What makes an excellent translator

What makes an excellent freelance translator? 5 traits that translation agencies look for

Starting out as a freelance translator can be tough. It’s hard enough trying to land your first translation job without much experience (everyone wants experienced translators but how can you get experience in the first place?). And once you HAVE got that first translation project, how do you retain that customer so they turn into repeat business – especially when translation agencies seem to have an ocean of qualified translators to chose from?

In this article, I want to give you a little insight into how we as a translation company work with freelance translators, and show you that there’s more to an excellent freelance translator than just translation quality.

Translation quality

It goes without saying that this is THE most important aspect of being a translator. If you cannot deliver translations that meet your customers’ quality standards, you won’t be able to retain them for long. We often get asked if we have certain qualification criteria for hiring freelance translators. On the whole, our translators hold Masters degrees in translation. But let me say this: not everyone who has a Masters degree is necessarily a good translator. And not everyone who doesn’t have a Masters degree is necessarily under-qualified. There are a lot of different opinions about this subject, and it also depends on the type of translation you provide (for legal and medical translation you will most likely need a specialised degree to do a great job), but certainly for marketing translation, the field we specialise in, the most important thing is creativity and a flair for language. There are certain things you can learn and practice during a translation degree, but you need creative talent in order to translate marketing texts well. Not all our freelance translators have a translation degree, some come from a journalistic background, others from a creative writing background, others again from a pure marketing background. It’s important to find your particular area of speciality and become an expert in this field.

Reliability

Reliability is just as important as quality. Even the most eloquent, fastest or even the most competitively priced translator will find it hard to retain clients for the long-term if he or she consistently delivers late. As a translation company, we expect our freelance translators to deliver the project at the time we agreed together. We trust them to do so, and this trust is based on experience with working with the same translators over long periods of times. You can probably imagine how disruptive it can be if a translator delivers late. The client receives the translation late and this can have a huge knock-on effect, from delayed marketing campaign launches to delaying production runs. If a translator repeatedly delivers late (and by repeatedly, I mean twice, that’s really all it takes), we tend to grow a bit weary and offer new projects to other, more reliable translators.

If your translation schedule is always crammed full then this leaves no room for life’s little curveballs.

Part of making sure this doesn’t happen is to agree realistic deadlines in the first place, ideally with a little buffer in case there are any delays. We are all human after all. Maybe we just need a little longer to translate a particular job that day, or we get a call from another client that takes about an hour longer than expected, or maybe one of our children has fallen ill and we need to pick them up from nursery. These are all fairly typical examples of everyday translation life.

But even with the best planning skills on the planet, you might still find yourself in a situation where you have to deliver a project late, so what to do? It’s all about communicating clearly and being proactive, which brings me neatly to the next point.

Communication skills

Being able to communicate effectively is another important part of being a stellar translator. It makes working together so much smoother and saves a lot of time at both ends, too.

Especially in situations where time is of the essence, being proactive can save the day. If you realise that ‘there’s trouble ahead’ meeting a deadline, get in touch with your project manager straight away – don’t wait until the deadline has passed and you are starting to receive panicked emails where the files are that you should have delivered an hour ago. The same goes for any questions you might have about the project, whether that’s about tone of voice, product information or terminology: don’t wait until you have delivered to project to ask these questions.

In a nutshell, good translators think ahead, pre-empting problems and managing the expectations of their translation clients. Don’t leave your translation clients guessing. Confirm deadlines, send updates, ask for clarification and offer reassurances.

Ability to deal with feedback

This is a tricky subject. Translation quality, and whether a translation is beautiful, can be quite a subjective thing. Receiving feedback on your translation work is part and parcel of your daily life as a translator. It’s important to be able to look at feedback as objectively as you can (even though that might be hard since it’s YOUR work, so how can it not be personal, right?). Try to bear in mind that every client might have different ideas about what a perfect translation will look like, and part of your job is to learn from the feedback and adapt your style to each particular client in your future translations.

We like working with translators who take our feedback to heart, ask questions if anything needs to be clarified and then incorporate that feedback into their next translation. We find it difficult working with translators who won’t accept feedback or become argumentative. Having said that, it’s important for both the translator and the agency to handle feedback professionally and courteously.

Attitude

The last quality that I really think is important is attitude. Here at AJT, we are very privileged to have a fantastic team of freelance translators. Besides being motivated, courteous and reliable, they all have one thing in common: a positive attitude towards life, their own career and their relationship with us as the translation company. It may not seem that obvious, but when you join a translation company as a freelancer, you become part of a team, and the way you interact with people on a daily basis has a big impact, just the same as if you were working in an office together. We love working with people, and naturally, we tend to gravitate towards people who emanate positivity. It’s infectious. That’s not to say that we are all a happy clapping bunch of translators skipping to work every morning, but there is an overall feeling of positive energy, whether that’s genuine excitement about the clients we translate for or towards solving problems together (rather than succumbing to a blame culture).

Being an excellent freelance translator really is more than just delivering a good translation: it’s about interpersonal and communication skills, it’s about effectively managing your time and about building strong, long-lasting relationships with your translation clients. If you are about to embark on your translation career, you might be interested in our blog 5 cardinal sins that will land your translator CV in the bin.