Guest post: On hard skills

Welcome back to our guest series! It is with a great pleasure that I introduce you to this month’s guest, Paula Arturo. I love all her writings and was thrilled when she accepted my invitation to write here.

Welcome, Paula!

am-i-translator-or-an-interpreter

Image provided by the author.

While professional translators and interpreters know better, the painful truth is that many of us have that special clueless someone in our circle of friends, family, and acquaintances who seems to think all it takes to be a language professional is to pass a Cambridge exam or spend a summer abroad learning a second language. Though this misconception may appear to be quite widespread, it’s not a belief that is commonly held by high-end translation buyers, such as international organizations, financial institutions or high-stakes financial players; and by that, what I mean is that clients with deep pockets and experience working with translators are usually already aware of the risks of using non-professionals and the benefits of having someone with the right qualifications and experience on their team.

Many young new language professionals aspire to work for such clients, and kudos to them! If you’re a newbie and you’ve already figured out that the bulk market is essentially a race to the bottom, more power to you. The problem is, however, that you might have some misconceptions about what it takes to work for high-end clients. This is so because most workshops, conference sessions, blog posts, and CPD opportunities focus so much on soft skills that people can be misled into thinking that all you need to be a translator or interpreter is a friendly face and emotional intelligence. While soft skills can help land new clients, keeping them and making it to the top of the food chain is an entirely different story.

If you don’t have the necessary hard skills to deliver results, clients won’t be returning or recommending you to anyone else. No matter how much marketing you do or how SEO savvy you are, hard skills are essentially what marks the difference between one hit wonders and multiplatinum holders. So where to begin?

1) Get a mentor, not a guru. We all have role models, i.e. people we look up to and whose accomplishments we want to emulate. Find that person and try to get them to be your mentor. Mentors don’t just pass down knowledge and skills, they also provide professional socialization and guidance to help you get started on the right foot.

2) Work with a reviewer. We all learn from others, and having a reviewer is key to improving the way we look at, interpret, and rewrite our translations. Reviewers challenge your linguistic choices and force you to rethink them or improve the quality of your work. You can’t possibly learn and do better if nobody’s marking your errors, and becoming an exceptional translator means being open to constructive criticism and change.

3) Become an expert. Your subject-matter expertise must be on a par with that of your client. If you can’t hold a conversation with a subject-matter expert in your desired area of specialization, you’re not ready to handle high stakes work. Of course, there may be a difference in the degree of subject-matter knowledge and expertise between you and your client, especially if you come directly from the field of translation and not from your client’s field, but you should still know enough about the subject-matter to talk about it intelligently and know the right questions to ask.

4) Read, read, read, and then read some more! This should be a given. A translator who isn’t an avid reader cannot possibly acquire enough general, background, and specialist knowledge to correctly understand the subtleties and nuances in certain types of texts.

5) Never stop working on your writing skills. Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Marquez once said in an interview he would sometimes have to force himself to set his texts down and stop making corrections to them or he would never send anything to his publisher. Franz Kafka was constantly correcting course and was known to destroy his work out of dissatisfaction with his own writing. Translators have to be exceptionally good writers, and that is a life-long pursuit.

Of course, this is not a comprehensive list, just a start. The takeaway here is that if you aspire to sit at the cool kids’ table you’re going to have to achieve mastery in your craft. So, the next time you choose sessions at a conference, sign up for CPD, or otherwise invest in your training and education, ask yourself this: Am I maintaining a healthy balance between soft and hard skills? Or better yet, am I focusing on hard skills as much as I should be?

Great tips, Paula! I totally agree with you. It takes a combination of well-mastered hard and soft skills to be a professional translator/interpreter. Thank you so much for accepting my invitation and kindly taking the time to write such great advice to our readers! It is a pleasure to welcome you here.

About the author
paula-arturo-high-res-photo-201x180Paula Arturo is a lawyer, translator, and former law professor. She is a co-director of Translating Lawyers, a boutique firm specializing in legal translation by lawyers for lawyers. Throughout her fifteen-year career, in addition to various legal and financial documents, she has also translated several highly technical law books and publications in major international journals for high-profile authors, including several Nobel Prize Laureates and renowned jurists. She is currently a member of the American Translators Association’s Ethics Committee, the ATA Literary Division’s Leadership Council, and Member of the Public Policies Forum of the Supreme Court of Argentina.

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