About 11 years ago, I went on my first informational interview with a translation company. The project manager’s first question, “What are your languages?” was one that I expected. Her second question, “And what are your specializations?” caught me completely off guard. Specializations?? You mean it’s not enough that I speak another language? Well, as it turns out, language skills alone are not enough to make a successful career as a translator, so here are some thoughts on identifying and pursuing translation specializations.
First, here’s a tip from veteran translator Jill Sommer. Pick an area that you enjoy researching. You’re going to be doing a lot of reading in your specialization, so make sure that you find it interesting. You also want to make sure that your target specialization generates enough paying work for you to have a viable business. Lots of people start out focusing on their avocational interests: weaving, violin-making and the like. There’s undoubtedly work in those areas, but it’s probably not enough, or not well-paying enough, to keep you busy full-time. If you want to work with direct clients, there’s work in pretty much any specialization you can imagine. If you want to work with agencies, you really have to target one of their core areas, for example financial, medical, legal, pharmaceutical, IT, patents, etc. It’s also helpful to identify some of your non-specializations: areas in which you definitely do not want to translate.
It seems to me that some specializations are increasingly dominated by people with significant work experience in the domain. For example in the US, I meet more and more lawyers who either hated practicing law or couldn’t find a satisfying job and thus turned to translation as an alternative. For dense medical texts, you really need a strong medical background to produce a good translation. But many translators are self-taught in their areas of specialization: they pick an area that looks interesting, start with work that isn’t too technical, and learn as they go along.
In some sense, you also want to follow the money. I tell all of my translation students that somewhere, there is an intersection between what you want to translate and what clients will pay good money for. If your passion is art, there may be a well-paying niche translating for art museums that loan and borrow works of art internationally. If your passion is weaving, maybe you can work for textile companies that want to sell their products overseas. In one sense, it’s smart to focus on an industry (law, pharmaceuticals) in which clients have to translate in order to do business. But in another sense, it’s smart to focus on an industry (corporate communications, hospitality) in which clients hope that a really good translation will bring them more business.
Finally, if you’re interested in working with direct clients, don’t fear niche markets. As French to English chemistry translator Karen Tkaczyk will tell you, all you need is enough work for one person! I’ve met successful translators who specialize in horses, philately, fisheries and recycling. And if you want to expand your knowledge in your specialization, a MOOC provider such as Coursera is a good place to start. You can read about my experience in a Coursera epidemiology class here.