Translation as language practice

A translator puts a text written in one language (the source language) into another language (the target language) in such a way that the message remains the same. The skill of translation lies in retaining all elements of the message while formulating the text in such a way that it sounds like an original in the target language.


Specialist fields of translation

The following are some of the most common types or fields of translation:

  • Technical translation: Documents of a technical or scientific nature for multinational companies, research bodies and government departments
  • Service translation: Translation for organisational purposes, such as corporate publications, business documentation, annual reports, legislation and government documentation
  • Commercial translation: Financial texts and legal documents for the banking sector, the commercial and industrial sectors and government departments
  • Media translation: Press material for a variety of newspaper and magazine concerns as well as government departments
  • Literary translation: Novels, children's books and non-fiction literature; this is generally considered to be a highly demanding discipline because of the artistic touch that is needed
  • Advertising translation: Advertisements for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, etc. – likewise a very demanding discipline because of the creative work involved
  • Television translation: Mainly television plays, but also documentary programmes
  • Sworn translation: Documents for official or legal purposes (see the page on sworn translation)


Prospects for translators

At present the primary need locally is for translators between the official languages. The demand for translation in the official indigenous languages is growing. The need for translation in European languages such as German, French, Portuguese and Russian is changing as South Africa's stature in the international arena grows.


The state is one of the main employers of translators in South Africa, through the National Language Service, the SA National Defence Force, Parliament, the Department of Justice and the provincial governments. In the private sector banks, insurance companies, multinational companies (such as oil, computer and pharmaceutical companies), publishing firms, trade unions and translation agencies make use of translation services.


Becoming a translator


Key characteristics of translators

Good translators have the following characteristics:

  • An outstanding command of the target language (preferably the translator's mother tongue), so as to produce a translation in an appropriate style and in idiomatically and grammatically faultless language
  • A thorough knowledge of the source language, so that the translation conveys the same message as that contained in the source text
  • Knowledge of the relevant field of specialisation (e.g. law, medicine, agriculture, etc.) to ensure a grasp of the subject matter of a text
  • A sound general knowledge
  • Application to detail (e.g. doing research to find the right term or turn of phrase; factual accuracy; layout of the source text)


Good translators have all the abilities and qualities mentioned above, and also keep learning about their areas of specialisation, stay up to date on developments in the languages in which they work, have a broad general knowledge and keep abreast of general affairs in politics, economics, sport, etc. They improve their skills in any way possible by reading widely, attending seminars related to their profession, and acquiring and using as many resources as possible.


Tips for new or beginner translators

The ability to translate well improves with experience and training. If you walk into a good translator’s office or study, you will find rows and piles of dictionaries and books on all manner of subjects. Also keep these four points in mind:

  • Make notes of what you learn as you go along
  • Organise your notes on the computer or in files
  • Always pay attention to detail
  • Seek out and use new resources


Remember, good translators remain fascinated by words and what they mean and how you can use language to achieve different things.



Would-be translators with no tertiary qualifications should study a BA degree with one or more official languages as major subjects. Subjects like economics, political science and history are also useful. Aspirant translators may also enrol for shorter courses in translation studies or related subjects at various universities.


Practical in-service training is a very important aspect of the training of new translators. In big translation offices this is undertaken by experienced and qualified members of staff. Freelance language practitioners would do well to work with a mentor to help them gain the necessary experience.


Some employers require a pass in an internal translation examination in order to be appointed as a translator.


Go to the Training page for details of language practice training in South Africa.


Translation versus interpreting

Written translating and interpreting require different skills: translators can take their time to think about the best word or phrase, but interpreters have to understand and respond almost immediately. Translators are not necessarily successful interpreters, and vice versa, but as each profession requires specialised skills and training.


More information

Use the link below to download information in pdf format.




Translation as a career (24548 bytes)




 < The Profession

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