Seven ways to improve your source-language proficiency

If you’re able to make a living as a translator then you’ve obviously already reached a relatively high level of source-language proficiency – a level of proficiency that no doubt gives you the means to impress even native speakers without breaking that much of a sweat: provided, that is, that you stay within your source-language comfort zone; for you know in your heart-of-hearts that acting outside of said comfort zone would be about as frightening as suddenly finding yourself in the same room as Dracula. Worse still, the longer you stay in your lucrative little source-language comfort zone the smaller it gets – or in other words: the stronger the Dracula-threat grows. So, what to do about this dark and potentially dangerous problem? Well, the simplest answer is do nothing: after all, you’ve known about Dracula long enough to know exactly how to avoid the sorts of places in which he’s likely to appear. However, say you aspire to one day actually man up to Dracula, what then? Well, then you’d better start venturing beyond the outer walls of the place you call source-language-home…


1. Study for an exam designed for native speakers

Sure, you’ve passed all the exams designed to test non-native speakers of your source language, but have you ever tried studying for language exams designed for the locals? The deal here isn’t to get the certificate per se, but rather, to push yourself into learning something new – to follow in the footsteps of Dracula himself…

2. Read a book written over 100 years ago

Languages change, old people speak differently to young people, and it’s all too easy to let yourself get out of touch with the words, phrases and grammar of yesteryear. Think modern literature is good? Wait ’til you read some of the stuff written in times gone by – when people had less time for computer games, iPhones and gossip mags, and more time for learning how to use a pen properly …perhaps a quill pen, dipped in some fresh vermillion ink…

3. Transcribe an entire film about something you’ve absolutely no interest in

Who doesn’t love watching films in their source language – just sit back, soak it all in and then feel good about how much you can understand. However, although there may not be a single sci-fi-related word you can’t catch, is the same true of the vocab commonly used in, say, murder-mystery films? Or perhaps you’re seriously into action films but can’t stand period dramas. Well, if you’re serious about confronting Dracula then perhaps the time has come to rent a movie not for enjoyment, but to take you as far out of your linguistic comfort zone as possible – and if that means watching something based on a Bram Stoker novel, then so be it!

4. Write a letter to someone and ask a native speaker to correct it before it goes in the post

Everybody loves letters – or, at least, everybody loves to receive letters. Writing a letter is often quite a strenuous task even in your own language, so just imagine how difficult it’s going to be to write one in someone else’s! Exactly, it’s going to be an absolute nightmare.

5. Start a new hobby and refrain from learning anything about it in your target language

Fancy learning something new? Well, assuming you live in a country where the majority of people speak only in your source language, go out there and join a club. But what kind of club? Well, choose something that a) you know nothing about, b) will involve a lot of discussion, new skills, and/or studying for, and c) isn’t going to kill you if you can’t pick up the basics of it very quickly – base jumping, paragliding and blood sucking then, are probably out.

6. Attend a conference on something you know nothing about – and take a dictaphone

Sure, you attend a few translation conferences every year – you even speak at some of them. But, you know what, Dracula isn’t interested in talking to you about translation – Dracula wants your blood! He’s gonna get you on politics, law, medicine, technology or finance, or maybe even on something less predictable, like gardening, poetry or hematology.

7. Translate something into your source language and get it checked by another professional translator

Wouldn’t it be nice to one day be able to translate both ways? Well…let’s face it, unless you’re lucky enough to be one of the truly-bilingual few, get a break in the world of translating children’s books, or clients suddenly start demanding sub-standard work, it’s just not gonna happen. Still, this needn’t stop you from at least trying to translate the other way – especially if the goal is simply to help improve your source-language proficiency. The only problem is that in order to extract the maximum value out of this particular activity, you’ll need someone to check/correct your work once you’re, errr, ‘done’ – preferably someone who translates into the your source language of the dead for a living.

Any more tips to improve source-language proficiency and/or help spook Dracula?