There are a lot of mistaken ideas as to what “professional translation” means, and how it should be done. In fact, many people consider that there is no reason to pay anybody to translate from one language to another, since anybody with a basic knowledge of any two languages can do it. This could not be further from the truth.
So what is required of a translator? In the first place, a translator must be working into, not out of, his or her own language. So English to French translators – that is, people translating from English into French – must be people who have French as their first language. One common misconception is that if somebody can translate from English to French, he or she can equally well translate from French to English. This is simply not the case.
A translator also needs to be fully competent in both languages. Another common misconception is that everybody is competent in his or her own language, but sadly this is quite often not true! For translators it is essential to have full competence in both the target language – that is the language they are translating into – and the source language, the one they are translating from. This means competence at every level – not just grammar and idiom, though this is essential – but at other levels such as the social level. This involves knowing how to use the correct language in every social situation, and how to interpret social signals.
However, nowadays even full general language competence may not be enough, as most professional translation is highly specialized. For instance, clients of the agency may require translations of technical instructions or specifications, articles for scientific or medical journals, or legal judgments. To become a fully qualified translator nowadays it is often necessary to have specialized competence in a particular area. It is very difficult to translate, for instance, a medical treatise even into your own language, if you are not familiar with the terminology and its exact meaning.
In addition to all these requirements, there are other qualities and skills a translator needs, many of them on the personal level. These include efficiency, reliability, and ability to meet deadlines. However well a document has been translated, it is no use if it was required for a conference or a business meeting and arrived too late. Another requirement is basic office skills and facility with computer technology – most assignments nowadays are received and delivered electronically – and ability to use the right file formats. A translator must also be able to work well under pressure, both alone and in a team.
So it is far from true that anyone can be a translator. Professional translation requires skills and abilities at many levels, both technical and personal. It takes many years and much hard work to become qualified to this standard, but the reward is a highly enjoyable and satisfying career.