Missing the forest for the trees: What PMs Look at –and what they overlook

the forest behind the tree-ed

I’ve been reading article after article about what PMs look for in a translator. It seems to be something everyone wants to write about these days, so I’m just going to go ahead and join in the conversation. These articles contain lists of qualities that PMs supposedly pay special attention to when choosing a translator. The lists vary, but they all agree on at least five essential qualities:

  1. Knowledge of source and target language

  2. Ability to meet deadlines

  3. Strong professional ethics

  4. Knowledge of CAT tools

  5. Personality traits that make you awesome –and, thus, make everyone magically want to work with you

Some articles also mention rates, others avoid the topic altogether. But rates are not really what I want to focus on, so let’s move on. What I do want to focus on is one trait that, to me, is simply imperative when outsourcing work to other translators, and which was surprisingly left out of at least 20 what-PMs-look-for articles. And that trait is… (drum roll, please) “profound knowledge of the subject at hand” (ta-da!). It’s almost painfully obvious, isn’t it?

There is one thing I’d like to clarify: when I say “profound knowledge of the subject at hand,” I don’t just mean knowing words and technical jargon. These articles mention that; but focusing on vocabulary and jargon is missing the forest for the trees. What I’m talking about is real knowledge of the subject matter itself, as an object of study in ontological terms. Allow me to clarify with a brief example: Imagine you’re a legal translator like me, but you’re not a lawyer, you’re a translator who specializes in legal translation (which is absolutely fine, by the way, you can be a perfectly good legal translator without being a lawyer). There’s something you’re going to need to render excellent legal translation services beyond knowledge of legal terms and contexts or excellent command of certain areas of law. What you’re going to need is profound understanding of both your source and target legal systems to truly capture all the underlying conceptual nuances contained in the author’s words. If you’re a lawyer, this might be easier for you. If you’re not, then in addition to legal vocabulary, you’ll also need to learn about, and understand, Law as an object of study. Otherwise, you may know the language, but if you’re not familiar with the system (or in the case of jurisprudence, the authors to which your author is referring), a lot will get unnecessarily lost in translation.

Now, I’m not suggesting that only lawyers can translate legal texts well, and I’m certainly not trying to extrapolate that to any other area of specialization. What I am trying to say is that specialization is not enough if by “specializing” you mean learning what things are often called by other translators in your field. And when PMs are looking for specialized translators, what they should be looking at are objective indicators that the linguist has managed to acquire knowledge beyond the usual course in vocabulary and translation. The easiest and most obvious indicators are experience and/or education in the field. But I’m sure a good PM will be able to figure out more ways to assess their linguists –and for the sake of readers everywhere, I hope they do! There is nothing more frustrating than having to read a poorly translated text where the translator is knowledgeable of words, but clueless of meaning!

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