Acknowledge you are not perfect
No one was born knowledgeable in any field. It takes years to become really good at what you have chosen to do for a living. The longer you put off professional development, the more difficult it will be for you to cope with competition, no matter which part of the world you happen to live in. The key to professional success is in the way you manage your time and the effort you are willing to make in order to improve.
You surely did not reach your full potential as a language speaker or translator the moment you got your certificate or landed your first job in the language field. Ongoing education is a necessary process, whoever you are, and a sine qua non condition to fulfil in order to become a true specialist. No one will ever know everything they need to, no matter how long they are likely to live. That is why, according to the required standards of your specialisation and the kind of learner that you are, you will have to devise a smart plan for your further professional development, preferably a quick and efficient one.
Is being bilingual enough?
Well, no. Even the few (and lucky) perfectly bilingual translators and interpreters with two mother tongues will still need practice, study and a well devised plan. What I am willing to explore in this article is the less fortunate group – translators and interpreters who operate with their mother tongue combined with one or more foreign languages that they studied at university or grasped by living in a different country.
Is studying from books enough?
A book may be man’s best friend but it isn’t 100% reliable. In order to reach a proficient level in a foreign language you need much more than handling grammar and accumulating a vast amount of vocabulary.
What usually misses from the traditional university syllabus of the contemporary department for translators-to-be is the chance for the students to be ‘engaged in total immersion’. If you are studying at a university in your home country, you certainly don’t get much opportunity to converse with native speakers of your target language. Most of the professors are co-nationals of yours and student exchanges, if any, cannot fill the language gap between a native speaker and a non-native one. The sad point is that your language may sound too ‘bookish’ for you to be taken for a native speaker or at least for a perfectly-educated specialist in your field. It is not your fault, of course, and there are ways of improving the situation, especially if you are preparing for the field of translating/interpreting.
What makes a good translator?
A good translator is not a robot that makes L1 to L2 transfers. He or she is a ‘creator’, keeping the meaning and fluency of the original sentence not by employing unnecessary words only because they happen to be there, but by extracting the most appropriate word combination from their own memory or computer database which will not only express the essence of the original writer’s intention but also constitute the most natural language choice in the given context. This applies to both technical and literary translations, though the latter category may become subject for further debate.
What is there to do?
- Even if you are translating from one language into your mother tongue, you will need time to get acquainted with certain tech fields which you may know little about in your own language. However, reading a wide variety of technical texts in both languages will be a good start for someone who is planning to improve the quality of their work and their speed too.
- Your journeys into the unknown should be short. A comprehensive project with a tight deadline is not the best choice for someone who is willing to tackle a new field. It will take you ages to do the job and you might also need to work overtime. It is far better to get involved in smaller projects if you want to expand your expertise. A few small bits will eventually help you to feel comfortable with longer texts and significantly add up to the existent database of your lexis. Don’t be afraid to refuse a job you are not comfortable with. You client will also appreciate your honesty.
- When you watch films and documentaries in the foreign language that interests you from a professional point of view and hear an interesting expression or collocation, do not look at the available subtitles; better try to find a suitable translation in your mother tongue on your own. Such an exercise will keep your mind alert and considerably increase your brain’s potential. You can do the same with anything you hear from speakers of your own language on TV, radio or in the street to exercise your ability to make correct L1 to L2 transfers. Write down anything worth remembering if you can.
- Repetition is the father of learning, so make sure that you keep a useful book on your night table, at least until you have managed to prove what a reliable and efficient translator you are. Along with reading your favourite book, revise the most difficult volumes of set phrases and collocations that you are most likely to use for your projects at the office. If you do so, you will fill many gaps in your knowledge in no time.
- Lastly, create a user-friendly, even coloured (if it suits the type of learner you are), database of challenging words and expressions on your computer and turn to it whenever you need assistance. This is useful for two main reasons: it is easier to access than a comprehensive dictionary and far more likely to remember than the plain-looking pages of a regular dictionary.