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Finding the Right Translator: Evaluating Candidates


Now that you know thyself at last, it’s time to embark on your search for the right translator. There are four key criteria I use to evaluate potential candidates: native language, languages translated, professional engagement, and mix of education and experience. Basically, you want a native speaker of the target language who specializes in one foreign language, is professionally engaged, has at least a bachelor’s degree, has lived in the country where their foreign language is spoken, and has great professional experience. That may seem like a lot, so let’s break it down and look at each factor separately.


Hire a Native

When having something translated, the native language of the translator doing the work is paramount. Hire someone who is a native speaker of the language you want the document translated into. If you are having something translated from English into German, for example, make sure the translator is a native German speaker who is fluent in English. This is because understanding a foreign language is always much easier than actually writing in it. Although someone may be completely fluent in both languages, in their native language they will be able to add those extra special idiomatic flourishes that really make the difference between a professional piece of writing and a wordy, mediocre text. At issue here is not the person’s fluency in a language, but rather their native-level knowledge of the language and associated cultural context. The only way to know that your translator has mastered the skills necessary to produce a top-notch translation for your target readers is to make sure they are translating into their native language.


Less is More

When it comes to how many languages a single person translates, less is more. I prefer to work with translators who translate in no more than two language combinations. This might mean working with someone who translates from French into English and German into English or someone who only translates from Spanish into English. It’s the same principle you would follow when looking for a custom sandal maker. If you want really good sandals made just as a sandal should be made, you might prefer hiring someone who spends all of their time making sandals and knows all the ins and outs, rather than someone who splits their time between making sandals, cowboy boots, high heels, and running shoes. To get the best results, you will want someone who has spent their professional life perfecting the translation of one foreign language (maybe two) into their native language.


Engagement is Key

Choosing a translator who is a member of one or more of the major professional organizations in their field can be highly advantageous. Translators involved in their local professional organizations are more likely to be engaged with the profession, to spend time learning about new developments in the industry, and to tap into the collective knowledge of their peers. Due to the networking opportunities these organizations provide, translators who are members are also more likely to have high-quality networks of professionals they can use for projects. Examples of professional organizations include the American Translator’s Association in the United States and the BDÜ in Germany.


The Right Mix

It may seem natural to evaluate translators based on their education, but you will be much more successful if you consider the combination of education, life experience, and professional experience a translator possesses. What you’re looking for is someone with at least a bachelor’s degree who has spent some time in the country where their foreign language is spoken. You will also want to take into account how long they have been a translator and any other professions they may have worked in before.


The more time a person has spent in the foreign country concerned, the less important it is that they have a language-related degree. This is because instead of learning about the foreign language and culture at the university, you can assume they learned these things through firsthand experience living in the foreign country. They should still have a degree of some sort, however, since they will need the research skills and critical thinking abilities gained through university study in order to be a successful translator. Let’s say that Larry is an American with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry who has spent ten years living in Austria and is now a professional translator. Larry would be a very good candidate to translate something from German into English. He lived in Austria for a long time, so we can assume his German is good, and he has a degree, so the critical thinking and research skills are there. Furthermore, Larry would be an outstanding candidate to translate chemistry or pharmaceutical documentation, since his degree gives him specialized knowledge in those industries.


The less time a person has spent in the foreign country concerned, the more important it is that they have a language-related degree. It can be assumed that they have less firsthand cultural and linguistic experience than a candidate who had lived in the country longer, but their education makes up for it. Sometimes these candidates will have multiple degrees – a degree in French and a degree in mechanical engineering for example. Those with multiple degrees are the best, since they have both linguistic expertise and specialized knowledge in a specific industry. Let’s say that Mary spent a semester abroad in France, has a master’s degree in French studies, and is now a professional translator. This would make her a great candidate. An additional bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering would make her even more attractive to manufacturing companies or anyone with mechanical engineering translations.


Professional experience is the icing on the cake. If you find a translator who has the right combination of education and life experience as well as the right professional experience, you’ve got it made! Don’t limit yourself to professional experience as a translator or linguist. Professional experience in any other field can be a very big asset for a translator as well. Let’s say you are a lawyer who needs legal documentation translated into German. A translator with eight years of experience translating legal documents would be a great fit for your legal documentation. If the translator has professional experience as a lawyer or paralegal, for example, that would be even better!


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