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What makes a good translator?

Freelance copywriter
A good translator is always a good writer

What makes a good translator?

Whenever I tell people I that I run a translation business, I invariably get one of two responses: that Google translate is about to put me out of business (which I don’t think it will, but more on that in another article), or that they know someone who speaks a little French, and would I be interested in giving them a some work from time to time? At this point I instinctively want to ask one simple question, and it has nothing to do with how well they know their passé composé. In fact – and this is what it really boils down to – I want to know how well they write in their native language.

As the old adage goes, knowing two languages doesn’t make you a translator any more than having two hands makes you a concert pianist. In fact, of the hundreds of freelancer applications we receive from every corner of the globe, and of the hundreds of translation tests that we review, the reason we accept fewer than 10% has little to do with accuracy, but much to do with how well written the target text is. After all, anyone with enough time and the right resources could theoretically pick up a dictionary (or plug a text into Google) and work out what something means. The key is working out how to eloquently convey this meaning in their native language, particularly if there are no obvious equivalents of certain words or phrases.

The first rule of translation

For decades, many in the translation industry have argued for and against the “mother-tongue principle” as the first rule of translation. But while being native does help, I don’t agree that this is the first rule, for the same reason that I’ve alluded to above. That is, being mother-tongue doesn’t naturally make you a good writer, and therefore doesn’t make you a good translator. Tony Parr, a professional translator writing for the ATA, carried out an experiment comparing translations by native English speakers with those of non-native, Dutch speakers. He asked four translators (two whose first language was English and two whose first language was Dutch) to translate a 300-word text from Dutch into English, and had the translations scored by a panel of translation buyers and a panel of language professionals. Interestingly, the translation with the lowest score was done by a native English speaker, while the highest scoring translation was done by a Dutch speaker. So, what does this tell us? That non-natives are able produce better quality translations? Not at all. It simply proves the point that being native – or even knowing two or more languages – doesn’t automatically make you a good translator.  The number one rule must surely therefore be that a translator write well in their native language.

What else?

So having identified the number one rule, what other skills should you look out for if you want to become, or are looking for, a reliable translator?


A good translator will understand that meeting deadlines is crucial. Clients often have their own deadlines and workflows that need to be followed in order to satisfy their own clients. Even a minor delay can have costly repercussions. And in the case of long-term projects, regular progress updates can be very useful.


A good translator can’t be all things to all men, so specialising in a maximum of two or three subjects is the best way to stand out from the translation crowd. This means being disciplined, particularly when tempted by project offers in subject-areas outside your area of expertise. Taking on such projects will only prove costly in terms of time and may even have a negative impact on your reputation if you start making mistakes. Working in just two or three subject areas will not only make you more efficient in terms of translation speed and accuracy but will also be more appealing to potential clients.


A good translator will also be highly professional. This means being courteous and responsive when communicating, and not divulging confidential information to which they may be privy, whether or not an NDA has been signed.

An avid reader

A good translator will take an interest in a wide range of subjects to keep abreast of current affairs, technological trends, cultural shifts and anything else that may affect their work, especially their areas of specialisation. Reading also helps to maintain an instinctive grasp of your native language, which can suffer when you read too much of a foreign language.

The ability to research

Very few translations require no research at all. In fact, I view each project that I undertake as an opportunity to learn about something completely new. And because the world is evolving so quickly, words and expressions are being invented and reinvented on a daily basis, making the ability to do in-depth research even more important.

Here at Keytext, we’re relentless in our search for excellent translators and copywriters. If you want to effectively communicate your message and share your brand with other cultures, why not get in touch?

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