This article is an English adaptation of a contribution originally written in French:
La traduction spécialisée en sept question.
What does it mean to specialize?
Translators aren’t the all-knowing beings some people think we are! When we specialize, we become subject-matter experts. It’s in our best interest not to generalize too much and to instead focus on a limited number of fields. Specializing means giving ourselves the resources to grow our knowledge and experience, get better at our craft, and—ultimately—increase our value in the marketplace.
Why should translators specialize?
Specializing makes it possible to stand out from the competition by having something special to offer. Translators shouldn’t necessarily position themselves in a highly specialized niche, especially when they’re just starting out, but the goal is to steer towards one of the five major areas of specialization: scientific (medical, pharmaceutical, etc.), legal and administrative (EU, major organizations, political institutions, NGOs, etc.), business and financial, technical (industry, IT, etc.), and editorial/advertorial (journalism, literary, transcreation). At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, the idea is that the more you translate in a particular field, the greater your knowledge and skill in that area, the less terminology research you have to do, and the less effort you have to pour into each project. Your quality and productivity improve and, eventually, so does your bottom line (which is the real crux of the issue, isn’t it?).
How do translators choose a specialization?
I’ve counted four ways.
The first is to set personal preferences aside and pick a field with growth potential, the objective being to offer services to clients who need them, even if at first that means translating in a completely unfamiliar area.
On the flip side, the second way is to pick an interesting and exciting area you already have knowledge in and can leverage, like sports, aviation, video games, etc. Ideally, you’d lean towards one with some demand, too.
The third way is to seize opportunities as they present themselves. I always use a personal example to illustrate this idea. My wife is an orthodontist, so I once accepted a project about dentistry because I had a great editor at home! (laughs) There was a lot of red ink when I started, but after a few projects, I added dentistry to my specializations and translated in that field for several years.
The fourth way is undoubtedly the most common but possibly the least obvious: you don’t choose your specialization, your specialization chooses you! When you’re first starting out as a fledgling translator, you’re not quite sure how to fly yet, so you go where the wind takes you. In these cases, the strategy is reversed: you need to know what fields you absolutely do NOT want to work in, then be open to the rest. I also advise young graduates to refer to their “focus areas” rather than their specializations when clients ask them to provide more details. And translators can obviously blend all four of these strategies.
Across all language pairs, what specializations have the highest demand?
There is no one specialization that reigns supreme across language pairs. Every language is associated with one or more markets, each with its own peculiarities. English is, of course, the indisputable heavyweight, and there is demand for it in all specializations, even if certain fields like finance and IT are more in demand right now than others. For example, Dutch is in high demand for legal and administrative translation (in Belgium), while German is in relatively high demand in the technical, industrial, and automotive fields. I have the feeling that the demand for other source languages is a bit lower, at least in continental Europe, but I’d need to ask my colleagues about it.
How many specializations do translators typically have?
I have colleagues with a single specialization, which might be more than enough. That said, I’d recommend focusing on two major areas or three more specific fields and remaining open to other possibilities, even though there’s any number of combinations.
Do translators ever get bored of translating the same kinds of documents?
You know, in life, you can get bored of almost anything! There are areas I’ve been translating in forever, like institutions and politics, that (I hope) I’ll never get tired of. But there are others, like pharmaceuticals, that I’ve decided to drop over the years. It’s really a matter of personal preference. And even then, things can change over the course of a career. Clients come and go. You often have choices to make, either on the fly or because of people you meet.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
In my opinion, once you’ve chosen a field (or a field has chosen you), it’s absolutely essential that you keep learning so you can become a real expert. Take as many courses as you can, build your glossaries, and hone your skills. When you’re a translator, you’re always learning. You always have to make sure you stay a step ahead of the competition, especially with the rise of technology. Remember that when you claim to be an expert, and a client puts their faith in you, you won’t have a second chance to make a good first impression.
Interview with Guillaume Deneufbourg, conducted by Guillaume Chanson,
student in the translation department at the University of Mons
Translated from French by Ben Karl (www.bktranslation.com)