Reader question: developing translation specializations

To start the week off, here’s a great question that I received from reader Dorota Krysinska. She asks:
…could you explain in your blog how it happened that you started specializing in legal, corporate communications and public health/international development translations? Did you have any background in these fields? I have been wondering how someone like me, who has done her degree in linguistic studies can begin to specialize as a translator in areas that she hasn’t studied at all. Also, how do I go about sending out my resume to translation agencies and not having any particular field of translation specified there?

The issue of specializations seems to come up a lot in our industry, so I’ll offer my answer here and I hope that other readers will contribute their thoughts. When I started translating, I was in pretty much the same boat as Dorota; I had a Master’s in French Literature and had used French in my job (teaching high school) for eight years so I was reasonably confident about my language skills. In addition, I’ve always loved to write and I had done sideline work writing for magazines and had even worked in the editorial department of a book review publication in the summer. However, I didn’t have an obvious area of specialization. I think that this be a plus and a minus: in one sense, I really envied (and still sometimes do!) people who become translators after having worked in banking, law, pharmaceuticals, engineering, etc. because they are immediately able to jump in to a very specialized field. On the other hand, I think that someone who starts out as a generalist has a lot more opportunities to experiment with various specializations than someone who is fairly locked in to a certain field.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard about specializations came from Jill Sommer, who said “Pick an area that you enjoy researching.”  In that vein, I’ve always had a secret (or now not so secret) desire to go to law school. For whatever reason, I just love reading legal documents and deciphering the jargon in them. Party of the first part…pursuant to…notwithstanding…aforementioned… I don’t know, I just enjoy it. Similarly, I enjoy reading the business news so corporate communications was a good fit for me, and I read a lot about health topics as well, hence my translation focus on public health. On the contrary, hard science has just never been my thing. I like science as an idea, I like listening to science stories on NPR, I enjoy translating “lighter” science documents about health and wellness, but give me a chemical patent and my eyes glaze over almost immediately.

So, I think the number one rule if you start out as a generalist is to pick documents that you enjoy reading and researching. Also, I think it can be helpful to identify some of your non-specializations as well. When I work with direct clients who have a wide range of documents, I sometimes tell them what I don’t do (patents, anything having to do with engineering or technical specifications, heavy financial documents) so that they know if I am a good fit for them.

When it comes to contacting translation companies, I think it’s best to be completely honest and differentiate between specializations in which you have experience and specializations in which you are interested. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling the client that although you’ve never translated in the area of X, you are very interested in X topic in your own language and you know a lot about the terminology (this once landed me a job translating the script for a promotional video about rock climbing ropes). Also, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “I’m just starting my business so I’m open to working in a variety of specializations; some of my areas of interest are…”

5 Responses to “Reader question: developing translation specializations”
  1. Dorota September 1, 2009
  2. Olivia September 1, 2009
  3. Julian September 1, 2009
  4. Corinne McKay September 1, 2009
  5. Tomasz September 9, 2009

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