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Is specialization really a must?
Thread poster: Luís E. dos Santos
Luís E. dos Santos
Brazil
Local time: 23:20
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Nov 14, 2008

Hello.

I've been a full-time freelance translator since March, 2004 and I've already worked for over twenty agencies from Brazil and abroad. From my experience, I came to the conclusion that many agencies expect translators to be Jacks-of-all-trades, that is, agencies want us to work in as many fields as possible.

A project manager asked me once: "Do you do only legal?!"

Another project manager told me once: "I'm sending you a test translation in your fields of expertise, but if you're successful in the test, you'll have to work in other fields as well."

Considering all that I said, I have two questions:

1) Is specialization really a must?

2) When I specialize, am I supposed to take on jobs only within my specializations?

Thank you.


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Buck
Netherlands
Local time: 03:20
Member (2007)
Dutch to English
I think it depends on the translator Nov 14, 2008

I specialise in legal translations, and don't take on work in fields in which I am not competent. And by the way, agency cannot "tell" you you will have to work in other fields as well. You decide which texts you take on, not the agency.

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ST Translations
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:20
French to English
Specialising Nov 14, 2008

Yes, I agree with Buck in that you have the final say about whether you accept a translation or not. I don't turn down texts if I am comfortable with the subject matter but I prefer to translate in my specialised areas. I don't think it's really a black and white issue.

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jmadsen  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
To me specialization is an advantage Nov 14, 2008

There is a limit to how much information you can remember, how many languages you can master, how many subject areas you can be well-acquainted with. As language specialists, we must be expected to know our working languages fairly well, and for me that means I work 99 percent of the time English to Danish. As for subject areas, I mostly translate automotive, medical and information technology texts. It's important to know your limitations. If you take a job and don't really understand what the text is about, your translation will be sub-standard and your client may (or may not) critisize your work. That way you may loose that client or even get a bad reputation in the business. Just my two cents...

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Kevin Fulton
United States
Local time: 21:20
German to English
Multiple specialties also common Nov 14, 2008

Although most of my work is automotive-related, I also frequently translate material relating to certain types of medical equipment and automation.

There is also no reason why you can't also translate documents not requiring specialized knowledge such as birth certificates, driver's licenses, general correspondence, etc.


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Gianni Pastore  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 03:20
Member (2007)
English to Italian
I would say... Nov 14, 2008

...it's "plus" more than a "must"
Best
G

[Edited at 2008-11-14 16:20 GMT]


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Mario Gonzalez  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 20:20
Member (2008)
English to Spanish
+ ...
No Nov 14, 2008

I specialize in medicine but have translated oil refinery software manuals.

Same words, when I come across something not known, I ask the owner of the original for preferred wording in my translation.

They don't seem to mind.


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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:20
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Two ways of looking at it Nov 14, 2008

Way back about 1980, I attended a lecture meeting held by the Translators' Guild (a predecessor of ITI), which was addressed by two speakers.
One, whose name I forget, was English but brought up in Germany, so knew both languages very well. He had spent most of his working life in the machine tools industry, as an engineer, sales manager and various other aspects, so he knew the industry inside out and had excellent contacts in it. He then decided to switch to translation. All his translations were from the machine tool industry, and he was such an expert in it that he was able to charge much higher than average rates for his translations, and having contacts in the industry who knew and trusted him, he always had plenty of work, and made a very good living.
The other, whom I had known slightly on a Russian-English course at London University arranged by the armed forces in 1955-56, was Admiral Maitland MakGill Crighton. He spoke 23 languages fluently and had a working knowledge of about 18 others. He was a brilliant linguist, and was able to do good work in many fields and many languages. He too made a very good living as a translator.
So there are two extreme examples. I suspect that most translators start in one language and just one or two fields, and then expand into others, in which they learn as they go and end up being able to do capable work in them. I would put myself in that category, starting with Russian and engineering, later doing some German in one field, and going on to tackle other subjects from Russian.


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Multitran
Argentina
Local time: 23:20
English to Spanish
+ ...
Specialize Nov 14, 2008

Specializing is good for you when the moment comes, and you can translate specialized texts
with confidence and ease. But not all translations require specializations. I specialize in several
fields and have found that very convenient. Also if you work as an interpreter.

Maybe you should specialize in some fields you like, so that it will also become an interesting practice.

Regards,


Liliana

[Edited at 2008-11-14 17:03 GMT]

[Edited at 2008-11-15 09:58 GMT]


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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 21:20
English to French
+ ...
There are agencies, and then there are agencies Nov 14, 2008

I also have come across agencies that expect us to be jacks-of-all-trades. However, in my experience, those are the agencies whose main weaknesses are quality assurance and project management. I usually stay clear of them, because I am the kind of person who strives to sell quality translations to agencies whose end users will appreciate it.

Now, sometimes, project managers do ask me if I deal with other types of texts or other subject matters, which is alright. There are not many translators who have only one specialization - usually, good translators with a sense of business will leverage their main specialization to be able to take on texts in other fields, but which are still somewhat related to their main specialization. My main specialization is the environment, which already draws upon biology, chemistry, administration, health and safety, construction, statistics, geology, geography, military, acheology, etc. So, I work in all of those fields (which are all fascinating and a lot of good fun - no boredom over here). This means that besides environmental reports, I also translate MSDSs and patents, for example. However, I still don't consider myself a jack-of-all-trades, and if someone asked me whether I also do legal translation, for example, I will just tell them no straight up, even if the legal text to be translated is very simple and could be translated by most translators (like confidentialty statements on websites).

First off, if you specialize in too many fields, you may end up not being highly specialized in any of them (master of none), which can cause quality issues down the line, which in turn could cause disputes and litigations. But there is another, less evident aspect to this. By concentrating on a few fields at a time, you can become an expert at something (I have a client who considers me as such and prefers to pay the price for a job he trusts will be well done rather than paying a lower rate to someone else and risking his reputation and losing clients). When you are an expert, you often get the long end of the stick - you are in a better position to set rates, payment terms, etc.

To me, agencies that expect us to specialize in a little bit of everything come off as not so professional and usually put price ahead of quality. Which is OK to some as it is also a legitimate market segment - but it's not my cup of tea. It's up to you to see if you want to stay in that segment or move up to the segment that prefers quality. That segment usually pays better and faster and also likes to have pleasant relationships with their translators.


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Nadja Balogh  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 03:20
Member (2007)
Japanese to German
+ ...
Also depends on the language pair Nov 15, 2008

In languages pairs with a lot of competition, I believe that specialization is almost a must in order to stand out from the crowd.

However, when it comes to rare language combinations (such as my major pair, Japanese to German), many clients seem to regard this in itself as a kind of "specialization", expecting me to translate virtually anything (and I'm not talking about those low-end agencies).

Whether or not I end up accepting the job is another matter, which I decide on a case-by-case basis.


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Aniello Scognamiglio  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 03:20
English to German
+ ...
specialization -> expert -> professional -> more money Nov 15, 2008

Luís E. dos Santos wrote:

A project manager asked me once: "Do you do only legal?!"

>>> What's his/her problem? It's like asking an oculist: Do you do only eyes?

1) Is specialization really a must?

>>> Yes, if you are a professional and if you want to make a lot of money.
If you want to translate for peanuts, you can do any field.
Put simply: When you specialize, you become a real expert in the field.
When you do not specialize, you will remain a "Jack-of-all-trades" (=low rates)!

2) When I specialize, am I supposed to take on jobs only within my specializations?

>>> I recommend to do so, but you are a freelancer, aren't you? So it's up to you!



[Bearbeitet am 2008-11-15 16:44 GMT]


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Nicole Schnell  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:20
English to German
+ ...
If you want to attract direct clients, it certainly is. Nov 15, 2008

No direct client, whatever manufacturer, organization, lawyer's office, software developer or such will contact, hire and contract you if you are a Jack-of-all-Trades.

Even tonality is part of the corporate identity. A fact that some translation agencies (the ones that focus on profit rather than quality, as Viktoria has described previously) are likely to neglect.


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John Cutler  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 03:20
Spanish to English
+ ...
A good secret to success Nov 15, 2008

Nadja Balogh wrote:

In languages pairs with a lot of competition, I believe that specialization is almost a must in order to stand out from the crowd.


I couldn't agree more. I work in a language pair where translators are a dime a dozen: Spanish>English.

What's kept me employed full time for several years (and at mid to high rates I set) is the fact that I tend to specialize in pharmaceutical and scientific translations.

There's a ton of work in those fields but it requires specialized vocabulary and not everyone can find what they need by simply looking in dictionaries or Googling a term.

I've also played the jack-of-all-trades role, although I always mention to the client that I don't specialize in the particular area they're asking me to do.


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 03:20
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Answers to Luís Nov 15, 2008

Luís E. dos Santos wrote:
1) Is specialization really a must?


No, but it is useful. No-one should expect you to do work that you choose not to do. If an agency wants a general translator, they should look somewhere else, yes?

The fact is that there is no such thing as "general". Those of us that offer general translation (and I'm one of them) are simply offering specialised translations at a lower level of expertise.

Clients who accept general translators are taking higher risks, because those general translators won't spend an awful lot of extra time to ensure that their translations are truly accurate. This may sound terrible, but it is the reality. The other reality is that the types of texts translated by such translators are often less critical anyway, so the client is actually taking a calculated risk, not a rash risk.

If a client wants you to translate in a field that is not your specialisation, you should charge a higher fee, because it will take you longer. If you were a general translator, you could charge the normal fee, because it would not take you longer, because general translators do not aim for such high levels of certainty.

2) When I specialize, am I supposed to take on jobs only within my specializations?


If you can, yes. It makes sense to take on more jobs in your field of speciality than in other fields.

For starters, all translation jobs have learning value for you, so why waste your time "learning" about stuff you don't want to? And no doubt you enjoy your specialisation more than most other texts. Surely you should enjoy your work, unless you are desperate.


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