What makes a professional and competent translator?

Why do we need to distinguish ourselves as professional translators?

“Professional lawyer”, “professional teacher” or “professional accountant” — you simply don’t see such names of occupations preceded with the word professional. The “liberal professions” go back to the notion of artes liberales. Cicero and Seneca believed these pursuits were carried out by a free person and their learning was a necessity for any free Roman citizen. Occupations such as teacher, lawyer, master builder, architect, engineer and physician were described as “artes liberales” and the term centred on a social, moral and legal consideration of the activity at hand. Endeavours such as fieldwork or manual trade — physical undertaking and not intellectual activity — were instead seen to be as operae illiberales, because these activities represented work done by those who were not free (i.e. slaves). Being part of the artes liberales did, however, represent freedom for citizens and nobility.

When it comes to translators, the distinction between a professional and an unprofessional translator is often made. In this article, I would like to emphasise on what I perceive to be a professional translator and translation competency.

Throughout my years of working as a translator, I have had to revise a great deal of work done by other translators. To my astonishment, the quality of some work I have re-drafted as a reviewer was simply deplorable. I feel astonished at the lack of knowledge of grammar and fluency of some translators in their target languages and the fact that they are referred to as “linguists” adds insult to the injury. But how do we end up here?

Translation competency

Some of the translations I worked on were not distinguishable as human or machine translation. Some of the translations were extremely mechanical, cold and lacked any nuance that was expected in such contexts. In my opinion, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a competent translator is the abstract thinking ability to reconstruct a cohesive, coherent and fluent target text. What allows us to do this is our skills, without compromising source text connotation, by using our knowledge of metalanguage and translation expertise. When a translator is bereft of these talents, it often results in mechanical, ponderous and confusing output that is excruciating to read. The translator’s mindset and translational approach are also vitally important. If the translation task is considered purely as an ability to decipher the source text from a linguistic point of view, it will result in substandard or inferior results. The translation task doesn’t only consist of decoding the source text; it involves a more complex set of actions that embrace cultural and linguistic distinctions.

Regrettably, anyone who claims to be able to decode the meaning of text from one source language and transfer it to a target language can claim to be a translator, irrespective of their source and target language proficiency, specialist knowledge, educational background and experience as a translator.

I would like to stay on course and keep my focus on what makes a professional and competent translator, however, it’s necessary to address a relationship that I think has a crucial role in how the industry is flooded with freelance translators of all definitions. The fact that just anyone can set their pricing for translation and offer very cheap and competitive rates often attracts particular translation agencies (whatever you call them; bottom feeders, cheapskates etc.)  who always prioritise price over quality. These agencies’ translation-buying clients and the buyers’ audiences are also crucial in determining the price-quality ratio. The end users’ experience of the translation product being habitually overlooked will influence the quality of translators they choose to work with too.

In the absence of a confirmed set of rules for working with translators and accommodating price-driven translation purchasing, waters become even murkier when it comes to choosing professional translators over, let me put it this way “mechanical” translators.  The translation industry is consequently inundated with an exorbitant amount of people who claim to be freelance translators charging rock bottom prices.

When it comes to professionalism, there are many distinguishing characteristics that separate the wheat from the chaff. 

What makes a professional translator stand out from the crowd?

  • professional translators are often educated to degree or postgraduate level in translation, linguistic studies or a relevant subject
  • professional translators are proficient in their source and target languages
  • professional translators pick subject specialisms and will only work in those areas
  • professional translators invest and engage in continuing professional development (CPD) in the form of webinars or participating in events such as conferences
  • professional translators invest in at least one or more CAT tool or other relevant technology
  • professional translators consider all of the above points in their pricing and charge realistic rates
  • professional translators reflect the actual cost of living plus each individual translator’s own standard of living in their rates
  • professional translators are often a member of one or more professional organisations and are bound by their code of professional conduct

Set out below are some examples of the principles of practice set out in their code of professional conduct by Institute of Translation & Interpreting (ITI) and Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL) and the full code of professional conduct can be found here for ITI and here for CIOL.


1.      Honesty and integrity

2.     Professional competence

3.     Client confidentiality and trust

4.     Relationships with other members


1.      Professional judgement

2.     Linguistic competence

3.     Subject competence

4.     Professional competence

5.     Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

6.     Responsibilities to clients/employers

7.     Responsibilities to fellow linguists and the Chartered Institute of Linguists

8.    Responsibilities to other agencies, public bodies and society

Competent translators look at translation as a multi-dimensional task and know that translation is an act that requires knowledge of their target language, culture and specialist subjects, as well as research and creative thinking. This might be a cliché phrase to repeat, but it’s a necessary one to end this article with; yes, translation is an act that goes way beyond just encoding and transferring words from one language to another!

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