Gabe Bokor’s blog post “Specialist or Generalist” gives some excellent insights into the fact that translators need to be both specialists and generalists. Gabe gives the example of a medical translator who also needs to be familiar with electronic instrumentation, or an environmental translation project that might also include subjects like chemistry and meteorology. I think that Gabe’s point holds true for most translation specializations, and emphasizes the need for all of us to be well-informed about a range of topics that are seemingly unrelated to our stated specializations.
In the case of legal translation (so to speak!), high-level lawsuits are about laws. That’s how you end up with the late Anna Nicole Smith at the Supreme Court. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that opinion, the primary issue before the Court wasn’t whether Anna Nicole was entitled to her late husband’s vast fortune, but whether state probate courts have the authority to oversee wills and the execution of estates. In other words, a legal question.
However, lower-level lawsuits don’t deal with the intricacies of the law so much as they deal with a specific factual question. Did the landlord know about the asbestos-laden tiles when he put the office building up for rent? Was the employee fired because she was a woman, or because she didn’t produce results? Did the company increase its cash reserves to deliberately mislead investors? And how thick was the sheet metal on the hull of the ship that sank? So, although a legal translator certainly has to be familiar with legal terminology, the translator also learns something about a very wide range of topics along the way.
Likewise, patent translation deals partially with the terminology specific to patents, like inventive step and prior art and the European Patent Office Oppositions Division, but a patent is also about something, like a car part or a cancer drug or an ergonomic computer mouse. So, the “patent translator” may be what we would call highly specialized, someone who translates nothing but patents, while in reality the translator works in a new “specialization” nearly all the time.
To me, this aspect of translation work is one of the most interesting. Although about 60% of my work is discovery documents for corporate lawsuits, these lawsuits involve something different nearly every time. So, instead of feeling like “same old, same old,” this variety keeps things fresh!