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?
Lately there has been a lot of talk among freelancers on the blog and twitter spheres about rates. In relation to translation: Per hour or per word? Source (original) language or target (translated) language? To offer volume discounts
or not? More generally: To publish on your site or not to publish on your site?
The last question in particular has been extensively debated (See this recent article
by the Freelancery and the response
by Thoughts on Translation). I’ve thought it over too, and done the “put them up, take them down” thing several times. For now I've concluded that I’m sitting on the fence, with leanings towards the no-camp. Hence, my site doesn’t have a “rates” or “fees” tab. I do mention cost at the top of my FAQ page, where I explain that prices depend on the complexity of the text, the formatting, etc. At the moment I also have a “prices start from X” type sentence, but I’m still pondering the usefulness of it.
What might be more useful is to explain what factors influence the cost of a (human) translation. While I understand potential clients might prefer to see immediately what they can expect to pay, it simply is true that cost depends on many things, and that giving a standard ‘price per word’ isn’t particularly helpful. Not to the translator, at least - all it seems to do is leave me out of pocket when said standard rate is applied to a document that is decidedly un-standard.
So what is it, then, that makes translation jobs non-standard? When you pay for a translation, what do actually get for your money? Or, conversely, what do you need to think about before you quote your price as a translator? Thinking about that might not answer the publish/don’t publish question, but at least everyone will know what to expect (ish).‘Reading’ the thing
In an ideal world, I’d get everything sent to me as a word file. It takes second to feed into a CAT
(Computer-Assisted Translation) tool and if I need to look something up I simply copy-paste the term(s) into an online dictionary
However, often the reality involves reams of un-editable PDFs. If I want to use my CAT tool (which I usually do) these PDFs have to be converted into readable files using OCR
(optical character recognition) software. OCR processing can be time-consuming, especially with Asian characters or poor quality scans. The same goes for image files, with colour images being particularly difficult to process.
If I don’t do the OCR processing to use a CAT tool I’m slightly slower too, so either way: un-editable file = extra time = more expensive. Research
Most translators specialise in a limited number of fields. The theory behind this is that the best translations are produced by those who have an understanding of the broader context of the original document. Nevertheless, even so-called ‘experts’ don’t know everything about their field, particularly if that field is fast-moving. I see this with patents; a 15-year-old physics patent may be straightforward and involve only well-known technology, but a recent one could throw up concepts so new that no equivalent term has yet been thought of in my target language. Coming up with one requires significant research.
Even in less extreme situations, any translator worth their salt will have homework to do. Who is the target readership? Does the text need adapting to suit the conventions of this readership? Are there multiple ways of saying the same thing in the target language, and if so, which is most commonly used whilst still conveying the original meaning? Answering these questions takes time, which should be reflected in the final price. Format fiddling
Japanese text takes up less space than English text. As a result, I often spend hours trying to squash my translations back into their little powerpoint text boxes. Dealing with tables and graphics also takes time. Indeed, formatting the translated text as a whole to look the same as the original can be quite a job, especially if that original was not an editable file (see above). Hence, if you want to preserve formatting, you can expect to pay for more than just the word-for-word translation.
I’m sure there are other factors that influence the cost of a translation. What do you think?
Translation agencies seem to cop a lot of flak. When I first started telling independent colleagues that I was planning on going freelance too, several warned against working with agencies. In the Patenttranslators’ Blog
, Steve Vitek lets few opportunities go by to remind readers that he does not work for agencies. Both Steve and other colleagues cite reasons of unreliability, bad pay and bad conditions.
While I don’t doubt that there are less-than-professional agencies out there, or think that Steve & Co’s choice to only work with direct clients is not a valid one, I do find it unfair to dismiss working with all agencies in one fell swoop. The bad agencies, and the amount of time devoted to berating them on twitter and the blogosphere, give the good ones a bad name by association. For once, therefore, I’d like to do the opposite and point out why I like working with good translation agencies. 1. They do all the running for you
When an assignment lands in your inbox, the agency will already have done the marketing, negotiating, communicating, etc. Some minor issues over details or rates do often remain, but in my experience these are very easy to resolve. My only responsibility is simply to get on with the job. 2. They understand what our work involves
While it’s possible to command higher rates when working with direct clients, they usually don’t have much experience in dealing with the LSP industry. There are always exceptions, but I often find myself putting a lot of time and effort into explaining the ins and outs of commissioning a translation, why I need certain information, why a particular deadline is not realistic, etc. I see this sort of communicative work as being part of my job and I do it gladly, but it’s simply something I don’t need to do with agencies.3. They take care of the external proofreading
While I obviously proofread my own work very carefully, it is good practice to get a second pair of eyes to look over your translation too. Any agency worth its salt will sort this out themselves, either in-house or by contracting another freelancer. Another time-saver for me. 4. The good agencies are not that hard to find
Although there are literally thousands of translation agencies operating, word gets around fast if an agency is particularly good or bad. I never agree to work with an agency before I’ve checked their Proz Blueboard entry. If I can’t find them on there, I just ask my colleagues. Hence, it never takes very long to get at least some basic info on what an agency is like to work with and whether they tend to pay on time. There’s really no need to work for the bad ones (unless you like having something to moan about).
So, while there are certainly agencies out there who pay silly rates, demand ultra-fast turnover or try to foist the responsibility of proofreading onto the translator, there are also many good ones. Once you’ve found them, stick with them; I go out of my way to maintain a good working relationship with the agencies I like. I hope that, in return, they like working with me.
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!
In a past guise as an in-house translator, I was once asked to outsource a job that we couldn’t do ourselves. It provided a very interesting opportunity to see things from the 'Other Side' - that of the client.
The job in question involved the translation of a Chinese electronics patent into English, making it highly specialised. I didn’t know anyone personally who could do it nor did I have any recommendations, so I had to turn to the web and find an agency or independent translator. After getting quotes from two agencies and one freelancer, I ended up placing the job with the latter. Some of the reasons for this decision were personal; I can’t help but be a little biased towards freelancers. Nevertheless, during this outsourcing process I made some interesting discoveries that I think are worth sharing.
1. It was surprisingly difficult to know where to start finding someone
Googling “Chinese translator” or “Chinese to English” is probably the most obvious way to go about it, but it annoyed me. The first page of results shows only online and machine translation tools, with the first agency not appearing until the bottom of the second page. I did eventually pick two agencies from the results, but I realised that a google search was not the way to find a freelancer. Instead, I found someone through the Institute of Linguists’ Find-a-Linguist service, where one can search based on language pair, specialisation and location.
What struck me, however, is that this is quite worrying from a freelancer’s point of view. Freelancers can rarely afford the Search Engine Optimisation that would get them higher up on the Google search results, but how many corporate clients outside of the translation industry really know about the Find-a-Linguist service, Proz.com, etc.? Not so many, methinks, which strongly suggests that the onus is on freelancers to be incredibly inventive and proactive in marketing their services to direct clients.
2. Few freelancers have a website that is actually helpful
This really surprised me. Whenever I want to buy a product or service, the first thing I do is Google for a provider. Their site has to be nicely laid-out, easy to navigate and full of the information I need in order to get my custom. This all sounds very obvious, but in my search for a freelancer I came across sites that were full of lengthy text and theory on why it was important to use a properly qualified translator but which failed to tell me what was actually involved in commissioning a translation from them.
As a potential client who’d never commissioned a translation before, I wanted the practical stuff: what exactly they specialised in, what their modus operandi was, and how much they would charge me. Agencies are much better at explaining what the client can expect when they place a job. This is definitely something freelancers can learn from.
3. You never really know who you are getting with an agency
As I mentioned, the translation was highly specialised in that it required someone who was familiar with both electronics and patent legalese. I expected to have to pay a premium for this. However, one of the agencies gave me a quote that worked out to a dismally low rate of about £60 per 1000 words. It made me wonder what on earth would the translator end up with?! More importantly, what translator qualified and experienced enough to deal with a Chinese electronics patent would accept such a rate? I decided that I simply couldn’t trust the job to be done to a high enough standard for such a price, and refused their quote.
One thing that works to a freelancer’s advantage then, is that we can use the more personal nature of our business in combination with our demonstrable qualifications to prove to a client exactly how suitable we are for a job instead of asking them to take this on trust. In addition, daring to charge a premium rate for a premium service rather than always trying to undercut our rivals in the way many agencies do can also work in our favour.