In my experience, one of the most common misconceptions about translation is that knowing a foreign language is all it takes to be a good translator. Especially in the Netherlands, where everyone learns English in school and more and more university courses are taught in English, a lot of people seem to think that this is all it takes to become a translator. “I always read books in English,” they will say. Sounds convincing, right?

Wrong.

First of all, “knowing a foreign language” or “being fluent in a language” is very subjective. A lot of people claim to be fluent in English because they are able to read books in English or to have a successful conversation in English. But you don’t have to have a perfect grasp of the English language to read a book, as long as you get the gist of the story. And you don’t have to speak English fluently to have a successful conversation, as long as you understand each other. When it comes to translation, however, this is not enough. To be able to translate a text, you have to understand it perfectly: not just every word but every nuance in meaning, every idiom, every cultural reference, even regional slang (if you translate literature).

And that is not all.

The next step is to transfer the original message with all its nuances and references into your own mother tongue. That is a skill in itself and doesn’t come “automatically” with learning a foreign language. Even people who have been raised bilingually and speak and understand two languages perfectly aren’t necessarily good translators, because they may lack this specific skill: how to describe the message from one language in the words of another language.

That is quite a lot to ask from a translator, isn’t it? But we are not there just yet.

Just putting a message into words (which is often already hard enough!) is not good enough when you are translating, especially when it comes to more creative texts, such as advertising material or literature. The text needs to be attractive too; after all, you want people to read it. If you are going to advertise a product, you don’t want your potential clients to get bored after a few sentences and forget about your product altogether. And people who buy a novel usually want more than just a story, they want to be dragged into that story. To achieve that, a translator needs excellent writing skills to be able to produce a translation that is just as compelling as the original, using the right style and tone of voice for the intended target audience.

There are of course other skills a good translator should have, such as specialising in a specific subject area, but in my opinion these are the three basic skills: an excellent command of the foreign language, the ability to translate the message into your own language, and excellent writing skills.

Who knew translation could be so complicated?