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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?


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?

Read my article How to Spice Up Your Translation in the latest issue of the ATA Chronicle.

I was recently interviewed by Tess Whitty from Marketing Tips for Translators about a presentation I held at the 56th Annual ATA Conference in Miami last November. The subject of my presentation was how to improve your writing skills because, as translators, we are expected to do more than just convey the meaning of a text into another language, we also have to be excellent writers. In the interview, I talk about some of the methods that I have worked for me, both in improving my writing skills and in marketing my services.

Listen to the interview.

In our efforts to keep up with a language that is not our own, we sometimes forget to take care of our native language, something which is particularly important if you no longer live in your native country. Depending on your native language and the country you have moved to, you may have to go the extra mile to keep up with your native language.

It is probably easier for people whose native language is English or another major language, because they will always find ways to listen to their language, but it is much more difficult if your native language is rarely spoken outside of your native country. I can imagine, for example, that it is fairly easy for a native speaker of English to keep up their native language in my country, the Netherlands, because we have plenty of access to TV and radio channels, newspapers and magazines, journals and books in English. If, however, I would decide to move to the UK or the US, it would be a lot harder for me to find sources in Dutch.

Also, it may be less of a problem if you mainly translate highly technical texts with their own language and terminology, which you can keep up with by reading specialized journals. But being up-to-date with your native language is essential if you translate more creative texts.

There are several problems which can arise if you don’t keep up your native language. For one, language changes all the time: new words are created, other words are no longer used. Spelling sometimes changes. And then there’s the problem of the target language interfering with the native language. When people have lived in another country for a while and don’t get the chance to hear their own native language on a regular basis, their second language tends to interfere with their native language. The result: translations that are too literal and read like translations, rather than a text written by a native speaker.

How to keep up with your native language
Here are a couple of tips to help you keep up with your native language:

  • If possible, try to watch TV channels from your native country, preferably programmes such as talk shows. They will help you keep up-to-date with the latest news and developments and the latest language use. If you do not have access to TV channels, try the internet; many TV channels make their programmes available on the internet. If you can’t find a way to watch TV programmes, watch DVDs of recent films or TV series. DVDs can easily be ordered online.
  • Listen to radio shows from your native country. This is very easy to do these days via sites such as, which allow you to listen to digital radio stations from all over the world.
  • Read in your native language. Not just journals and articles on the subjects you specialize in, but anything from newspapers and magazines to contemporary literature. There are plenty of (free) online newspapers and magazines to be found on the internet and books can be ordered online, or you might even be able to get them from a local bookshop or library if your language isn’t too “obscure” in the country you live in.
  • Use websites of businesses, organisations or the government in your native country as a reference. They can be especially useful if you want to keep up with the kind of language and tone of voice used for a specific target audience (e.g. informal language for a young audience, more formal language for a wide audience).
  • Visit your native country on a regular basis, preferably once a year. That is the only way to “soak up” everyday life and notice what has changed, both in society in general and in the language. And of course to speak your native language.

All these tips can, of course, also be used to keep up with your source language!

Newspapers at a newsagent in the Netherlands: available in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Polish, Russian and Chinese

Some clients may ask you to “transcreate” (or “adapt”) a text rather than simply translating it. But what is transcreation?

Transcreation basically means recreating a text for the target audience, in other words “translating” and “recreating” the text. Hence the term “transcreation”. Transcreation is used to make sure that the target text is the same as the source text in every aspect: the message it conveys, style, the images and emotions it evokes and its cultural background. You could say that transcreation is to translation what copywriting is to writing.

One could argue that any translation job is a transcreation job, since a good translation should always try to reflect all these aspects of the source text. This is of course true. But some types of texts require a higher level of transcreation than others. A technical text, for example, will usually not contain many emotions and cultural references and its linguistic style will usually not be very challenging. However, marketing and advertising copy, which is the type of copy to which the term transcreation is usually applied, does contain all these different aspects, making it difficult to create a direct translation. Translating these texts therefore requires a lot of creativity.

Required skills
In addition to creativity, a transcreator should also have an excellent knowledge of both the source language and the target language, a thorough knowledge of cultural backgrounds and be familiar with the product being advertised and be able to write about it enthusiastically. In addition, it certainly helps if the transcreator can handle stress and is flexible, since the advertising world is a fast-paced world and deadlines and source texts tend to change frequently.

Types of texts
Types of texts offered for transcreation vary from websites, brochures and TV and radio commercials aimed at end clients, to posters and flyers for resellers. They could be about any consumer product: digital cameras, airlines, food and drink, clothing and shoes, and financial products. Transcreators are often required to deliver two or three alternative translations, especially for taglines, and a back translation, to help the end client, who typically does not understand the target language, get an idea of what the translated text sounds like. Transcreators are also expected to provide cultural advice: they should tell the end client when a specific translation or image does not work for the target audience.

What makes transcreation difficult?
In addition to the difficulties posed by creating a target text containing all the aspects of the source text (message, style, images and emotions, cultural background), marketing and advertising copy often poses other difficulties for the transcreator as well. Taglines, for example, often contain puns or references to imagery used by the company. They tend to be incorporated in a logo or image, with limited space and a fixed layout for the text. In addition, they are often used for multiple target groups: not just consumers, but also resellers and stakeholders, which means the text should appeal to all of them.

About this weblog

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture
-Anthony Burgess

To know another’s language and not his culture is a very good way to make a fluent fool of yourself
-Winston Brembeck


© 2006-2022 Percy Balemans
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