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!

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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.

Greatest Women in Translation: Nancy Cristina Martorana

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month’s interviewee is Nancy Cristina Martorana, nominated by Angela Levy.

Welcome, Nancy!


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1. You are American, but moved to Brazil in 1956. Why?
2. Every translator has a different story on how they became a translator. What is yours?

Since the answer to these two questions is interrelated, I will merge my answer.

I came to Brazil with my parents when I was only 10. At the time my Dad was an executive transferred to Brazil from a parent company in the United States. I did my schooling at Escola Graduada de São Paulo, better known as Graded School, and knew early in life that I wanted to pursue a career that involved languages. I had actually been in Brazil before, between the age of 8 months and 16 months, also because my Dad was transferred to Brazil from Romania (where I was born). However, My Dad’s company (ITT) won a bid to install basic infrastructure in Iran (Persia, at the time) and I was to spend the next 3 years in that country. Although it was my first language, I do not remember anything, not even after hearing it spoken by the natives years later. Because of all the countries we moved to, my mother decided to get a French governess, wherever we went to make my language learning more consistent. To make a long story short, I already knew in high school that I wanted to do my college at the translation/interpretation school of Geneva. However, I was rejected because I was too young (minimum age of 18) and had to speak three languages fluently to be accepted. This irritated me immensely to be discriminated, especially because of age. Today, as a teacher, I understand fully – years of experience are needed to pursue a career with any degree of success in translation/interpretation; as I tell my students, layers of knowledge are compacted year after year.

3. Although you teach both consecutive and simultaneous interpreting at Alumni, you have more experience with simultaneous than with consecutive interpreting. Do you prefer one over the other? If so, why? If not, what do you like and dislike in both?

In addition to consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, there are other oral forms, like intermittent and focus groups. Basically, consecutive requires rephrasing and own-writing-deciphering skills and the others are direct delivery of the language. I find consecutive the most difficult of all forms since it requires notetaking and notereading (your own notes!). I have done a total of 3 consecutive interpretations in my career, and although some people do prefer them (to my great surprise), I think that associative learning (memorization of translated word associations) is easier than rephrasing. However, consecutive training is a good learning method.

4. However, you go even beyond and also translate (both technical texts and books). Do you prefer one over the other (translation x interpretation)? If so, why? If not, what do you like and dislike in both?
5. Do you only translate from Portuguese into English (your mother tongue)? Why don’t you feel comfortable translating into Portuguese, even after living for so long in Brazil?

Again I will merge the two ideas since one leads into the other.

Actually, I do not like technical texts or books. If you consider that any text which is not conversational is technical, including literary texts, then I would have to say that I only like certain technical texts, including literary texts, where the technicality comes in knowing the language perfectly. Then, after a translator has sweated many hours looking up technical terms and can say that he/she has relatively mastered the subject, even though he did not do 5 years of college to learn the terminology, he is comfortable enough to say that he likes technical translation, but, mind you, only in that particular subject that he has mastered. I, for one, love to do cosmetics (actually very technical) because I have been translating its terminology for many years, and, even though I don’t know all the terms, I am comfortable to accept, even welcome, the challenge of finding those I don’t know. On the other hand, I will promptly refer any engineering or equipment maintenance texts to my colleagues who now master and welcome these fields, because of their years of exposure.

Books was the second question and my answer was that I don’t prefer them either. I think it all depends on your customer base. All my customers have short deadlines, and I don’t mean “for yesterday,” but short texts, commonly institutional, that don’t take more than a few days to complete. Because of the fast translation turnover of my customer base, I must give anyone wishing to translate a book a l-o-n-g delivery date, since I must translate the book at the same time as I fulfill the translation needs of my regular customer base. Sometimes it works out, and books authors accept the terms.

Lastly, you broached the issue of translation versus interpretation. This depends on one’s personal vision of one’s career. For example, it is difficult to be a teacher and also available for simultaneous interpreting, because you cannot miss too many classes. I saw many students invited to join the Alumni faculty after they graduated, but, since they were excellent interpreters, and the pay is much different, they chose to pursue a better paying and more personally satisfying career in interpretation, and very rightfully so, since they were very good at a very difficult profession. As for me, I was frustrated at the beginning of my profession by a colleague whom I was practicing my Portuguese (and she, her English) with. After scrutinizing my second translation into Portuguese, she had marked my paper with only a dab of red ink. However, all the joy I felt in seeing the few corrections (mostly commas), were abruptly crushed by the words, “It’s all grammatically correct, but it isn’t Portuguese.” I had failed to realize that Portuguese is very nominal, whereas English is very verbal. Now that I know, I can’t really say that it is too late, because my customer base has always been avid for translations into English, which I was better at than Portuguese, so why sweat it?

It is better to go with what you know!

As for the pay, my students reward me in so many other ways; I embrace teaching with great satisfaction – I love to teach; I found my core in teaching translation/interpretation.

6. You introduced the didactic material of the simultaneous interpretation oral skills segment of Alumni’s Translator and Interpreter Course and are responsible for updating it throughout the years. In your opinion, what topics should every interpretation course cover?

Yes, when Alumni added another day to its course to cover oral skills like simultaneous interpretation, I and the teacher responsible for “the other way around,” namely from English to Portuguese, asked how we should put together this course, what should be given. The answer we received was whatever and however we thought best. After many, many, many hours of toilsome thought, I decided that the best place to start was filling in the gaps of what was needed in the original Alumni course (creating a glossary based on the pertinent terminology of the interpretation job) and this led to organizing and managing the target of oral delivery. As mentioned before, I prefer associative learning (memorizing basic translation associations) to what I would call a “philosophical” didactic approach, but admittedly with tips on how to enhance delivery of the know-how.

Updating? Always, since language lives and breathes, always changing and updating itself. We translators must keep abreast.

Topics? Those that all translations and interpretation require, i.e., all involve some degree of marketing, management, economics and business. No matter what the topic, these are always addressed, because we are taking about companies that want to make money selling their wares. Apart from these, interpreters must know a little (or perhaps a lot!, but a little is good for starters, and experience provides the lots) of everything, because one never knows when a lecturer will make an example from a totally different field, or cite a current event from today’s newspaper. We interpreters always have to stay on our toes. For those more interested in literary translations (I would say that you practically have to choose between one or the other), the prerequisite is definitely knowing one’s own language. Even with all my college English and reading, and the many layers of knowledge that I have accumulated over the years, I could never equal this with the same dose in Portuguese, never! Moreover, I have to constantly update myself in my own language, as it lives and breathes at a heartbeat that I passionately desire to grasp.

7. Now it’s your turn. Who do you nominate as our next great woman in translation?

I would have to say it is Elenice Araujo. Hopefully she will accept.


And she has! 😀 Thank you, Nancy, for accepting Angela Levy’s nomination and my invitation, and for kindly taking the time to answer my questions. It was a pleasure to e-meet you!