16 Must-Have Skills to Become a Successful Translator

From mastering your working languages to being organized and ethical, there is a set of must-have skills to become a successful translator.

Mónica Cabral • Updated on January 27, 2020
Mónica Cabral • Updated on January 27, 2020
Computer and a sheet of papel on a table with graphs, numbers and information

Most people believe that, in order to become a successful translator, one must just master one or two languages and consequently be able to replace words from one of those languages to the other. However, it’s not that shallow. A good translator must be able to master a set of skills in order to stand out from the rest.

In any profession, there are some must-have skills that need to be mastered, so that the final result meets the client’s demands. Translators are no exception.

Whether you are a freelance translator or not, you need to discipline yourself and continuously study relevant content so that you become the best professional possible.

So, these are the main skills you need to master in order to become a successful translator.

Writing well in your native language

Before even starting to master a foreign language, you need to make sure you master your own. Most translators translate into their native language, so they need to be able to write and know all of its grammatical, semantic, lexical and structural rules and singularities.

Some tips to improve this skill include:

  • Reading local newspapers and magazines, watching national TV programs and listening to local radio stations, to get to know more informal and day-to-day vocabulary and expressions.

  • Reading national literature, within as many genres as possible, to get used to more formal language and vocabulary.

  • Write. As much as you can. It doesn’t matter what you write about or if you publish it anywhere. When learning how to ride a bike, you get better the more you ride it. It is the same with writing. You need to practice it in order to improve.

Being proficient in your source language

Now that you’ve mastered your native language, you can move forward to your foreign language(s). In order to fully understand texts in your source language and translate them faithfully, you need to be proficient.

To do so, there some important things you need to do, like:

  • As with your native language, you need to get accustomed to the language you are working with. Read literature and news, watch movies and TV shows, and listen to radio programs or podcasts.

  • If possible, spend a couple of months in a country that speaks your source language. There’s no better way of learning that by directly interacting with the language and culture in question.

Having cultural knowledge in both languages

Mastering both of your languages is great. But it is not enough. A translator must be able to adapt cultural aspects and references to the target language, in order to ensure its understanding. In order to do so, translators need to study the culture of both languages in depth, know about its past and history, idiomatic expressions, costumes, traditions and day-to-day lingo.

Tips to improve this skill are very similar to the previous ones. The most important and crucial thing to do is to get to know and get in contact with the culture, experiencing it yourself, reading and researching about it, watching local programs, or speaking with natives.

Having good research skills

Translators must be able to research efficiently. Use Google, save relevant links to save you some time later, organize your materials into folders for easier access, and don’t be afraid to ask questions you might have on translation forums.

Some tips to make your Google searches more efficient:

  • Use quotes when searching for something specific. By doing so, Google will search for what you wrote exactly, and the results will be more relevant.

  • Use a hyphen to exclude words. Some searches can be ambiguous, the same word can refer to several different things, and hyphens allow you to narrow your results. For example, one thing that I do a lot, when searching for something in Portuguese, is adding “-br”, so that Google only presents me results in European Portuguese.

Specializing in one specific area of expertise

Most translators, despite having general knowledge regarding many areas, tend to focus on specializing on one specific area. This can be a huge advantage because, by just choosing one area, translators can focus all their time and energy on studying and improving their skills having that area in mind.

Knowing a lot about many areas sometimes makes it easier to find work, but when you are specialized in one specific area, you can market yourself easier to your ideal clients and narrow your target employees. Even better, if you specialize in an area that isn’t very common, or that not many people specialize in, you will be able to stand out and have less competition.

Some tips to improve this skill:

  • Choose an area that you are truly passionate about, or that is relevant to your academic or professional experience.

  • Do as many research as you can on the topic. Remember to take that into consideration when charging for a translation.

  • Try to always stay updated regarding news, findings and studies relevant to that area.

Computing skills and CAT tools

In an era where technology is present everywhere, translators must also learn how to follow its growth and adapt to it. It is essential to know how to work with word processors, billing platforms, editing tools, among others.

Nowadays, most translators work with computer-assisted translation tools in order to increase their productivity, saving time, and thus increasing their earnings. These tools are always being updated and reinvented, so a translator must also be able to learn fast and adapt themselves to the constant changes.

Some tips to improve this skill include:

  • Watch some video tutorials on how to handle these software programs.

  • Take some online courses.

  • Practice as much as you can. These tools are no bogeymen, you’ll eventually get the hang of it.

Being creative

Another must-have skill to become a successful translator is the ability to be creative. This doesn’t apply to all types of translation, but sometimes translating literally isn’t good enough, or what is intended. When it comes to advertisement, poems, songs, jokes, children’s books and subtitling (especially movies and TV shows), creativity is key. It can make or break a translation. It is what distinguishes a good one from a mediocre one.

We already have a blog post about creativity in translation, but here are two examples of ways to boost your creativity:

  • Enrichening your vocabulary by reading. Read as much as you can. Different authors, different genres, magazines, children’s books, even the jokes section of the newspaper can help you.

  • Watching movies and TV shows subtitled by professional translators. There are hundreds of platforms online where you can watch movies and shows for free. However, it’s better to pay for a streaming service (like Netflix or HBO) and make sure you are reading accurate translations, done by real professionals.

Being consistent

Translated texts must always be consistent when it comes to grammar, vocabulary, structure, specific terminology, amongst others. This is extremely important when dealing with specialist translations, as these tend to have very specific terms and structures that must be respected at all costs, in order to avoid misinterpretations or ambiguities.

Some tips to become more consistent:

  • Create your own glossaries and use them throughout your translations, to make sure you always use the correct terms.

  • Use CAT Tools that rely on translation memories and/or databases (find some for free here), in order to speed up the process and ensure consistency, not only regarding terminology, but also phrasal structure.

Being proactive

Realistically, a translator never stops learning. The industry is always in constant change, every other day a new translation tool is launched, and a translator must be able to keep up with this evolution. Besides that, knowledge is power, and there is always something we can do to broaden ours. Clients value people who show they are diligent, don’t slack and are constantly eager to learn, because those are great assets.

Here are some tips on how to be proactive:

  • Read books and magazines/journals regarding the translation industry, translation studies, or even other subjects that can improve your skills.

  • Follow translation-related blogs and websites for the latest news and developments.

  • Attend conferences, seminars and webinars. There are plenty that you can attend online and even for free. Take advantage of it.

  • Watch YouTube tutorials and take online courses on valuable topics, such as CAT tools, how to market yourself, personal finances, etc.

  • Follow people who create valuable content on social media, for example LinkedIn. You’ll be surprised with what you can learn by following the right people.

Being neutral

Often translators have to deal with texts or subjects they don’t agree with. There is always the choice of rejecting the job, but if they decide to accept it, a good translator must be able to remain unbiased and not let their emotions and opinions show. It is crucial that the text is translated respecting its tone and message. A translator must always be objective.

Having integrity and confidentiality

This is extremely important when dealing with legally binding documents that may contain personal, sensitive or confidential information. Birth or marriage certificates, patents, legal arrangements, and other legal documents, must always be kept safe.

The translator should be the only person with access to them. Sometimes, the client or company will ask the translator to sign a confidentiality agreement, in order to ensure the safety of data.

Proofreading and spell-checking

When a translation is finished, the translator shouldn’t send it to the client right away. Instead, they must read it carefully beforehand, to make sure there aren’t any typos, spelling mistakes, or discrepancies when it comes to grammar, punctuation, syntax, phrasal structural, etc. This should always be done while also looking at the source text.

Some tips to ensure there are no mistakes:

  • Read the text out loud. You’ll find it easier to spot any mistakes.

  • Pay special attention to homonyms (for example, you may have written “complement” instead of “compliment”).

  • Double-check contractions and apostrophes. Make sure you didn’t write “their” instead of “they’re”. It is a tiny mistake, but it can compromise the entire text.

  • Always check the numbers. Make sure you didn’t have an extra 0 or put a comma in the wrong place. It is crucial that the numbers are faithful to the source text.

Knowing how to deal with clients

To be a good translator is more than knowing how to translate. It isn’t just about getting the work done. You can’t simply do the translation and move on with your life. It is always a relation between two people (or one person and a company).

Knowing how to deal with other people is one of the must-have skills to become a successful translator. It is extremely important to have good communication skills. From the moment a client asks for a translation, we should always keep in touch throughout the entire process.

You start by asking for the briefing (target audience, purpose of the text, deadlines). During the translation process, you might face some challenges or have some doubts regarding the text, and you shouldn´t be afraid of asking the client to clarify them. It is advisable you do so. The client won’t think you’re less competent because of that, on the contrary, it will show you care and are committed to delivering a flawless translation.

This may seem obvious, but try to respond to clients as fast as you can, ask for some feedback, and be nice and polite. Your clients will appreciate you and come back for more.

Meeting deadlines

This is probably one of the most important must-have skills to become a successful translator. As a translator, it is essential that you are able to manage your time in order to deliver translations in time. If you don’t, clients will see you as unprofessional, irresponsible, and it is likely they won’t request your services again. Once you receive the job, you must organize your agenda and your time in order to be able to do a flawless translation within the agreed time.

Here are some tips to help you stay organized:

  • Once you receive the text, set a number of words to be translated daily, according to the total number of words and the deadline.

  • Write to-do lists, so you can organize all your tasks in a way that you can devote the necessary amount of time to translating.

  • Set up alarms, so you never forget about the deadline.

  • Get rid of all distractions. Turn off your phone and get out of social media while you work, to make sure you stay focused and be productive.

  • Don’t leave things for the last minute. It will only make you stress, and it is likely the translation won’t be as good as it would have been if you took the proper time to research and translate properly. It is always better to think ahead and do it with time, because there might come up an emergency and then you won’t be able to deliver the finished translation.

Of course, exceptionally, it can occur an emergency, whether it is health or family-related, and you might not be able to meet the set deadline. In those cases, you must speak to your client immediately, explain the situation and try to agree on another date.

Being disciplined

There is no success without discipline. As a freelance translator, especially, there’s a tendency to not sticking to a routine, because you work from home, and you don’t have anyone bossing you around. However, you will find that everything becomes easier if you have a routine.

It is easy to get distracted by many things around us, like the new soap opera on TV, or that new photo our friend posted on Instagram, but then, when you realize it, it is already 10 p.m., and you haven’t done anything.

At first, it can be hard to discipline yourself and find a method that works for you, but here are some tips:

  • Try to wake up early. You will see that, by waking up early in the morning, you will be much more productive, and you’ll have time for everything, work and leisure.

  • Keep your workspace clean and organized. This may not seem important, but I can assure you it is. Having an organized desk and desktop makes it easier to find what you need, thus increasing your productivity.

  • Always keep a notepad on your desk. Write everything important, everything you have to do that day and, as you complete those tasks, tick them off. It will give you a sense of accomplishment, thus increasing your motivation to do more.

  • Set your priorities straight. There will be times where you’ll have to renounce some nights out with your friends. Create a schedule and try to organize it in a way that allows you to do as much work as possible, but also saving some time for yourself.

Knowing how to market yourself

Like in most jobs, but especially when you are a freelancer, one of the most important skills to become a successful is knowing how to market yourself. If you don’t work for a company, and aren’t part of an agency, you’ll have to be the one to get out there, and promote your services, in order to get clients. It isn’t enough to be good at translation, you have to be smart, train your mind to be business-oriented and learn how to market yourself in the best way.

Here are some tips:

  • Read and do some research on marketing, so you’ll have a better understanding on how things work.

  • Make the most out of your social media. Use Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or other social media platform of your choice, to promote your services. Post relevant content frequently and try to engage with your followers. It is a great way to meet other translators and find potential clients.

  • Create a profile on translation platforms. TranslatorsCafé and ProZ, for example, are great tools, because some clients post job offers there. Make sure you always keep your profile clean and updated, and most importantly, try to stand out from the rest.

  • Publish online. Creating a website or a blog is a great way to share content created by you, regarding translation or other areas of interest. This will help you get your name out there, you will be helping people with your content, and it may bring some job opportunities.


Being a translator isn’t a linear and simply linguistic job as many think. There are several essential skills needed to become successful translators. The main ones are, of course, mastering the languages and knowing the cultures, but it is deeper than that. In order to be the best professional you can be, and stand out from the rest, you must educate and discipline yourself regarding all kinds of abilities.

It doesn’t happen overnight, you need to commit to improving and, most importantly, always stay motivated and never give up. Translating can be an exhausting job, but it is also very rewarding when your work is recognized and appreciated.

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Mónica Cabral
Mónica Cabral

English and Spanish to Portuguese translator and co-founder of Alumiar Elísio. Currently attending a master's degree in Specialized Translation.


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