In translation, a recurring question is “What is your area of specialisation
?”. The translation agencies you work with want to know, your Proz
or Translator’s Cafe profile has a dedicated section for it, and your colleagues will probably be curious about it as well. As such, many translators define themselves as “technical translator”, “legal translator”, or “medical translator”, and the like. As a result, the idea that there is a difference between 'specialised' and 'general' translation has developed
, with offering the former seen as more desirable a career move than the latter.
However, this has never seemed 100% correct to me. How do you unambiguously and completely define what ‘general’ versus ‘specialised’ means? And is being a “specialised translator” always better than a “general” one? In Specialization in Translation - myths and realities
(Translation Journal, Vol. 16 No. 2, 2011), Charles Martin asks whether it would be better to see 'generalist' translators as those who “know their limits, don't take on work in areas they know little about and often offer a more varied background than the specialist, and above all a broader and deeper understanding of the source language, not to mention fine writing skills
Martin also questions the idea that calling yourself a specialist in legal translation necessarily has any real meaning, because of the vagueness of the term. It “would naturally include documents that are used by lawyers and judges in criminal and civil proceedings and which require a good knowledge of legal principles, systems and institutions, documents that require familiarity with a given field of law, such as commercial or intellectual property law, and also contracts and other legal instruments that may require very little or even no real knowledge of the law”. Can many ‘legal’ translators really claim they successfully specialise in all of these separate sub-fields? Can translation agencies claim to offer true specialisation in “financial translation”, “business translation”, AND “legal translation”
, as many do?
Finally, Martin dispels the idea that in order to be a ‘specialist’ translator in a particular field, one must be an ‘expert’ in that field. Rather, “translators need a more basic level of knowledge that enables them to understand underlying principles, do the research necessary to figure out what they don't understand, and find the right term in the target language
.” I couldn't agree more. I’m neither fully trained as a patent attorney nor as a physicist, but I have studied the fundamentals of physics and patent law sufficiently to be able to translate documents in these fields, and translate them well. In addition (and perhaps more importantly), I know exactly when my research skills will enable me to deal with a topic I’m not as familiar with, and when something goes completely above my head. Here, honesty is key...
Despite agreeing that the terms ‘specialism’ and ‘expert’ are misleading, it's nevertheless undeniable that the industry still wants to know what you ‘specialise’ in. I understand that translation buyers need to be able to make a judgement on whether or not a particular text is beyond the scope of their supplier's knowledge or not
. In certain fields, including patent translation, not being certain of when to choose one term over another can have serious consequences. I would personally never trust someone who had a background in contract law to translate a patent, but I might give someone with a background in physics a chance as patent law
is easier to research than physics! I therefore do think that, when talking about 'specialised' translation, it makes a lot more sense to say "I'm looking for a translator with experience in electronic engineering" than "I need a technical translator"
, for example.
From a practical point of view, then, this question of specialisation matters and translators need to be able to define what that means for them and respond accordingly. In doing so they should avoid both appearing unrealistically knowledgeable and unmarketably under-specialised
. When you are first starting out in the business, however, it can be hard to fathom exactly what is meant by ‘specialisation’ and how you go about finding yours. This is especially true if you come from a linguistics background and you feel like the only thing you’re good at is getting to the bottom of literary texts (there was certainly a heavy bias towards literary translation when I did my language degree, though luckily less so at MA level).
There are nevertheless a few ways of identifying your specialisations and therefore meeting this market requirement. The best overall approach is to not to sell yourself short, and to look at ALL your areas of experience and interest
. At the end of the day, a good translator is like a sponge - s/he looks everywhere for reliable target language vocabulary, and discounts nothing as a potential source of knowledge! By building on that, combined with developing excellent research skills, you’ll find that you are more of a ‘specialist’ than you thought you were. To give an example, my own thought process on this has gone more or less like this:Subjects I have studied:
Subjects I have professional experience in:
- Physics at 1st & 2nd year undergrad level. This is my “basic training”!
- Patent Law
- How to draw up Confidentiality Agreements
- European and Japanese History
- European and Japanese Art History
- Japanese Economic History
Subjects I feel personally passionate about:
- What is involved in researching the physics and electronics of making flat-screen TVs, LED lighting, solar panels, mobile phones, etc. Nuclear physics, on the other hand? Not a clue.
- Managing a corporate patent portfolio
- Editing a 100,000 word textbook on European business history. Doorstops like that can teach you a thing or two about a particular subject!
- Translating texts on fashion, jewellery and retail, particularly the marketing side of things (in the form of presentations, press releases, etc.)
- Editing CVs and cover letters written by native and non-native speakers alike.
- Travel and tourism. My article on a yoga holiday to Thailand was published in the magazine Kansaiscene in 2006.
- Food and drink. I might be a little obsessed with food, so one of my favourite projects to date was a series of translations on the legendary elBulli (or more specifically, on the closure thereof...).
- Green technology, especially solar panels. Being married to a solar cell technology research scientist is a bit of a bonus here.
As you can see, not all my subjects of "expertise" are based on academic study, and even in a field as seemingly narrow as "physics" there are clear are areas that I don't venture into. Nevertheless, I feel confident about calling myself knowledgeable in all of the above, and hence I also work in all of them. How my colleagues have gained their experience and defined their specialist areas is something that has always interested me - care to share in the comments?
To put this discussion in context, I felt compelled to write my post after reading GTS Blog's "Translation prices are dropping. How low will they get?" a couple of days ago.
With alarming regularity I come across articles, blog posts or forum discussions lamenting the fact that translation prices are ‘plummeting’. Advances in Machine Translation, dastardly translation agencies working to ever-narrowing margins and a handful of unscrupulous translators undercutting everyone else are usually cited as the perpetrators of this ‘problem’. Whenever I see these posts, I can’t help but recall a phrase an American friend kindly taught me a few years ago: “Would you like some cheese with that whine?”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that low translation prices do not exist (a look at www.Proz.com confirms that there are indeed some pitiful ones out there). Nor do I propose that we should all be lowering our rates accordingly. However, I also don’t think that translation prices ‘going down’ is necessarily a problem. I think it could equally be intepreted as progress.
What many translators seem to forget is that the language service provider (LSP) market has to develop like any other. Take the way prices for consumer electronics go down, for example. I own a smartphone, an e-book reader and not one but two LED monitors. Five years ago, however, neither the market nor the technology were sufficiently developed to make these kinds of products generally affordable. But do you now see the electronics companies weeping into their cups of tea over falling prices? Of course not, they’re too busy thinking about how to continue to innovate, bring their next cutting-edge product to market, and stay ahead of the game. By doing so, they shape the market themselves and lower prices do not necessarily mean a lower income.
The LSP industry is no different. Failing to innovate as a translator would be akin to following the example of the music industry in digging in its heels against the online dissemination of music. The only outcome is to be left behind, whine about the unfairness of it all and ultimately go bust.
So what can we, as language service providers, do to make sure we shape our own market and make sure that falling prices do not affect our overall income?
- Prove your worth - If we truly believe our services are worth more than average, then the onus is on us to prove to our clients that this is indeed the case. We need to be the luxury car, the gourmet burger or the designer dress of the LSP industry. How do we do this? By creating a strong brand, by providing excellent customer service, by getting certified/accredited, etc.
- Embrace change - This includes technological developments like Machine Translation. Rather than fearfully eschewing these tools we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage, lest they become an excuse for our clients to pay us less than we think we’re worth.
- Innovate & diversify - If you call yourself a professional translator, is translation really the only service you’re capable of offering? Surely we all have more linguistic strings to our bow and can provide editing & proofreading, terminology management services, translation teaching, etc. And what about all that background cultural knowledge we have? It has ‘consultancy’ written all over it. We need to make the most of the skills we have, in much the same way as consumer electronics company Sharp has gone from making calculators to LCD TVs to solar panels all on the back of the same expertise in semiconductor technology.
- Be flexible - When the market/client/sector you've always relied on goes belly-up, change tack and find an alternative. Freelancers especially can take advantage of the fact they don’t need to work their way through multiple corporate strata to make changes to the way they operate.
- Keep calm and carry on - The language service provider market is not about to collapse. Many of my colleagues, including those without particularly rare language pairs or niche specialisations, continue to stick to their guns and charge high rates. They never seem short of work, because they know how to be the best at what they do and more. In the end, then, 'falling prices' don't seem like that much of an issue.
On 7 and 8 October this year you'll find me in the lovely city of Lisbon for the International Legal Translation Conference
, organised by TRADULÍNGUAS with the support of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.
There will be a good mixture of sessions
on translation, terminology and resources within the legal field. There will also be a couple of talks on career development for translators (there's one entitled "Selling and Negotiating" that I will definitely be going to).
Yours truly will be giving a presentation on patent translation:Patent Translation for Beginners: an introduction to the legal framework, terminology and opportunities associated with patent rights Every year around 700,000 new patent applications are filed. As patents are territorial rights and many applications are filed in multiple countries, there is a wealth of work available for the patent translator. Although patent translation also requires scientific expertise, familiarity with the legal framework of patent rights is paramount to success in this area. This session will provide an introduction to this framework by explaining the structure of the patent application as a text as well as the filing, prosecution and litigation processes involved in obtaining patent rights. Particular attention will be paid to identifying opportunities for the translator at each stage in the process. Finally, we will also discuss some the challenges faced by patent translators. This session is not language-pair specific.
I attended the TRADULÍNGUAS International Technical Translation Conference last May, and found it both useful and immensely enjoyable. With just over 200 attendees, the conference was small enough to have a very friendly and casual atmosphere but large enough to meet all sorts of people and have some great discussions. These kinds of events are invaluable to me - I love catching up with colleagues and always leave full of ideas. Some of the sessions (including mine) are aimed at translators new to the field, but there are also sessions that will benefit seasoned veterans. And if you're looking for any more excuses to go, Lisbon is an absolute treat to visit!