11 Subjects to Study to Become a Translator

In order to become a translator, it isn’t enough to master your working languages, but also other subjects ranging from linguistics to marketing.

Mónica Cabral • February 14, 2020
Mónica Cabral • February 14, 2020
A wooden desk with a computer and a pile of books

Translation is a very deep and complex process, which requires a broad knowledge of several subjects that go beyond languages. In a previous post, I wrote about some essential skills to become a successful translator. However, these only make a good translator when paired with solid knowledge regarding the theoretical and more technical aspects of translation. Practice and theory go hand in hand, complementing each other.

A translator never truly stops learning. You can only master these subjects with commitment. Reading and researching are the main sources of learning for translators, and if you do so, you will find yourself knowing a whole lot more about translation, in theory and practice, which will improve your work and, consequently, make you a great asset.

Therefore, below I compiled a list of the most relevant subjects to become a good translator.

Languages

The main subject a translator must study is, of course, languages. Most translators translate from their foreign language(s) into their native language, so it is essential that they know the foreign language in depth. To do so, a translator must not only study its grammatical rules (semantics, morphology, syntax) but also its vocabulary, forms of treatment, idiomatic expressions, slang, while also keeping in mind the language’s quirks and nuances.

Nevertheless, it is also crucial that the translator masters their native language. That’s the language they will be translating into, most of the times, so the translation needs to not only make sense, but also sound natural and effortless to the audience. To ensure that, the translator needs to study it as in depth, if not more, as they do with their foreign language(s).

Culture

Although it is one of the most important subjects to master as a translator, knowing your working languages isn’t enough. A translator has to be sensible enough to know how to adapt cultural references while preserving their meaning and not damaging the target culture.

No two cultures are the same. Each one is unique, with its own customs, traditions and values. Something that makes sense in one culture can be extremely offensive in another. So, the translator needs to be careful when trying to find an equivalent, making sure that it is adequate, makes sense and fits naturally in the target audience.

For example, Friday the 13th is considered a day of bad luck in some countries. However, in Spain, the day of bad luck is “Martes 13” (Tuesday the 13th).

Researching and reading about your target culture(s) can help to get to know its main aspects. Another great way is getting to know it directly, whether it is by visiting the country or talking to native people, who can explain all its peculiarities better than anyone.

Translation Studies

If you want to become a doctor, you won’t simply study the practical part of it. You will learn its theory and its evolution throughout the years. So, why shouldn’t it be the same for translators?

It is essential that a translator knows the main theories regarding translation, both the older ones and the more contemporary. Knowing these allows the translator to understand the different opinions and approaches regarding translation, how it has changed over the years, how the translation process works, and the existing methods and strategies. Then, based on that, the translator will be able to decide which one(s) to apply in their work when faced with different translation challenges, and justify their choices.

If you are interested in learning more about translation studies and theories, I highly recommend you flip through “Introducing Translation Studies”, by Jeremy Munday.

Linguistics

In order to fully understand a language, you need to know more than its grammatical aspects and vocabulary. It is also important to understand linguistics.

In a nutshell, linguistics is the study of language, its structure, how it works and how we use it to communicate. It focuses on exploring the different properties of a language, such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. In addition to that, it also studies the different dialects of a language, how it changed over time and how it is processed and stored in the human brain.

For translators, linguistics plays a huge role, as it helps improve communication between people. Translators work with words and sentences, and ultimately languages, so understanding all its aspects in depth will benefit the quality of their work.

Terminology

Another subject every translator must study is terminology, especially if you are a specialized translator. It is essential that you understand the vocabulary related to your field of expertise, so that you can then translate it properly.

Terminology doesn’t simply allow translators to understand vocabulary, but also to comprehend contexts, because two words can have the same meaning, or two different words can mean the same. So, the translator must know this in order to properly understand the text and transmit its content more effectively.

Also, terminology is extremely useful for translators since it teaches them how to employ terminological resources, such as termbases, glossaries, encyclopedias and dictionaries. Moreover, it allows them to produce more consistent and coherent translations, with no ambiguities.

CAT Tools

CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools are translation software that facilitate the translation process, speeding up the translator’s workflow and aiding them with several tools. These range from translation memories, to termbases and quality checks.

A translator should be able to master these tools, as they are a great asset. They create a translator-friendly environment, where translators can manage their projects with ease, store them all in one place, and access them anytime. They also increase productivity, by speeding up the process, allowing you to use segments previously translated that match with what you are translating at the moment.

Another great benefit of most CAT tools are the quality checks. The main quality checks features of these tools include spell-checking, punctuation, formatting information, number format checking and consistency check.

It is important to remember that these tools don’t translate the whole text by themselves, they are simply tools that aid the translator during the translation process. The translation is still done manually by a human.

Editing

In the translation industry, quality is key. It is essential that the message is clear to the target audience and overcomes cultural barriers, being seamless and culturally coherent.

The editing process consists of a bilingual review between the source and the target text. Its main goal is to improve the text, and it does so by verifying if the translation is true to the source text, verifying the correct use of language and assuring that the original message is conveyed, while also being adapted to the audience and culture it is meant for.

Editing allows the translator to eliminate mistakes, correct potential inconsistencies and do the necessary adjustments so that the text is relevant to its specific target audience and culture.

Proofreading

No one likes reading a text full of errors or typos. Even if the reader is finding the text extremely interesting, the presence of errors will drain their will to read it.

So, obviously, proofreading is essential in the translation process and it is usually the last step of a translation project. Contrary to what some people think, proofreading is not just checking for spelling mistakes and typos. It follows a more complete checklist, that includes checking if the text has the appropriate words, if the paragraphs are done properly, if the sentences are too long, if the page numbering, indexing and headings are correct, among others.

A well-written text gives translators credibility, suggesting to the client that they are knowledgeable and reliable. On the other hand, a text poorly corrected and full of mistakes will make the client feel reticent about hiring you again, it can potentially harm their business, and the translator can be held accountable.

Copywriting

Being a good copywriter can come in handy when doing marketing translations. In short, marketing is the ability to persuade consumers to choose your product or service. A good marketing copywriter has to be able to understand the target reader’s pains and motivations, in order to connect with them on a personal level.

Therefore, a marketing translator also needs to have the sensibility to understand the target audience (age, location, level of education, social status, etc.), otherwise the translation can create a negative impression of the product or service.

Marketing translation might be the type of translation that requires the most creativity. The translator needs to be creative when adapting the content and message, so that it makes sense and connects to the target audience, while also assuring that the message doesn’t lose its original purpose. It goes without saying that literal translation is not a choice when it comes to marketing.

Marketing

The translation market is very competitive. In addition to that, nowadays most of the interactions between translators and clients happen online. So, in order to stand out from the rest, you need to plan a marketing strategy that works for you and make yourself noticed.

The best way to get noticed is by creating a profile in the most known networking and translation platforms. Two great examples are LinkedIn and ProZ. LinkedIn is the most known networking and employment-oriented platform. It is super easy to use, you just need to set up a profile, list your most relevant information and skills and start networking! LinkedIn is great to find potential clients and jobs, as it has a tab dedicated to it, where you can browse through jobs, and filter them depending on your field, location, etc.

Another great way to get noticed is by creating content. Whether you post it on your LinkedIn profile or you create a website, creating valuable content will help you get your name out there and potentially attract clients and job opportunities.

Personal Finances

This is one of those topics that aren’t taught to us at school, but we need to learn them if we want to avoid many headaches at the end of the month. You have the option of hiring an accountant who will handle your finances for you, but if you want to take care of them by yourself, you need to make sure you first learn how to properly do it.

Finances can be unpredictable, especially if you are a freelancer, where you don’t have a set monthly income. You need to be smart in the way you manage your money and prepare for occasional inconveniences.

There are several online resources that give some insights and tips on how to manage your finances, but here are the main ones:

  • Separate your personal finances from your business finances.

  • Track your total annual income in an Excel spreadsheet or a finance management tool, and every time a client pays you, insert that amount in your income sheet.

  • Have a savings account to use in case of an emergency, in a month where you don’t get as many jobs, or if you are not able to work for a period of time, for whatever reason.

Concluding

Besides mastering their working languages and being culturally sensible, a good translator must also study other relevant subjects. Knowing the evolution and the different approaches on translation, being able to be creative, having the skills to properly edit and correct a text, and having useful computing and soft skills will improve a translator’s workflow and, consequently, the quality of their work.

Nevertheless, in addition to having this knowledge, actually putting it into practice and translating regularly is what will ultimately improve your skills. It is by learning from your mistakes and practicing that you find an efficient way to overcome them and become a good translator.

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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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