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How do I become a multilingual translator?

Writer Katharina Haberstock asks what skills a successful translator needs.

Some people think translating is as simple as replacing one word by another. But that’s a very one-sided view. In fact, there’s much more to being a successful multilingual translator.

The Ancient Greek word for translator, hermeneus, was derived from Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The verb hermeneuo means to interpret or to explain. That’s exactly what Hermes did – he mediated between the gods and humans.  As you can gather from its origin, translation has a lot to do with expounding; it’s not just transferring one word to another.

Now, how do you become a multilingual translator?

The first cornerstone of a career is most likely a general talent for foreign languages and interest in foreign cultures and alien ways of life. Only people who are sensitive enough to understand a foreign culture can be successful translators and interpreters. You should at least to some extent have a gift for languages. Besides you should have a feeling for foreign cultures. Since there are significant differences between cultures, as a good translator you should know what is customary and appropriate in the culture you’re dealing with and what is a complete no-go!

The right treatment of the target culture brings us directly to the next aspect of becoming a good translator. You should never lose sight of the audience you’re translating for. You are aware of social customs and how to deal with different settings.  Since translation has a lot to do with hitting the right spot, you have to learn to mediate between cultures. You should not only be able to use appropriate vocabulary, but you should also possess a good command of syntax, linguistics, culture and style, not only in the foreign language but also in your mother tongue.

This leads us to the next point: It’s unlikely a culturally unaware person could produce a successful translation. Universities and colleges offer a wide range of courses, where you are taught to translate. Your studies could be accompanied by a stay abroad in which you can actually speak your languages and get a feeling for the culture.

Remember, translation has to do with interpretation and understanding, and this is only possible if you live in your source culture for a period of time. At school and university you can also get a broad education, which is essential for a good translator. To be really successful, most translators choose to specialise in another field.

Of course, it’s a long route to becoming a successful multilingual translator. But globalisation has meant a growing demand for professional translators. Websites and new media are just two reasons their language skills are more important than ever before.

Hazel Mollison

Hazel Mollison edits and writes for the Lingo24 blog. After studying Italian and German at Cambridge University, she worked as a journalist for five years with regional and national newspapers. She enjoys writing about languages, translation, online marketing, and helping small businesses explore new opportunities.

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