What does a translator do and what skills do they use?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 6 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Translators convert written information from one language into another. These multilingual professionals transcribe documents and texts from a source language into a target language, ensuring the translation maintains the original meaning. If you speak more than one language, have excellent communication skills and enjoy writing, working as a translator may be the career for you. In this article, we ask 'What does a translator do?', discover their everyday responsibilities and find out what skills you require to work as a translator.

What does a translator do?

The work of a translator depends on the industry or sector you work in. All sorts of businesses and organisations employ translators, from multinational companies with headquarters in different cities to local doctors' surgeries, law firms, television studios and publishing companies. Translators work in many fields and their duties vary depending on the type of work they're translating.

Whichever sector you work in, your goal is to ensure that the meaning of the translated text is as similar as possible to that of the original. This means keeping the tone, structure and style of the first language while interpreting cultural expressions, slang or nuances into the target language. Typically, you translate into your native language.

Related: Translator skills: definitions and examples

What are the everyday tasks of a translator?

Translators work for a wide range of employers in many sectors, including business, education, health, science, the legal profession and technical industries. They translate books, reports, guides, articles, university research papers, marketing content, legal documents and many other forms of written material. The main duties of translators include:

  • reading original texts, documents and reports and rewriting them in the target language while maintaining the original meaning of the source language

  • meeting with clients (in person or online) to discuss the scope of the translation work they require and making sure the finished work meets their expectations

  • using specialist reference books, such as dictionaries and thesauruses, to seek the nearest equivalent for the words, expressions and terminology in the document

  • making use of translation software, such as Trados Studio, Wordfast, Transit NXT and memoQ, to translate efficiently while maintaining consistency

  • researching technical, scientific and legal phraseology to correctly match the terminology

  • consulting with experts in the industry they're working in

  • editing and proofreading translated work for the final version

  • creating subtitles for presentations, films and videos

  • providing clients with estimates of how much a translation project is going to cost and how long it may take to complete

  • familiarising themselves with standards in translation quality and ensuring they meet ethical and legal requirements

Related: Guide: What jobs with a languages degree can I do?

Working as a specialist translator

It is possible to work as a general translator using your language skills to translate for different types of businesses and companies. But understanding a topic in detail is a key requirement for a translator, so it may make more sense to specialise in one or two fields. A growing number of translators are choosing to specialise in certain areas since the expansion of online knowledge increases the challenge of keeping up to date with many different subjects.

Specialist fields include the legal, financial, medical and technology sectors, media and literary fields, the social sciences and the arts. Working as a specialised translator enables you to provide the expert knowledge clients expect. You may consider working as a specialist in the following fields:

Medical translation

This encompasses the translation of a whole range of medical documents. You may translate clinical research papers, educational materials for patients (such as information booklets about medical conditions), medical reports, books, lectures and medical notes. Working in medical translation is one of the most complex specialist areas since any translation errors may have serious consequences. Medical translators have a deep understanding of healthcare, medical procedures and the work of doctors and medical professionals.

Literary translation

Literary translators work on all types of fiction and nonfiction books, plays, short stories, graphic novels and poetry collections. Literary translators are sometimes writers themselves. They're able to create a piece of literature from the source language to the target language that keeps the same tone and stylistic devices and uses local expressions and vocabulary equivalent to that of the original text. Literary translators work for publishing and media companies and literary agents or as freelance translators.

Technical translation

Technical translators work on all types of texts produced by the manufacturing and technology industries. This may include translating handbooks, equipment manuals, operating instructions, software documentation and installation guides. Many translators in this field have a background in engineering, manufacturing or computer science.

Audiovisual translation

Audiovisual translation is a growing sector. Translators in this area work on subtitles for films, videos, conference presentations and video games. They may work for a production company, a streaming service or a media organisation producing film and videos. Translators use subtitling tools and specific software to convert visual media, such as films, adverts, videos and factual documentaries, into different languages.

Legal translation

Many people working in legal translation have some type of legal experience. Working as a legal translator involves translating legal documents, such as court and witness transcripts, legal statements, contracts, licences, patent applications, legal disclaimers and other official documents. This type of work requires meticulous attention to detail and a good understanding of the law in both the source and target languages.

Financial translation

Many financial firms require translators to convert documents for overseas markets. Banks, investment firms and financial institutions all use translators to translate financial reports, statements, newsletters, business plans, annual reports and other confidential financial documents. The translated documents are often for bank managers, accountants, financial auditors and other finance professionals.

Related: How to become an interpreter (with skills and FAQ)

What skills do you require to work as a translator?

Translators are excellent communicators. Other key translator skills include:

Fluency in at least two languages

Having fluency in at least two languages is a core skill. Some of the most popular languages that businesses and agencies request for working translators are English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and Portuguese. Being able to write and speak fluently in both languages is important.

Cultural knowledge

A deep understanding of the cultures that speak both the target and source languages is key. This enables you to translate country-specific or localised information accurately. This cultural knowledge helps you to understand the implications of certain words and the significance of colloquial language. It gives you a wider comprehension of values and cultural aspects and an understanding of local customs and idioms.

Solid writing skills

Working as a translator demands excellent writing skills to communicate in a similar voice to the original text. Not only do translators require an in-depth understanding of grammar, punctuation, tone of voice and vocabulary, they also have a good understanding of different styles of written documents. Translators enjoy reading and writing in their chosen languages and may take courses in copywriting, literary writing, marketing or other courses for specialised translation.

Computing and CAT skills

A good understanding of word processing and editing skills is important, as is a knowledge of computer-assisted translation (CAT). Here are some of the most common types of CAT software:

  • Terminology management software: This stores terminology in databases that you can access to find out how to translate verbal and written texts.

  • Language search engine software: You can use this to translate paragraphs of writing. This software searches already translated pieces of text to find blocks that are very similar to the original source text.

  • Interactive machine translation software: This automation translation tool predicts the meaning of certain words and translates it into the language you choose.

  • Translation memory software: This tool contains a database of pre-translated sentences and phrases that you can reuse automatically when translating similar content in other projects.

  • Text alignment software: This software assists with aligning a block of text in two languages. The software stores the translation so that you can use parts of it again in the future.

Interpersonal skills

Translators work with clients from different backgrounds and cultures, and being able to communicate and interact effectively is a key skill. It's important to build strong relationships with clients to gain work and to win recommendations for new projects. The ability to market yourself is also valuable if you work as a freelance translator.

Accuracy and attention to detail

Translators require great attention to detail along with excellent proofreading and editing skills. Some of the work is very specialised and sensitive, so accuracy is of great importance. Clients search for translators that they can rely on to produce precise and dependable translations.

How much do translators earn?

The national average salary for a translator is £28,029 per year. This can rise with experience and varies according to the sector and specialism you work in. The location of the company can also make a large difference in the amount of money you can take home.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌ ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

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