While reading through this brief discussion with Betty Howell on what makes a good translator, a lot of different questions came to mind. “Why do certain characteristics, i.e. the recognition of language variants and cultural differences, make a good translator? Can these be applied to the field of interpretation as well?” Most notably, “if this is what makes a good translator, what makes a bad one?

It’s not uncommon to focus on the good aspects of a given field, and how to be the best that we can be. It’s not a bad thing of course; I strive to be the best version of myself everyday, inside and outside of work. However, I think it’s equally important to consider the negatives as well, so we can learn to recognize mistakes before we make them, and avoid going down  more dangerous paths. Knowing what the worst version of our work looks like gives us a clear point to move and stay away from.

Existentialism aside, here are some things that translators and interpreters should avoid so that they don’t end up on the wrong side of the spectrum. I’ll be using the article linked above as a guide to show the aspects of the good, and then we’ll discuss the bad.


Failing to Understand the Production Process
“A good translator understands the production process and makes your deadlines, barring dire circumstances. He/she provides progress reports on projects that extend over a lengthy period of time.”


Understanding the Production Process involved in Translation and Interpretation is essential to having success in the field. Howell mentions making deadlines and progress reports specifically, but the process extends far beyond that to concepts like guarantees of quality, the expectation of the client(s), etc. Translators and Interpreters must be constantly vigilant for ethical issues that arise, and be knowledgeable of the standards that apply to their work and themselves. The process is designed such that we inherently conform to these ethical and professional guidelines, so how can one follow them if one doesn’t understand the process itself?


Not Knowing Where to Look for New Information
“A good translator is intensely curious about the world and everything in it. A voracious reader, he/she views every assignment as a learning opportunity. He/she doesn’t necessarily have all the appropriate vocabulary for every field at her fingertips, but he/she knows where to look and whom to consult.”


As translators and interpreters, we learn something new related to our field everyday. Naturally, we must be receptive to these new concepts, new terminology, or new opportunities to learn. More importantly, we have to learn where to learn. In other words, we have to know where to find missing pieces in our translation or interpretation, be it a new technical term, a new colloquialism, etc.
We are not computers. We forget things. No one is expecting us to cram an entire dictionary or specialized glossary into our heads and be able to recall any term on a whim. Rather they are expecting us to be able to find whatever term we need, be it in a glossary, a dictionary, or personal library. If we do not know where to look for new information, our language skills cease to grow and become defined only by what we know now, not by what we can know.


Failing to Recognize Language Variants
“A good translator understands that there are various “Englishes” and confirms which variant of the language you require him/her to use, as well as which style guide you follow.”


This has to do with cultural competency. Language variants are one of the most difficult things a translator or interpreter can work with, but we need to be able to identify them and work within them. Translations projects like localization require the translator to be able to do this, as the site or program is being translated for a very specific location and consumer. Howell mentions that the translator or interpreter should confirm which variant or register is being used and which they should use, which requires that foundation of cultural competencies.

A bad translator or interpreter might use the wrong register or language variant in the wrong context, which can greatly interfere with comprehension. For example, using Castilian slang while translating a document intended for a Central American demographic would be inappropriate, and you can imagine that they would have a great deal of difficulty trying to figure out the intended meaning.


Failing to Recognize Context and Target Audience
“A good translator has a sense of context and target audience, appropriate tone and level. He/she turns in text that requires minimal revision and flows naturally.”


This ties into properly utilizing language variants. Our work should not sound unnatural or out-of-place, like a commencement speech at a preschool graduation. We need to take every element of the translation or interpretation into account, even the smallest questions like “where is this taking place,” or  “who will be listening other than the clients?” Every little detail matters in our field. A bad translator either doesn’t recognize this fact or ignores it.


Not Recognizing “Shades of Meaning”
“A good translator is acutely aware of shades of meaning – for example, the French word efficace can mean effective, efficient, efficacious or successful, depending on the context.”


“Shades of Meaning”, or more simply recognizing how certain terminology can be understood is absolutely imperative for a professional in our field. We must constantly be cognizant of how our audience understands what we are saying in order to avoid ambiguity or being flat out wrong.
This article presents a great example of this kind of misunderstanding. A man is brought to court for running a red light and his interpreter told him he had been accused of a “violación”, which while in some contexts can mean “violation” is almost universally understood as “rape.” Because of this, the man shouted from the back of the room “I didn’t rape anyone!” and there was a great deal of confusion.

The interpreter clearly did not know how that term is understood and used in a common setting. If they had been, they might have used the word “infracción” to convey the same meaning as they intended at the start, but at the same time avoid all of the problems “violación” brings along with it. Had the mistake not been caught there could have been devastating consequences, even violation of constitutional rights.

Being able to carefully choose our words like this and navigate culturally specific connotations while interpreting or translating is what distinguishes a good translator or interpreter from a bad one.


Again, this is not meant to be an attack on those that commit these errors. Rather, I hope that they can look at these common and dangerous mistakes with a little bit of introspection, and above all learn how to correct them and improve as professionals. At the end of the day, that’s all we can hope for!


What other things should interpreters or translators avoid? What other things make a good interpreter or translator? Leave a comment below, and check back next week for another edition of Links Interpreters Love.


–  William Cerkoney


Article Used:
https://bookmachine.org/2017/06/26/makes-good-translator/ Kathe Lieber, Betty Howell


http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/bad-translation-by-court-interpreters-injustice/ Rebecca Beitsch, PBS