What Makes a Good Translation Great In case you didn't already know - here are some tips from an amateur, but determined, translator.

Greater than 5 minutes, my friend!

Over the past six months, after really making an effort to dive head-first into what I want to be able to call my professional career, I’m constantly learning something new regarding the industry every day.

What industry exactly?

That of translation.

Or, more specifically, the transformation of a source language into a new document that doesn’t simply repeat what the original said, but one that describes an object, service, or fictional world to a different culture, audience, and market.

Sounds pretty fancy, doesn’t it?  In a sense, it is.  Translation is a form of art, in my opinion – one that requires time, effort, practice, know-how, and experience to master.  Throw in a little luck after all of that, and you’re set to go.

At the end of the day, however, where does one find all of these traits to become not only a good translator, but a great one?  In this short blog, I’ll describe some of the important aspects related to great translation that I’ve only so recently picked up on.  Hopefully, this list can help you in your journey of becoming the professional translator you always dreamed of being.  Allons-y!


  1. Know the source language

This might seem pretty obvious, but there are some people who legitimately think their language level or skills are high enough to produce a well-translated text.  Whether their perception of being able to speak a language is innocent or not, being able to derive meaning from one language source to another is only possible when you understand the content you’re translating.

Think about it for a second: you’ve all seen pictures or memes of badly translated signs, posters, ads, etc., right?  Or even mangled paragraphs that look like they were just copy-pasted from Google Translate.  Trust me: you don’t want to be that translator.  Understanding both the source and target language is essential in producing, not only a coherent text, but one that actually conveys the original message.

P.S. translators almost always translate into their native language, as, even after having studied another language for years, the chance of making mistakes in a foreign language is higher.

  1. Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure.

I know, I know – I’ve barely gotten passed the whole ‘speak the language part’ of translating, but this has to be mentioned right from the get go.  To be able to produce top-notch translations, even if you have an excellent command of your mother tongue, you need to be extremely aware of grammar and punctuation.

This goes for both source and target documents.  How the heck am I supposed to create a decent translation, let alone a great one, if the original author can’t string together two sentences properly?  On the other hand, who the heck is going to pay for my translation services if I don’t know how to prevent comma splices from cluttering up my work?

Making sure your client provides you with a cleanly edited text, as well as ensuring you are prepared to provide a cleanly edited text, makes the final product sparkle.

  1. Get familiar with translation software.

Yes; even though I made a jab at Google Translate a few paragraphs above, that doesn’t mean machine translation is always bad.  In fact, there are quite a few different software programs out there made specifically for professional translators that many companies require.

These programs are referred to as ‘CAT-Tools,’ which stands for ‘Computer Assisted Translation.’  Human translators will use these programs to facilitate translating, check for errors, and increase output speed, among many other things.  It was through Open Mic that I recently discovered ‘SmartCAT,’ a website that offers free basic CAT-Tool services.  To be honest, I don’t know how I’ve been getting by without it.

Many people ask me if I’m worried that technology will lower my chances at making a career out of translation.  I always tell them ‘no.’ Technology has actually helped translators achieve better, smarter, quicker translations than they would have been able to produce fifteen years ago.  Many good translations are made great through the help of technology.  I would definitely recommend beginner translators to check out CAT-Tools and get familiar with them.

Try not to rely solely on machine translation, however!  As translators, it might make our lives a bit easier, but it’s important not to forget the value of real human translation.

Changing your writing style to match the source document and target audience is very, very important when it comes to making a great translation.  In order to produce a great translation, you will have to have a pretty good grasp of your mother language/target language.

No one will want to read a fictional story if it’s monotone, or doesn’t flow well.  No one will take a legal translation seriously if the language used is written by someone who has no legal background or experience.  No client will be happy if the final product barely matches the style of their original document.

Being able to provide different writing styles for different translations is essential in creating a great translation.  Now, I’m not necessarily saying that you need a full-out law degree in order to make a great translation of a website’s privacy policy, for example.  But, you will need to be able to do a little bit of research, put yourself in ‘legal mode,’ and make sure your final product sounds professional and matches the tone and style of the original.   Same goes for any type of document.

  1. Do your research.

There will be times when you will have to translate works from a culture that differs from your own.  Or, you may find that the author makes references to cultural events, people, or nuances that you don’t fully understand.  Do a little bit of research concerning the subject.  If you’re still unclear, don’t be afraid, especially when it comes to literary translation, to ask the author for clarification of a cultural idea you may not understand.

Furthermore, when translating different cultural material, make sure to think about any impact your words could have on your target audience.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of political correctness.  Lots of things that I find funny or inconsequential, other people find insensitive or offensive.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to completely change my writing style, however, when literary translators take cultural awareness into account, and write to please as many readers as possible, that’s when a good translation becomes great.

  1. Practice makes perfect.

Übung macht den Meister.  C’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron.  La práctica hace al maestro.  At the end of the day, it comes down to practice, experience, and repetition.  Qualifications are great; I’ve always been a believer in education, however, qualifications don’t really mean much if one has no experience in the in which field they’re qualified.

I used to be heavily involved in politics when I was in university.  I joined political organizations, clubs, and associations, knowing nothing about politics at the beginning, and ending my university career as president of three different governmental campus clubs.

What does this have to do with translation?  Not much.  I’m just trying to clarify that it took me four years of hard work and practice to really make it anywhere in the field of politics.  And I miss it.  However, it’s not entirely what I want to call my lifelong career.  This is in languages and translation.  My work and practice has really only just begun.  But I have confidence it’ll work out.  As should we all.  Focus on making the ‘good’ ‘great,’ and don’t ever stop trying.

Happy translating!

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Vanesa Walsh is the Project Manager at Babelsbook, a business that provides translations, marketing, editing, and advice to self-publishers all over the world.  Check it out at www.babels-book.com for more information.

Vanessa Walsh

About Vanessa Walsh

Language enthusiast, currently teaching and translating in beautiful Bavaria, Germany. Also very much involved in politics and music. Looking forward to working with you in the future!

11 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Translation Great In case you didn't already know - here are some tips from an amateur, but determined, translator.

  1. Fantastic article, Vanessa! I completely agree that translation is a form of art and that practice makes perfect! It’s funny, but yesterday someone reached out to me and asked for my one piece of advice for young translators. Now I know what to tell them. I’ll tell them to read your article 🙂

  2. Great article, Vanessa! You’ve shared exactly my thoughts on how technology can help instead of sabotage translator’s careers. Looking forward to reading now from you!

  3. Thanks, Vanessa! Very valid observations.
    I was reading the translation of a novel by Isabel Allende and had to put it down before the first 10 pages; I skipped forward a few chapters to see if there was any improvement, and gave up. The style inconsistencies, the inability of the text to take the reader through the writer’s journey made it impossible for me to enjoy the book. I kept imagining how this or that had been rendered in the original… No, I am not casting a stone on the translator. The material had to go through the hands of a proofreader, an editor, the publisher had to approve it… There is enough people to share the burden, but most of all there is MY way of looking at books to be taken into consideration. And I have to give credit to those who can do what I can not: translate a novel is no easy feat.
    Again, thank you for the article.

    1. Thank you so much, Giovanna! As an avid book reader, I couldn’t agree more. 😉 It’s one thing to translate a text , but another to catch the attention of a different target audience in a different language!

  4. Exactly Vanessa, Translation from source to the target language needs mastery in creating great translation and client’s satisfaction is key to every service delivery or production , especially translation.

  5. Thank you for the great article, Vanessa! One of the most important challenges for a translator is to improve writing skills in one’s own language. You’ve mentioned it in “Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure”. I would also add “style”.

  6. Great article! Translation is as much an art as it is a science and you have to be a excellent writer to even have a chance of succeeding. Sometimes punctuation in one language doesn’t necessarily line up with the punctuation in another. It’s been my experience that French will cram a lot of ideas into one sentence that would normally be two sentences in English. You mustn’t be afraid to alter the punctuation and word order to make it flow more smoothly in the target language.

    (“Allons-y”? Another Time Lord in training? ;-))

  7. Great article Vanessa. It puts in point the evergreen requirement for a professional translator to know the source language well. Also, thanks to the theopenmic team, I also got introduced to SmartCat.

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