The Age of the T-Shaped Translator Is Upon Us

The Age of the T-Shaped Translator Is Upon Us

Though the concept of T-shaped individuals arose in the 1990s, it has become more prominent lately, particularly within the marketing industry.

As you may already know, it refers not to how people actually look, but to their skill sets – with the vertical line representing deep expertise in one or very few fields, and the horizontal bar indicating some knowledge of other fields.

So, T-shaped individuals are not solely specialists in single subjects, oblivious to the rest of the world. Yet nor are they the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Instead, they are more rounded individuals.

This might seem a somewhat flimsy, trendy concept, the kind appealing to hipster marketers who use it for beguiling blog posts (did you see what I did there?!). But there is value in it, too – including when you consider what to look for in a modern translator.

More than just walking dictionaries

On the face of it, translators are people who take words arranged in one language, and transform them to their equivalents in another language, ordering them according to the target language’s rules.

Perhaps this appears a simple task, albeit somewhat time consuming and requiring an excellent memory if the translator is not constantly referring to a dictionary. But if you’ve tried using machine translation, such as via Google Translate, you will appreciate there is far more involved in translating all but the simplest text.

A good translator indeed needs to be “T-shaped”, with deep expertise in translating and closely related skills, allied to a range of other abilities that vary according to the text he or she is working on. Nowadays, those other abilities are increasingly linked to information technology and marketing.

Deep skills for translators

Of course, the prime skill of a translator is to take text in the source language, and transform it to equivalent text in the target language. No matter what the subject is, this requires several closely interconnected skills.

Excellence in mother tongue

Typically, translators’ work centres on their mother tongue, which in turn requires a thorough knowledge of and expert ability to use their native language.

A skilled translator should be a good or outstanding writer, thoroughly grounded in aspects such as grammar, style, spelling and vocabulary. Strong knowledge of variants of a language help too – such as the differences in British and American English, which extend beyond spelling words like colour in the former and color in American, to using words such as pavement in Britain, sidewalk in the US.

Near native competence in foreign languages

Ideally, a translator would be equally skilled in the foreign language(s) he or she specialises in. In practice, this is rare, given the immersion in a language required to know it thoroughly. But even when an editor will polish a translation, it should be well written, and readily understood.


There are instances when directly translating a sentence – or entire paragraphs – results in text that might seem strange or give the wrong impression to readers. This is one key area where a skilled translator can really demonstrate their value, by applying transcreation: reflecting on the text and writing a translation that is not a mere word for word transformation, but readily conveys the original key meanings and nuances.


A translator should be keen on attention to detail, noticing apostrophes in wrong places and other grammatical glitches. This helps too when there is a need to follow style guides, which might specify favoured words, spellings, abbreviations and so forth.

Thorough in specialism

Translators often specialise in certain fields. Doing so requires a strong grounding in the subject, spanning understanding concepts, familiarity with jargon, and ability to write in the typical style – such as formal prose for legal text, and the more buoyant approach of marketing copywriting.

Speed and efficiency

While efficiency has surely always been important for translators, today’s business world can be highly demanding regarding quick turnarounds and tight deadlines. This in turn means that translators should be able to work swiftly, yet without rushing, so their translations are completed on time, while being well written and accurate.


At times, translators will be asked to work on subjects outside their areas of expertise, which may require them to learn and process new information in order to ensure the translations are as authoritative as the original text.


Good translators should also enjoy discovering new information, on topics ranging from the languages they specialise in to the world at large. They apply the principle of lifelong learning, always expanding the horizontal bar of the “T”, and in doing so becoming more sought after by companies aiming for the highest standards in translation.

Broad skills to suit assignments

The broad skills for the horizontal bar of a T-shaped translator is far more variable, and the ideal skills set will depend on the assignments. For translators covering a wide range of topics, these skills encompass general knowledge in a very broad sense. Yet at TranslateMedia, our projects often involve at least some degree of information technology coupled with brand promotions, and we find the following are among the skills required.

Branding awareness

Translators should be familiar with concepts related to branding – how companies distinguish themselves and their products. This helps retain brand identity in translating from one language to another.

Digital communications

Nowadays, translators must be skilled at using computers – competent with word processing and other software, and able to type quickly. They discuss projects with clients using many channels such as phone conversations, email, and video calls, and should have a good working knowledge of using all of these.

However, these are considered to be basic computing skills and translators that have more in depth knowledge of digital communications are more likely to receive work for translating digital campaigns.

So, translators increasingly need to know more about search engine optimisation, pay-per-click marketing, email marketing, affiliates and display advertising as clients in many different business sectors are increasingly relying on digital marketing to get their message across to global audiences.

Web design and development

Much of the work that translators are currently undertaking relates to the translation of content for multi-lingual websites. In many cases the source files are provided in HTML, XML or even SQL format.

So understanding the technology behind websites as well as design principles relating to cultural preferences in the target market can really make a translator stand out from the crowd.

Similarly, a deep understanding of user experience (UX) methodologies, best practices and user interaction preferences are key to developing easy to use, rich, interactive online experiences across the various devices and platforms used in the target country and language.


Are you a T-shaped translator? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Register as a translator on our online portal.

Written by Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf Bhana
Yusuf is Head of Digital at TranslateMedia. He has an interest in how technology can help businesses achieve their marketing objectives. He's been working in digital marketing and web development since 2001 across a wide range of industries and clients.

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