When people think of the defining characteristics of a good translator, they immediately think of their linguistic prowess. It’s the same assumption made by many an aspiring translator. They may be highly proficient at languages, possibly speaking several in addition to their mother tongue, and those that are bilingual must be the best of all, right? While proficiency in languages is most certainly a prerequisite for becoming a translator, a talent for writing is often overlooked. If translation were simply a matter of finding the equivalent words and phrasing from one language to another, then bilingualism would certainly be a great advantage and machine translation might eventually fulfill this role. But what sets humans and machines apart, and great translators from good ones, is the creativity and writing skill involved.
There are thousands of translators out there who are excellent linguists but it is surprising how few of them are also excellent writers. When we are recruiting for certain jobs, especially marketing ones, the tests returned often reveal a perfectly good comprehension of the source text but no flair for adapting it to the target language. I personally believe that the best translators are actually excellent writers first and foremost, language ability—while still very important—can come second to that. The translator must understand the source text completely along with nuance and cultural relevance, but he or she does not necessarily have to be an expert at writing or speaking in their non-native language. It helps but is not essential. Their ability will ultimately be judged on the end product and that requires excellence at writing.
This is not just applicable to creative writing either. Even the most mundane texts need to be written clearly, concisely and accurately. Good writers know how to get their message across in such a way that the reader can easily follow what is being said. Skills such as these are not as common as you might think, although with the rise of the Internet it is becoming increasingly apparent how rare these skills are! The Web is an easily accessible platform for everyone to display their writing skills and the sheer amount of posts, blogs and tweets is testament to this. It is often clear when someone has spelling and grammar issues, to put it mildly, but it is not always as clear when someone also has a poor grasp of style, tone and structure. It may be harder to put your finger on, but you just know the text is lacking something and you probably just move on to something more engaging.
When it comes to marketing translators, engaging copy writing is paramount. Not only are good writing skills essential but so is a creative mind and sensitivity to cultural issues. The audience needs to be attracted to the product and this requires expert use of many devices, including images, sound, humour, cultural identifiers and of course text. As certain markets may have completely different tastes to another, simple translation may not always suffice.
This is where transcreation comes in. Transcreation differs from translation in that there is a lot more creative freedom to completely rewrite the source material if necessary. It is essentially a combination of translation and copy writing. A slogan in one language may be completely lost in another language, so adaptation is needed. Put another way, it may require a completely different approach and message to get the customer to feel the same way about a product as someone on the other side of the world.
Many large corporations hire ad agencies or specialist copywriters in each of their worldwide offices to work on their slogans, but this is not always a practical solution for smaller companies or smaller projects. If you are looking for translation services, ask yourself if you need more than translation. What is the intended audience and would it benefit from a more customized targeted marketing message? If so, don’t hesitate to discuss your needs with your translation provider so they can find the right person for the job.
If you are wanting to start out as a freelance translator, ask yourself if you have a flair for writing—it is hugely important. And if you are a translation agency, don’t just be drawn in by those who boast of their ability to speak several languages. Writing ability should be one of your top criteria when judging recruitment tests. Veering away from the source text is to be applauded when the target text is speaking to its audience in an optimal way.