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The need to specialize to make more money as a freelance translator
Thread poster: Bonita Mc Donald

Bonita Mc Donald
Local time: 21:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
Sep 15, 2006

OK, I know I'm probably opening a can of worms here, but I've never understood this whole specialization thing. Why is it that companies/clients are willing to pay you more as a freelancer if you specialize in a given field? Is it because they expect higher quality if you are, say, a specialist in Petroleum Engineering translations? Where does that leave a person who is good at any topic he/she decides to take on?

I know of some translators who are so confident in their ability to do a good job that they offer to refund the client's money if client can reasonably justify the reason(s) for their dissatisfaction with a particular assignment. So what is more of a guarantee for the client? That the person is a specialist in two or three areas, or that if the client runs into some kind of a problem because of the poor translation of a document that is vital to his business, he is entitled to his money back?

A hypothetical situation: Let's say that you've never done a medical translation before in your life. You see a job posting for the translation of some medical records that pays well and you say, "Hey, I'm going to get myself a short book or text that might have a lot of the vocab I'm looking for, get together some glossaries, and research the bejesus out of this so I can get that job and knock the socks off the client." Since the job has a deadline that's within a couple weeks' time and it's not that long, you figure that you can quote and still have time to research it and get it done before the deadline. So you're lucky enough to get the job, and after a while, but in any case a couple of days before the deadline (just in case), you finish the job. You might a) feel very satisfied with it or b) feel doubtful about some of the terms you've used. With a), you turn it in and, lo and behold, no complaints! The client is happy you've turned it in a little earlier and says that their proofreader loved the fact that he only had to change a couple of words for stylistic purposes and calls you a star. With b) you might decide that you're going to need a second opinion. Your family doctor (or nurse, or friend who studys medicine -well, you get the idea) is a really nice person so you call them up and ask them if they could proofread a few pages for you and you offer them whatever, let's say 4 cents a word (remember, this is a really good paying job, I'm talking like over USD0.20 here). The doc (or nurse or whomever) says that sure, you can stop by today after the last appointment and he/she will proofread it for you as long as it doesn't take over 20 minutes (OK, maybe this translation is a bit lengthy, but you figure that as long as the first 10 or so pages get proofread, you will get the idea of the correct terminology and where you have been making mistakes). So you get the document back all scratched up and with the doctor's hard-to-read (but not completely illegible) corrections and you finalize your draft version by including the doctor's suggestions. You turn it in on time and, lo and behold, no complaints! In both cases, client accepts your invoice and then you get paid exactly according to their payment terms. And you have a new, happy client! (Remember, I've only told this hypothetical story as an example. In real life maybe it won't be so easy as I've made it sound in my imagination, but that's a whole other ballgame.)

So, to get to the point, the reason I'm writing this long-winded post is so that I can ask a couple of simple questions: Does a translator who specializes deserve to be paid more money than a translator who doesn't? What if the outcome is the same (a satisfied customer) no matter who of the two the client finally chooses?

Just some food for thought, friends. Enjoy chewing on that for a while...


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Russell Gillis  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:29
Spanish to English
Why would you want to take on an unknown field? Sep 15, 2006

Putting aside the issue of whether a non-expert can deliver a competent translation or not, why would he/she do that?

On the rare occasion I am asked to translate something outside of my fields of specialization, and I wish after that I had said "no" in the beginning because:

1. As you mention in your example, I spend an inordinate amount of time researching terms that I am not familiar with.

2. By spending all of that extra time, my profitability consequently goes down.

3. I could have made a lot more money translating something from my areas of specialization.

It's obvious that your post is meant to "open a can of worms" (i.e. draw the ire of specialized translators), so I am not sure why you would ask it. This topic has been hotly debated countless times on this site, so I am not sure what will be accomplished by bringing it up again.

To answer your question about the "money back guarantee":

1. I don't think an agency takes any comfort in a translator who says: "Hey, if I screw up, I won't charge you..."

2. Agencies prefer to use tried and tested translators, and would rather pay a premium for that than take a risk on every new job. I know a few agency owners, and I can tell you that the least enjoyable part of their job is receiving a translation that needs to be reworked.

3. You may find yourself losing a lot of money by giving that guarantee, on top of the time you already wasted on a field that you shouldn't have taken on.

Well, I am sure there will be many spirited responses to this topic...



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Claudia Krysztofiak  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 05:29
English to German
+ ...
You earn more by working faster Sep 16, 2006

Well, as far as I understand, you simply earn more money in a field of specialization because you can work faster. I agree with Russell here.

Your hypothetical approach to a medical text somewhat frightens me, though. You know that wrong translations in this field can cause bad damage to people? How would a doctor or nurse or good friend, who cannot understand the original be able to make sure the translation is correct?

Maybe some agencies prefer specialized translators simply because the former will be held responsible for the texts they offer to their clients.

If I need advice or support in some area I'd also prefer someone with experience in this area.

To specialize means to me, to decide to become excellent in what you do because you can ensure better quality. You do not have to "feel good" about a text, you "know" whether it is right or not.


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Luisa Ramos, CT  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:29
Member (2004)
English to Spanish
You can spot them all over the Kudoz section Sep 16, 2006

The issue is not the vocabulary but what to do with it and do it well and, in order to do that, you really need to know what you are dealing with.

The objective is to translate as fast and as perfect and as naturally as possible, almost effortless, and deliver a fluid, coherent text that brought you joy to produce, not extra work and aggravation. The objective is to demonstrate that, to you, any text about your specialization is always a “piece of cake” no matter how difficult. This does not mean that a translator should not attempt to venture into other fields but it is always better to learn to walk before you attempt to crawl or walk.

When a translator does what you presented on your example, you can easily spot them on the Kudoz section, with a myriad of easy questions open at the same time because they do not have a clue. Just saving your face as a professional should be enough to steer you in the direction of specialization.


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 05:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
yes! Sep 16, 2006

Bonita Mc Donald wrote:

So, to get to the point, the reason I'm writing this long-winded post is so that I can ask a couple of simple questions: Does a translator who specializes deserve to be paid more money than a translator who doesn't? What if the outcome is the same (a satisfied customer) no matter who of the two the client finally chooses?

Just some food for thought, friends. Enjoy chewing on that for a while...



Yes, becuase to specialise you will typically have a number of years translating experience behind you. It's difficult to 'specialise' when you are starting out (speaking in a general sense as a freelancer) becuase you are still learning to 'translate'. But once you've established yourself - and theoretically proven yourself - you deserve to reap the rewards of many years of apprenticeship.

Yes, becuase with years of experience behind you, you theoretically have a proven ability as a translator (a bit of a perfect scenario, but I for one, wouldn't have carried on translating if I hadn't seen I was doing OK at it, i.e. no complaints from clients), and that gives you a solid grounding in the 2 languages and hence, the confidence to be able to take on 'specialised' translation (perhaps gradually, at first a few, maybe not such complex docs ...).

Yes, except maybe the word isn't 'deserve'; rather, a well established translator will find that they have so much work that they will begin to be slective AND charge higher rates (law of supply and demand).

As to outcome, a good translator will translate better than a field expert who has few notions of what it is to translate and to write. I have read a number of articles that assess this issue (one I remeber was published in an ATA volume, a study by Barbara Thomas, I believe).

Finally, you mentioned medicine. Medicine (certain areas at least, for example journal articles) is the ideal area to specialise in, becuase of the huge amount of reference material available on the WWW. I have done many years of general translation, but now work (I started about 8 months ago) in a team producing respiratory medicine translations that are edited to and fro between an expert editor and each translator (thrashed out so to speak) - not to mention queries to the author and the publishing house.

I started off with minimal experience in medicine, but the issue wasn't so much medical knowledge (it's all on the WWW, if you trouble to find it), as much as writing skills (to produce a fluid text) and profound knowledge of the source language (to know when you don't know, to spot ambiguities etc); but that's just to begin with. What's really complicated are applying style guidelines (the AMA Style Guide), and plagiarism....and those issues are a real uphill struggle, except that fortunately we have an excellent editor to refer to.

So, 'specialising' is as much about finely honed decoding and encoding skills as it is about specialist field knowledge. And some translators acquire those skills rapidly, and others not at all. And in a perfect world, tutored translation - which is very rare as far as I'm aware - is the ideal way to become an all-round expert translator who gets to teh point where they advise authors on all aspects of publication in the target language.



[Edited at 2006-09-16 01:18]


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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:29
English to Spanish
+ ...
Specialization = Reputation Sep 16, 2006

When you specialize you obviously do not do so overnight. It has taken years to get into it, and you have been building a clientele, which in turn gives you a track record of top-notch performance in certain areas.

That clientele then provides you with a first-class reputation and referrals to further clients. That's when it really starts to pay off.


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Rosa Maria Duenas Rios  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:29
Wise words Sep 16, 2006

Luisa Ramos wrote:
Just saving your face as a professional should be enough to steer you in the direction of specialization.


[Edited at 2006-09-16 16:33]


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Bonita Mc Donald
Local time: 21:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Good points Sep 16, 2006

Russell Gillis wrote:

Putting aside the issue of whether a non-expert can deliver a competent translation or not, why would he/she do that?

On the rare occasion I am asked to translate something outside of my fields of specialization, and I wish after that I had said "no" in the beginning because:

1. As you mention in your example, I spend an inordinate amount of time researching terms that I am not familiar with.

2. By spending all of that extra time, my profitability consequently goes down.

3. I could have made a lot more money translating something from my areas of specialization.

It's obvious that your post is meant to "open a can of worms" (i.e. draw the ire of specialized translators), so I am not sure why you would ask it. This topic has been hotly debated countless times on this site, so I am not sure what will be accomplished by bringing it up again.

To answer your question about the "money back guarantee":

1. I don't think an agency takes any comfort in a translator who says: "Hey, if I screw up, I won't charge you..."

2. Agencies prefer to use tried and tested translators, and would rather pay a premium for that than take a risk on every new job. I know a few agency owners, and I can tell you that the least enjoyable part of their job is receiving a translation that needs to be reworked.

3. You may find yourself losing a lot of money by giving that guarantee, on top of the time you already wasted on a field that you shouldn't have taken on.

Well, I am sure there will be many spirited responses to this topic...



Hi, Russell. You make a lot of interesting points, and as to your saying that my post was "meant to open a can of worms," you're absolutely right. I wanted to post in such a way that it would not only be an interesting topic that would draw people in, but that would also inspire [friendly] debate. So, yeah, I guess I'm.... BUSted!!

But no, in no way was I attempting to draw the ire of specialized translators. I'm sorry if that happens, but I guess it's unavoidable sometimes, just like the debate on whether you need a university degree to be a good translator.

Now to answer your question on why you would even want to take on a translation outside your fields of expertise, I dare say that would be because (of:)

1. The mere challenge of it

2. You feel you could do a good job.

3. You are currently not getting any work in your fields of expertise and are tired of sitting around twiddling your thumbs.

4. You are sure that you won't be risking your reputation or the lives of anyone who may suffer if, perchance, there is some fatal error(s) in the translation (but then if you had doubts as to whether you could do it or not, you wouldn't take it in the first place).

5. It's better to have work than not have work (see number 3.)

And so the plot thickens (I hope)...


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Paul Merriam  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:29
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
Supply and demand Sep 16, 2006

Adding to what others have said:

Yes, agencies and other consumers of translations are willing to pay more for good translations they don't need to revise much. It's a lot easier for me as an editor/proofreader/revisor if I don't have to spend lots of time changing style/syntax/punctuation/vocabulary etc.

Let's take the expert in petroleum engineering translations. Because her work is good and she's adept at it, she can charge a higher rate and consumers, who consider her better than the alternatives, are willing to pay it. Let's say a client needs a translation of assorted newspaper articles about politicians complaining about oil companies. If she has as much work as she can handle at her premium rate, the potential client will have to pay that premium rate to get her to work on the newspaper articles. However, because there are a number of translators who do not claim to be specialized in petroleum engineering who charge a lower rate than she does but are nonetheless quite capable of translating newspaper articles, the potential client is likely to choose one of them. Her time/capacity is a limited resource, so people pay more to get it.


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Bonita Mc Donald
Local time: 21:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
This is really worth repeating... Sep 16, 2006

Henry Hinds wrote:

When you specialize you obviously do not do so overnight. It has taken years to get into it, and you have been building a clientele, which in turn gives you a track record of top-notch performance in certain areas.

That clientele then provides you with a first-class reputation and referrals to further clients. That's when it really starts to pay off.


Thank you for your honest, not to mention nicely put, answer. It's very refreshing to see that someone can actually respond in an objective manner without purposely inferring things that might upset some of the more intuitive among us. A short, concise, and very professional response!

Hats off to you and your clarity, Henry! And greetings from sunny California...


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Bonita Mc Donald
Local time: 21:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
That's great insight and advice, Lia! Sep 16, 2006

Lia Fail wrote:

Bonita Mc Donald wrote:

So, to get to the point, the reason I'm writing this long-winded post is so that I can ask a couple of simple questions: Does a translator who specializes deserve to be paid more money than a translator who doesn't? What if the outcome is the same (a satisfied customer) no matter who of the two the client finally chooses?

Just some food for thought, friends. Enjoy chewing on that for a while...



Yes, becuase to specialise you will typically have a number of years translating experience behind you. It's difficult to 'specialise' when you are starting out (speaking in a general sense as a freelancer) becuase you are still learning to 'translate'. But once you've established yourself - and theoretically proven yourself - you deserve to reap the rewards of many years of apprenticeship.

Yes, becuase with years of experience behind you, you theoretically have a proven ability as a translator (a bit of a perfect scenario, but I for one, wouldn't have carried on translating if I hadn't seen I was doing OK at it, i.e. no complaints from clients), and that gives you a solid grounding in the 2 languages and hence, the confidence to be able to take on 'specialised' translation (perhaps gradually, at first a few, maybe not such complex docs ...).

Yes, except maybe the word isn't 'deserve'; rather, a well established translator will find that they have so much work that they will begin to be slective AND charge higher rates (law of supply and demand).

As to outcome, a good translator will translate better than a field expert who has few notions of what it is to translate and to write. I have read a number of articles that assess this issue (one I remeber was published in an ATA volume, a study by Barbara Thomas, I believe).

Finally, you mentioned medicine. Medicine (certain areas at least, for example journal articles) is the ideal area to specialise in, becuase of the huge amount of reference material available on the WWW. I have done many years of general translation, but now work (I started about 8 months ago) in a team producing respiratory medicine translations that are edited to and fro between an expert editor and each translator (thrashed out so to speak) - not to mention queries to the author and the publishing house.

I started off with minimal experience in medicine, but the issue wasn't so much medical knowledge (it's all on the WWW, if you trouble to find it), as much as writing skills (to produce a fluid text) and profound knowledge of the source language (to know when you don't know, to spot ambiguities etc); but that's just to begin with. What's really complicated are applying style guidelines (the AMA Style Guide), and plagiarism....and those issues are a real uphill struggle, except that fortunately we have an excellent editor to refer to.

So, 'specialising' is as much about finely honed decoding and encoding skills as it is about specialist field knowledge. And some translators acquire those skills rapidly, and others not at all. And in a perfect world, tutored translation - which is very rare as far as I'm aware - is the ideal way to become an all-round expert translator who gets to teh point where they advise authors on all aspects of publication in the target language.



[Edited at 2006-09-16 01:18]


Yes, certainly a comprehensive, detailed answer that I would not hesitate in pointing any newbie towards. Lots of useful insights!


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:29
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
BBC Monitoring legend: Who needs translators? Sep 16, 2006

I worked at BBC Monitoring for many years. There was a tale that before my time there, someone in charge of the News Bureau thought that they could manage without translators for news agency texts received by teleprinter. "Why do we need translators? All we need is a good bilingual dictionary and we can just look up all the words ourselves". He soon found out he was wrong.

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Timothy Barton
Local time: 04:29
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Difficult, but not impossible Sep 16, 2006

Lia Fail wrote:

Yes, becuase to specialise you will typically have a number of years translating experience behind you. It's difficult to 'specialise' when you are starting out (speaking in a general sense as a freelancer) becuase you are still learning to 'translate'. But once you've established yourself - and theoretically proven yourself - you deserve to reap the rewards of many years of apprenticeship.



[Edited at 2006-09-16 01:18]


Difficult, but not impossible. We all have areas of interest, and we have no doubt read a lot of material in that area over the years (if we're starting out we'll be at least 21 by the time we've finished university, so we've had time to become familiar with vocabulary and style in a certain field). From day one, I marketed myself as a specialist in sport. Lo and behold I got a month-long job for an athletics website.

I always thought I had picked an "easy" field. But then the very things that I find easy in sports translation I see posted on Kudoz questions, therefore I have reached the conclusion that sports translation is easy *for me*, since I know the vocabulary and expressions from years of watching sport on TV and reading about it in newspapers and on the Internet. But to someone unfamiliar with the field, it is just as difficult as, say, electrics is for me.


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Ford Prefect  Identity Verified
Burkina Faso
Local time: 03:29
German to English
+ ...
... Sep 16, 2006

Jack Doughty's colleague once said:

"Why do we need translators? All we need is a good bilingual dictionary and we can just look up all the words ourselves".



I spy similar logic here, "Why do translators need to specialise? All we need is a good specialist dictionary and we can just look up all the words ourselves. Then I can make loads of money translating in fields where I have no real competence so my competitors who do specialise in those fields will have to do likewise or starve."

How sensible.

Bonita, your hypothetical client is rarely in a position to know whether or not the hypothetical job submitted as a non-specialist is any good. Are you competent at assessing whether a second-hand car is in good condition? Do you know how to decide whether a structural survey has been done thoroughly? If we could do all these things, we wouldn't need to hire skilled professionals and rely on their opinions in the first place, would we?

Sadly, the world does rely to a certain extent on the honesty of those putting themselves forward as professionals. But as in other fields, the cheat will always win - just as a cowboy builder will get richer than a real builder by doing jobs that look right and disappearing before his clients realise that what they thought was a good job by a competent professional was actually rubbish, this market is now inundated with people trying to justify the extension of their competencies into fields they know absolutely nothing about. Ideally, if you are going to translate design instructions for suspension bridges you best have built a few. Second best you have a thorough understanding of civil engineering backed up with formal education in the discipline if possible. The same goes if you're going to translate clinical trial protocols or some sick guy's MR scan.

The most important thing a good professional knows is his or her limits.

Lia Fail wrote:

As to outcome, a good translator will translate better than a field expert who has few notions of what it is to translate and to write. I have read a number of articles that assess this issue (one I remeber was published in an ATA volume, a study by Barbara Thomas, I believe).


And someone who is both an expert specialist and a translator will presumably do the best job of all then. Of course you don't want people with "few notions of what it is to translate and to write" translating, just like you don't want to drive over a bridge built to a spec translated by someone with few notions of how bridges are built.


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 06:29
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
In big languages you need to specialise Sep 16, 2006

Because there are so many people out there that are able to deliver reasonably good translations from one main language into another and do it for cheap, you have either to compete with them and work as cheap or specialise.
With minor languages specialising is only useful if you find customers that need big volumes all the time.
Myself this year I have had everything conceivable, from ladies underwear to biochemical patents and EU communications, but not a single asignment from English to German, because I do not work for those low rates.
Regards
Heinrich


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