As a translator, you are only as good as your language. If you aren’t very good at your source language, then you’re not going to last long as a translator.
Luckily, you can do things to increase your source language skills, including 17 way to improve your second language.
But your source language is not the only thing that you should focus on.
When I was just learning the art of translation, 100% of my focus was on becoming more and more proficient in Spanish, my source language.
I took Spanish classes, immersed myself in the language, read books, and studied all things Spanish.
But at the same time, I neglected my English.
I didn’t read anything.
No boring school textbooks.
Not even an English-language newspaper.
My whole focus was on perfecting my Spanish.
And that worked out great, until it didn’t.
Because it wasn’t until I started getting freelance translation jobs that I realized that knowing English (my source language) at a high level was just as important as knowing my target language.
One of the first jobs I ever had was a request to translate a Peruvian high school transcript from Spanish to English.
While it may not seem like it should have been a difficult translation on the surface, after I started it I soon realized that there were some words I wasn’t sure of.
I had to look up some words that I should have known, especially if I had been paying more attention to my own native language.
This is just one little anecdote. But I’ve seen this repeated over and over with other translators who tend to focus on only improving their second or third language at the detriment of their first or native language.
Why You Should Improve Your Source Language
Improving your native language is critical as a translator. Here’s why:
Your translations will be better
It’s a given. The more extensive your native language vocabulary is, the better your translations will be.
You won’t be so repetitive in your word choice.
You’ll understand the subtleties in the language and how they match up more closely with words in your source language.
And you’ll be able to match the register in your translation with the register of the source language material.
If you don’t have a good command of your target language, you won’t be able to do any of these things.
And even if you try, your translations will take three times as long because you’ll be looking up every other word in a dictionary or thesaurus.
You will translate faster
Which leads me to this. Knowing your target language better will definitely increase your translation speed.
And translation speed is one of the most critical things you can learn that will directly improve your hourly rate.
Remember, if you can only translate 100 words per hour because you’re spending too much time trying to find the right word in your target language, you’re wasting too much time.
You’ll never make freelance translation work as a career for you because you won’t be able to make enough per hour.
At $0.10 a word, you’re only pulling in $10 an hour.
That’s barely minimum wage in some places.
But if you can increase your translation rate to 200 or even 300 words per hour, then you’ve just doubled or even tripled your rate per hour for the same amount of time.
That’s where you want to be.
And the way you do that is by improving your vocabulary and broadening your subject expertise.
You can take on different types of jobs
Which leads to number three. The more you know about the world and the way things work, the more confident you’ll be in accepting jobs that might fall outside your specific areas of specialty.
Say you don’t have a degree in biology but you are well-read on the subject.
Would it be that much of a stretch to accept a translation job on a biology-related subject?
I don’t think so.
The more well-read you are, the more you’ll be able to accept jobs that might be outside your immediate specialty area.
You can offer more than just translations
Finally, improving your native language or target language can have a dramatic impact on yourself outside the narrow world of translation.
Think about it.
If English is your native language and you become proficient in it, you’ll be able to do much more than translate.
You can use your skills and abilities in English to write for business, to proofread, or to create website copy, just to name a few.
Improving your English (or whatever your target language is) will open doors for you that might not otherwise be open.
If you just want to translate, that’s fine.
But if you’re looking to maximize your potential, don’t forget that you language skills can be parlayed into something beyond just mere translation work.
OK, so now that you’re convinced that it’s a good idea to improve your target language, let’s talk about how to go about doing that.
Most people think that they don’t need to constantly work on improving their source language because they were born speaking it.
But that’s like saying that a professional runner doesn’t need to work on running because they were born with the ability to run.
You know as well as I do that if you want to be a good runner, you’d better practice running.
Same thing with language.
If you want to be a professional language ninja, you’d better put in the time to get the results you’re after.
So what should you do?
The first thing to do is decide on what you want to accomplish by improving your target language.
Do you want to become a faster translator?
Maybe you want to become more well-rounded in your general knowledge.
Or maybe you want to improve your language so that you can branch out into other areas of language and writing.
Once you decide why you want to improve, then it’s time to decide how to go about doing that.
4 Ways to Improve Your Target Language
1. Read above your pay grade
Most newspapers are written at a seventh or ninth grade reading level.
That’s fine for the masses. But solely reading at that level will neither challenge nor improve your target language capability.
If you want to improve, you have to exercise that part of your brain that reads and understands texts.
If you continue to read what is already easy to understand and digest, you won’t improve.
So don’t limit yourself to newspapers and newsstand magazines.
Instead, make a concerted effort to read books, magazines, and websites that rank higher on a readability scale.
One popular scale you can use is called the Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level scale.
First, find a website that will calculate a Flesh-Kincaid score.
I used readability-score.com for this.
You can input any URL into the search bar.
Hit “Calculate Score” and then you’ll get a readout on the right-hand side of the page with the relevant readability grade level score.
The higher the score, the more difficult the text.
Putting in the URL for various news sites has the following scores:
So here’s the deal.
If you want to become more well read, improve your native language vocabulary, and become a better translator, stop reading the same old news sites.
Read people who write well.
2. Write in your native language
Speaking of writing well, nothing will help you improve your language abilities better than sitting down and organizing your thoughts on the computer screen.
Writing isn’t hard but it does take practice.
When was the last time you actually sat down and wrote something original from your own brain?
Or is the extent of your writing limited to your translations?
If so, it’s time to spend at least a few minutes a day putting your thoughts down.
It doesn’t have to be formal. But it should be something that you focus on for a set time every day.
The more you do it, the better you’ll become at expressing yourself in your native language. And the better you become at expressing yourself in your native language, the more enriched your vocabulary will become.
This will help you become a better translator.
3. Practice speaking to yourself
Have you ever heard yourself speak?
If you’re like most people, you have and you don’t like it.
You sound weird. You don’t sound like yourself. And you want it to stop.
But talking to yourself out loud can do more than just make you look like a crazy person to the girl in the car next to you.
It can actually strengthen language skills that can aid in translation.
Speaking (especially the impromptu kind) is all about quick recall and production. If you have to think about every word you utter, you’re going to be a very… boring… conversationalist…
And I would posit that the slower you are at being able to speak on a different subjects, the slower you’ll be at being able to recall relevant vocabulary and phrases you’ll need in your translation work.
The more you practice speaking, which you can do with just yourself, the faster you’ll become at recalling native language vocabulary not only when speaking but also when writing and translating.
I’ve done this myself and have seen my own translation speed and fluency increase.
Here’s what I did.
I decided that for 30 days, every time I drove the car by myself, I would talk out loud about some aspect of triathlon racing.
At that time I was big into triathlons and was learning and racing and training every day.
So every time I got in the car, I talked to myself (out loud) about everything related to triathlons. I talked about training schedules, race fees, impact of the weather on my mental strength. You name it, I talked about it.
And guess what?
At the end of those 30 days, I could talk to anyone about anything related to the sport of triathlon.
And if someone has asked me to to do a translation on anything about the sport, I not only could have done it easily, but would have been able to finish it much faster than if I had been asked to do the job before I started the 30 days.
4. Read a variety of material
If you want to improve your target language, reading at a higher grade level will definitely help. But one of the most important things you can do to increase fluency in your native language is to read a wide range of material.
Don’t limit yourself to things you’re interested in or subjects you already know about.
You’re already fluent in that area.
Broaden your knowledge by reading something you know nothing about.
There are a couple of easy ways to do this.
Most magazines are crap. That’s the truth.
But the good thing about them is that there are magazines on thousands of different topics. If you can find magazines for free (or using airline miles) they can be a good source of knowledge.
Just stay away from the super crappy magazines that provide no knowledge. Any magazine that focuses on celebrity “news” fits into this category.
Instead, stick with financial, science, or hobby-specific magazines that will improve your knowledge of the world.
You don’t have to agree with the magazines. You’re just using them to improve your knowledge of your native language.
b) Blogs & Newspapers
Magazines cost money.
If you want an easy way to expand your native language vocabulary and your knowledge of the world in general, spend some time reading blogs.
The worst thing about blogs is that there are so many of them that are really terrible.
So you’ll have to spend some time finding ones that are worth your time.
Remember, don’t just read blogs that only tell you what you already know. Instead, branch out.
Read about topics you know nothing about. That’s the only way you’ll learn and grow.
I don’t care whether you like Donald Trump or not, but he’s successful. One of the reasons why is because he reads every day:
I start each day very early in the morning by reading newspapers. I do not read with any particular goal in mind except to satisfy my thirst for knowledge. I read widely on many topics, not just about business, but for the fun of learning interesting new things. – Donald Trump in Think Big and Kick Ass
If you want to be better, you have to actually do things that will make you better.
Do these four things and you’ll see your native language ability increase, which will lead to a more successful freelance translation business.