Summary: To find a good translator you must recognize that translating is complex. You can choose from, good, fast, cheap. But only two.
What is a good translation?
Before we get to how to find a good translator we should probably talk about constitutes a good translation. We can probably all agree that it is not a word-for-word exchange from the source language to the target language. It has to convey the meaning and reproduce the tone of the original in a way that sounds natural to the target audience. The minimum requirements are accuracy, good grammar, correct spelling, and ease of understanding. Exceptions to these rules exist in the case of translating slang or other non-standard language but we’ll touch on that later.
Types of translations
The variety of translation types is infinite and is as broad and deep as all of the human knowledge. In spite of that grandiose thought, we can point to a few typical areas of translations types. Business, marketing, legal, medical, financial, literary are some common ones.
What is a good translator?
A good translator is someone with a strong command of both the target and source languages and someone who understands both cultures. As I noted earlier, a good translation is not the act of decoding individual words or even individual phrases. It happens in a cultural context
In a recent NewYork Times article on translating the lyrics (or libretto) of the opera Porgy and Bess, the translators had many requirements that defined what a successful translation should be. For starters, the source language is idiomatic English referred to as “Negro dialect”. One of the problems with this dialect is that it was written by two white men, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, and its legitimacy has been questioned. But the task of translating this, or any other dialect in a theatrical work or elsewhere, remains the same. There’s the need to remain faithful to the original work by recreating the feel, having a comparable use of slang, and of idioms. In the case of song lyrics, judgment calls have to be made as to when to try to keep lyric rhyming and countless other decisions including the technical requirements of the singers. Add to that the fact that the Met Opera screens (on the backs of the seats) can display only 72 characters at a time. If you’ve gotten this far in thinking about the process of translation you’ll find these articles fascinating:
Of course, not all translations have this many elements to balance but each type of translation can have its own domain-specific terms or buzzwords. For example, we might need to recreate hiring a ‘coding nina’ to build a website that ‘captures mindshare’ that at the ‘end of the day ramps up sales’. A good translator will handle this gracefully into the target language.
How to find a good translator
Use a translator who is a native speaker of the target language. That person will provide you with a translation that will sound natural to other native speakers. They are your audience.
Look for a translator with a reputable client list. This list should not only contain known brands but also have some clients who are relevant to your needs. If you need a legal document or marketing document translated then that the translator or translation company should be able to demonstrate they have done that type of translation work.
Look for qualifications. While a degree in translating is not a guarantee of quality it is one indicator that should be considered. On the other hand, a non-degreed translator with 20 years of experience and an excellent client list might end up being a better bet.
A final thought
It is one of life’s immutable rules that you can get only two of these three things at once: fast, good, and cheap.
You get what you pay for.
Watch this humorous take on translating lyrics