Are translators born or made? Don't judge the book by the cover...

Greater than 3 minutes, my friend!

Minding the knowledge gap between those proud university graduates and myself, having only a miserable Bachelor’s, and a few (actually several of them) other diplomas and certificates I got as a result of my persistent curiosity, I felt somewhat insecure with regards to my academic background, in terms of whether it was enough to back me up as a translator. Just the way it should be, you might think.

So, I grabbed (and I still do) every opportunity that came my way to close that gap and gain that so much praised knowledge on the theories and practice of translation. I’ve been taking full advantage of available e-books, training videos and other publications in that regard, and also, in any other topic that might be of any interest for my translation career. Not much later, it became quite obvious, that whatever I learned of those academic, sometimes a little far-fetched trains of thoughts (for one, a discourse about whether translation may be called a “linguistic transfer” or not) wasn’t half as useful as expected. So I quickly turned to specialized, at times practical knowledge one may gain through other courses, MOOCS and other sources of information, namely simple news articles, content shared by clients, or simple, everyday information you find out just by chatting with your kid’s schoolteacher or a neighbor, or the guy who fixes your broken furniture. I developed a keen eye to spot the valuables in them, and even more importantly, to figure out how I can make use of them in my translation projects. And knowledge like that doesn’t appear in your CV, neither becomes necessarily obvious on the occasion of a personal interview with an HR associate. When it does make a difference though, is when you translate.
That said, let me mention another, very basic source of language acquisition: learning or working abroad. Quite obvious, right? However, more and more colleagues with a respectable past in the industry (yet fearing competition) voice their disdain of new translators joining “solely” on the basis of spending some time in a country of their working languages, like: “Just because somebody has lived overseas for a couple of years, shouldn’t think they can translate”.
True, in itself it doesn’t make anyone a good translator, I have seen many of my countrymates living in the UK or US and not knowing how to speak English well enough, let alone translate myself. But, given a little talent and drive to achieve at the same time, it very well may. Again, talent and eagerness to learn anything, and I mean anything, not only scholarly material resulting in a shiny diploma, doesn’t shout out loud in your face. You don’t know that it exists in someone until you have seen the result of their work.

For translation is not only a humanity, I view it much rather as a very practical skill, to which linguistics, etymology, translation theories and so on make a significant contribution, but to tell you the truth, I don’t consider them as something absolutely necessary to do the actual work of a translator. Because you can only convey the real meaning of the source text, if you not only understand the words of it, but know what it is about. If you know what each expression translates to in real life. And you can only do that if you have experienced it yourself. If you’ve been there, done that, got the mug. Desperately searching for terms in a dictionary, however academic it may be, just won’t cut it.

So, what do I say, are translators born or made? Of course, both, like with everything else (not just leaders). Talent is undeniably a significant ingredient of a good translator, without it no education will suffice, and vice versa. We have to have a keen eye for opportunities to gain the necessary knowledge, tenacity to actually gain the knowledge, – and here comes the talent in the picture- to apply the knowledge we gained.

Bottom line is, while I still appreciate academic translation background and consider it as one of the ingredients of being a good translator, if I had to chose between experience (meaning translation-related and real life experience) and academic background, I’d definitely cast my vote in favor of the former.

Krisztina Janosi

About Krisztina Janosi

8 thoughts on “Are translators born or made? Don't judge the book by the cover...

  1. Hi Krisztina, I couldn’t agree more! You can well learn a language by youreself, with no school diplomas to certifiy it. In my opinion is on the texts you translate that you prove your skills, not via the papers you can produce. But what you need to be a translator is, as you said, keen eye, knowledge, tenacity, curiosity. Along with talent, possibly!

    Ciao from Turin, Italy

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  2. Brilliant post, Krisztina! Well worth featuring it on our home page! 🙂 This reminds me that of all the people who have graduated with me with a degree in linguistics and translation only a few actually became translators and that didn’t happen overnight either. Practical skills are much more important. Of course, it’s just my humble opinion. 🙂

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  3. Krisztina, this is a brilliant post–well done! I fully agree with everything that you shared. I don’t believe a degree in translation is needed to be able to succeed as a translator. If it were, I wouldn’t be here today! However, a university degree does establish credibility and the fact that we can do hard things–because earning a bachelors degree is hard work! But in the end, our work will speak for itself as to whether or not we are up to the task. That’s why it’s so important that our website shows a professional image and that our content has been fully edited–especially if we are including a website version in our non-native language. Even the smallest mistakes will scream “this translator is not good enough.” With every client, we only have one chance to show what we’ve got. Let’s not blow it.

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  4. Hi Krisztina, I too agree 100% on what you said and I want to thank you for discussing this aspect, thus giving us the opportunity to do the same. While nowadays the common belief is that at least a BA in the field of Translation is required in order to be taken seriously, I have heard (and share) more and more complaints about university not quite being able to “prepare” translators for what they are going to face in the outside world. So yeah, in my opinion what really makes a translator is how engaged they are and how much they are willing to do to measure up to that definition 🙂

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