What does a translator do in an international working context?

by Anthie Kyriakopoulou

The answer is rather obvious: a translator in an international working context translates, just like in any other working context. The main tasks of a translator, as listed for example in a job description, would correspond to the translator’s hard skills, meaning the skills acquired through formal education. Such a job description can be more or less specific, calling for a translator with proven professional experience of several years in the field of translation, specialising in a specific area (e.g. law or medicine), in a specific language combination, or in a specific long-lasting project. A translator may also be required to perform other related hard-skill tasks, such as editing, proofreading or reviewing translated texts. We can roughly say that the hard skill set corresponds to the ‘what’ of the translation process.

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But as we all know and have experienced by now, hard skills alone are not enough to successfully complete a translation job or pursue a fulfilling career as a professional translator. In parallel with the hard skills, translators progressively develop another equally important set of skills corresponding to the ‘how’ of the translation process: a set of soft skills. These soft skills are not easy to define and measure, but they may prove to be a secret weapon.

Let’s go through some of the soft skills developed by translators. The list provided below is not exhaustive, you can add as many as you wish according to your personal experience. All list items should be potential answers to the question now shifted from the translator’s ‘what’ to the translator’s ‘how’: how do translators get things done in an international (or other) working context?

Tolerating stress and working efficiently under pressure – We all know how challenging and stressful it can be to work against a tight deadline. And most of the deadlines translators are facing are tight. This means that stressful working conditions become a translator’s everyday life. Translators either develop skills to tolerate and manage their daily work-related stress or… end up taking depression treatment!

Managing time – One of the ways to manage and tolerate stress is good time management, which brings us to another invaluable soft skill developed by translators. Good time management will allow you to finish your scheduled translation task on time and meet your tight deadline, while you will also make room for preparing a good meal for yourself and reserve a time slot for your meditation or yoga practice or whatever helps you recharge your batteries. In other words, it will help you take care of your wellbeing. Good time management can significantly improve your work-life balance and ultimately contribute to preserving your physical and mental health.

Being resilient and able to prioritise – This is another extremely useful soft skill developed by translators. They might be in the middle of translating a complex technical text when they receive another request for another project for yet another customer. They must find a way to deal with this, too, and give an answer before their deadline for the complex technical text expires. Or they might have to interrupt their current translation job to deal with a more urgent one and then go back to their first task. First things first, by getting priorities right and by having a quick response time to difficult conditions.

Paying attention to detail without losing sight of the big picture – Make sure that no part of the original text has been left untranslated, ensure consistency of terminology and spelling throughout the translated text, make sure that all instructions and guidelines provided by the project manager or the client have been followed, verify there are no formatting issues… the list is long and consists of numerous aspects and tiny bits that require an eye for detail without compromising the overall picture of the final product.

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Solving problems – all kinds of problems! Connectivity problems, software problems, CAT-tool related problems, technical problems, terminology problems, language problems, incompatibility problems. In some cases, problem-solving requires not only previously owned knowledge and expertise, but also a high level of creative thinking, which could be another standalone soft skill developed by translators.

Working well in a team – Translators often work on their own and organise their workload autonomously. But as often as not, they may need to work in teams, for instance when they are assigned a large translation project by their project manager or their client involving more than one translators. They join forces, cooperate and work in sync with their peers to achieve the best possible result, while also sharing their knowledge and experience of any digital tools they might have to use within the framework of their joint project.

Communicating well – Under such circumstances, they also learn how to communicate well. With their peers, with their project managers, with their clients. They have to be able to communicate well in order to document their term choices, explain the specifics of their projects and provide feedback if requested to do so. They have to be able to use their communication skills effectively when it comes to negotiating rates and deadlines.

As I said, these are only a few examples of soft skills that can be found in a translator’s wide portfolio of skills. Some of them are part of the so-called 21st century skills. Some of them are part of the skills most frequently requested by employers. And in my view, some or most of them contribute to the creation of a flexible profile.

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What do I mean by this? A flexible translator’s profile enriched with a good set of soft skills can evolve to building more professional profiles useful in international or other working contexts, which of course will have to be complemented with the respective hard skills. Your acquired soft skills though will guarantee a good background and a good starting point leading you halfway through. In these new professional profiles, translating can shift from being a hard to being a soft skill. Choosing how to play your cards and how to adapt your mix of skills will be up to you and will create your unique profile. For example, as an administrative assistant you might be requested to provide your head of department with informal translations on a daily basis; or you might be requested to review a text in one of your working languages; or draft content to be published in various languages; or perform an editing task sticking to the rules of a specific style guide. Another option would be to develop a writing or research/documentation hard-skill profile largely based on some of the soft skills you have developed as a translator. The mix of your hard and soft skills may vary to respond to different job requirements and match different job profiles.

Soft skills are essential skills and they can nowadays make a difference. As Peter Drucker said, “The only skill that will be important in the 21st century is the skill of learning new skills. Everything else will become obsolete over time.” In my view, ‘learning new skills’ is an essential soft skill itself. It is a potential reply to the above ‘how’ question and can be very dear to a translator’s heart.


About the author

Anthie Kyriakopoulou studied translation at the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting of the Ionian University. She graduated from the MA in Language and Communication Sciences of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and is a holder of a PhD in Computational Linguistics from the Université Paris-Est. Her working languages are English, French, Italian and Spanish. She had been working as a translator for over ten years and is currently working as an employee in international organisations. Her work interests and responsibilities include translating, coordinating and editing published material, online content writing and management, organising conferences, managing documents and information, data mining and AI applications. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and writing, long-distance running, swimming, travelling, painting and cooking.

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