this respect the main concern has traditionally been with so called realia, words and phrases that are so heavily and exclusively grounded in one culture that they are almost impossible to translate into the terms verbal or otherwise - of another.

The translators work is not free from shortcomings, his rendering is devoid of the national coloring, spirit and authenticity, if he lacks experience and knowledge.

3. The technique.- Apart from the linguistic and cultural knowledge that any translator must possess, there is an outstanding skill that translators must possess: technique. A translator might happen to be quite competent in two languages but a bad translator. Therefore, the fundamentals of translation must be learned. Each translator has got his own technique, though a few steps should be followed when translating. Lets try to summarise them in a few points:

    1. Read the whole text once at least so that you can have a general idea of the kind of stuff you have to face.
    2. Although some people would rather start translating at once, in certain cases it could be interesting to have a second reading with underlining and search of unknown vocabulary
    3. Use of the dictionary for the search of lexical information.
    4. After the search, it is a good option to prepare a glossary or to enlarge an existing one (glossaries is a crucial tool of translators to which we will refer later on).
    5. Do properly the translation.
    6. Once you have finished it, reread as many times as necessary. Remember that a translation cant look like a translation. If necessary, read it again after a few days to check out if there is still some strange item.


Apart from the mentioned points, it is also important to pay attention to the background where translators work. Translators must have all their instruments handy, especially dictionaries.

Translators must face different difficulties along their work. One is the so-called false friends. Another one is idioms, set expressions with high degree of idiomaticity, which cant be translated literally. Finally, the other set of problems of translators comes through the genre or sort of text.

Texts are also easiest to translate when you think of them not as syntactically structured collections of words and phrases but as channels through which people influence each others actions, describe what they see and do, make sense of their worlds;

In many cases, translators are specialised in one field. It is impossible to set up a complete list of likely fields of knowledge with which translators can or must work. There are at least four main branches:


1. General texts: these are texts which can be found in newspapers and other similar issues (magazines, bulletins, etx.), however other types of writings can be included here, such as letters, notices, reports, etc. In theory, these are the easiest texts to be translated.

2. Technical and scientific texts: Most translators get majorised in one category. When referring to technical, one neednt think of technology, but of specific fields of work and knowledge having their own terminology.

3. Official documents

4. Literary translation: wed rather put it aside because it shows a large complexity. Translating literature requires a literary talent.

The reproduction of form and content of the original must be as exact as possible in translation. But the character of such exactness depends on the character of the original rendered. What is right and exact with respect to belles-lettres in which the authentic exactness of rendering is achieved by means of deviations and compensations appears not to be right or exact for rendering scientific and technical texts.


Translation involves far more than target-language equivalents for SL words and phrases it also involves dealing with clients, agencies, employers, networking, research, use of technology and generally the awareness of the role translation plays in society and society plays in translation.

Internal and External knowledge in/and Translators Competence.

Translation can be perceived from the outside, from the clients or other users point of view, or from the inside, from the translators point of view. Translation is a text from the perspective of the external knowledge , but an activity (aiming at the production of a text) from the perspective of internal knowledge.

A translator thinks and talks about translation from inside the process, knowing how it is done, possessing a practical real-world sense of the problems involved, some solutions to those problems, and the limitations on solutions. A non-translator (especially a monolingual reader in the TL who directly or indirectly pays for the translation a client a bookbuyer) thinks and talks about translation from out-side the process, not knowing how it is done, but knowing, as Samuel Johnson once said of the non-carpenter, a well-made cabinet when s/he sees one.

Translation for the professional translator is a constant learning cycle that moves through the stages of instinct, experience (engagement with the real world), and habit (a promptitude of action), and, within experience, through the stages of abduction (guesswork, wild or educated guesses when faced with an apparently insoluble problem), induction (pattern-building, exposure to a variety of cases over a long period of time, which is what we call practical experiences) and deduction ( theoretical teaching or training based on rules, laws, theories); the translator is at once a professional for whom complex and mental processes have become second nature, (and thus subliminal), and a learner who must constantly face and solve new problems in conscious analytical ways.


The Primary Characteristics of a Good Translator

What does it take to be a translator or an interpreter? What kind of person would ever want to , let alone be able to, sit at a computer or in court day after day turning words an phrases in one language into words and phrases in another? Isnt it awfully tedious and unrewarding profession?

It can be. For many people it is. Some people who love it initially get tired of it, burn out on it, and move on to another endeavors. Others can only do it on the side, a few hours a day, a week, a month. If a really big job comes along and the timing and money are right, they will spend a whole week translating, ten hours a day, but at the end of the week they feel completely drained and are ready do go back to their regular week.

Other people translate full time and dont burn out. How do they do it? What skills do they posses that makes them it possible for them to become doctors, lawyers engineers, poets, business executives, even if only briefly and on the computer screen? Are they talented actors who feel comfortable shifting from role to role? How do they know so much about specialized vocabularies? Are they walking dictionaries or encyclopedias?

Translators and (especially) interpreters do all have something of the actor in them, the mimic, the impersonator, and they do develop remarkable recall skills that will enable them to remember a word they have heard only once. Translators and interpreters are voracious and omnivorous readers, people who are typically in the middle of four books at once, in several languages, fiction and non-fiction, technical and humanistic subjects, anything and everything. They are hungry for real-world experience as well, through travel, living abroad for extended periods, learning foreign languages and cultures, and above all paying attention to how people use language all around them. Any gathering of translators is certain to be a diverse group, not only because well over half of the people there will be from different countries, and almost all will have lived abroad, and all will shift effortlessly from language into language, but because by necessity translators and interpreters carry a wealth of different selves or personalities around inside them, ready to be reconstructed on the computer screen whenever a new text arrives, or out into the airwaves whenever a new speaker steps up to the podium. A crowd of translators seem to be much bigger than the actual bodies present.

But then there are non-translators who share many of these the same characteristics: diplomats, language teachers, world travelers. What special skills make a well-traveled, well-read language lover translator?

Not surprisingly, perhaps the primary characteristics of a good translator are similar to the expectations translation users have for the ideal translation: a good translator is reliable and fast, and will work for the going rate. From the internal point of view, however the expectations for translation are rather different than they may look from the outside. For the translator reliability is important mainly as a source of professional pride., which also includes elements that are of little or no significance to translation users; speed is important only as a source of increased income, which can be enhanced through other channels as well; and it is extremely important, may be even the most important of all, that the translator enjoy his work, a factor that is of little significance to outsiders.

For the translator or interpreter a higher consideration than money or continued employability is professional pride, professional integrity, professional self-esteem. We all want to feel that the job we are doing is important, that we do it well, and that people we do it for appreciate it. Despite the high value placed on making a lot of money(and certainly it would be nice), a high salary gives little pleasure without pride in the work.

The areas through which translators typically take professional pride are reliability, involvement in profession, and ethics. Reliability in translation is largely a matter of meeting the users needs: translating the texts the user needs translated, in the way the user needs them translated, by the users deadline. Professional pride in reliability is the main reason we will spend hours hunting down a single term. What is our pay for this time? Virtuously nothing. But it feels enormously important to get just the right word.

By professional involvement we mean reading books about the translation, talking about translation with other translators, discussing problems and solutions related to linguistic transfer, user demand, nonpayment, and the like, taking classes on translation, attending translation conferences. All this gives us the strong sense that we are professionals surrounded by other professionals who share our concern.

The professional ethics of translation have traditionally been defined very narrowly; it is unethical for the translator to distort the meaning of the ST. But from the translators internal point of view, the ethics of translation are more complicated skill. What is the translator to do, for example, when asked to translate a text that s/he finds offensive. Or, to put that differently, how does the translator proceed when professional ethics (loyalty to the personal paying to the transaltor0 clash with personal ethics (ones own political and moral beliefs)? What does the feminist translator do when asked to translate a blatantly sexist text? What does the environmentalist translator do when asked to translate an advertising campaign for an environmentally irresponsible chemical company?

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