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How necessary is it to specialise in translation?
Thread poster: Jean Wallace
Jean Wallace
Local time: 21:41
Spanish to English
+ ...
Feb 13, 2008

I have recently begun working as a freelance translator. Work has been slow but above all my worry is that I have been turned down by a few agencies after completing translation tests.
The tests were based on a variety of subjects such as IT and legal language, generally fields that I am not particularly expert in. However, to tell the truth, even though I have had jobs in different areas, I don´t consider myself expert in any.
I would like to believe that I have a both a good style of writing in English and an adequate knowledge of both the source languages I translate from, having both studied and lived in these countries. However, at this point I am starting to despair that I do not possess the talents to work as a translator.
My question is: should I take this a sign that I should seek other opportunities in other careers? After all not everyone with language skills is cut out to be a translator. Or, is it necessary to specialise in a subject or subjects in order to become a good professional translator?

Thanks for any helpful advice on this issue.


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Buck
Netherlands
Local time: 21:41
Member (2007)
Dutch to English
Don't give up yet Feb 13, 2008

Hi. I know how it feels to be a 'new' freelancer, without much experience. Agencies generally look for a translator who specialises in certain types of texts. Merely having a good writing style and being fluent in both languages is not necessarily an advantage, since there is more to translating than merely substituting one word for another. Have you tried taking on general texts? I think that is a good way to start. That is what I did, and I eventually realised I was good at legal texts, which is what I specialise in now.

All the best!


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 21:41
Italian to English
Specialisation helps Feb 13, 2008

Hi Jean,

Even though many translators find they can survive happily as generalists, specialising can help, particularly if you want to earn top dollar from direct clients.

Prospective customers are unlikely to feel like paying much if you have cold-called them - or you have answered a job posting on Proz - so the trick is to get them to come to you, for example by sourcing you through the Proz directory. Price will not be their first concern if they specifically want the quality you can provide.

Apart from helping to attract business, specialising also enables you to deliver better-quality work quicker than a generalist translator of equivalent ability, who would have to research what you already know.

FWIW

Giles


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Charlie Bavington  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:41
French to English
Specialising = understanding = better results Feb 13, 2008

Your post brought to mind this recent query to which I responded:

http://www.proz.com/post/727664#727664

The points made about that particular term in that particular field can be applied to thousands of terms in hundred of fields.

If you specialise, you are more likely to understand and be able to visualise what is going on, and render it more naturally. It will, in many fields, be an advantage to have worked in the field.
I'm not saying "give up", but do consider the issue, and play to your own strengths.


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 21:41
Spanish to English
+ ...
research Feb 13, 2008

Jean Wallace wrote:
The tests were based on a variety of subjects such as IT and legal language, generally fields that I am not particularly expert in. However, to tell the truth, even though I have had jobs in different areas, I don´t consider myself expert in any.



Don't give up, as someone else suggested, try going for general work rather than specialist work for the moment (websites, general tourism etc). When it comes to something more specialist, only go for it if you feel that you have a personal interest in the subject area.

Acquiring specialist knowledge is a real bugbear for translators, as the specialist translator certainly does command higher rates.

Just remember that there are billions of words in English on the web so learning to be a good researcher and using the right kind of research tools is as crucial a part of translating as knowing two languages and writing well (and having a few dictionaries, which only give you words).

I'm currently co-authoring an article on acquiring specialist expertise using corpora, to be submitted for publication very soon (and we also do corpus workshops). If you write me a mail I will give you more details.

A word of advice, don't publish your rates, as there's no need to.

[Edited at 2008-02-13 15:49]


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 20:41
Dutch to English
+ ...
Rem Tene, Verba Sequentur Feb 13, 2008

Master the subject and the words will follow.

If you don't understand the subject-matter, you'll never deliver a valid or convincing translation.

This doesn't mean you have to be a lawyer, engineer, doctor etc to take on the relevant texts but you're at a clear disadvantage if you haven't got the necessary background. I regularly review texts from so-called legal translators and, unfortunately, can often spot immediately that they haven't got a clue what they are doing. Or they call themselves legal translators, but go beyond a standard lease or employment contract into the realm of mergers and acquisitions or shareholder agreements and they are stumped.

Like Giles also points out, you will spend too much time researching if you don't specialise, time we really don't get paid for at the end of the day.

Sit down and be frank with yourself - what jobs have you done where you've gained valuable experience and what are your interests?

If you do tests, only do those covering subjects you're comfortable with, otherwise you're setting yourself up for failure. I might be a lawyer, for example, but hell, give me a text to do with cooking/cuisine and I'll run a mile. We all have strengths and weaknesses.

You've lived in a few countries, so tourism, gastronomy and cultural texts may be good springboards for you. But then again, it's a saturated direction, so spend as much time reading in areas that could develop into specialist fields.

Good luck
Debs


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Oleg Rudavin  Identity Verified
Ukraine
Local time: 22:41
Member (2003)
English to Ukrainian
+ ...
Specialization Feb 13, 2008

Welocomem to the realm Jene!

Imagine another siituation: you are a scientist. A... what? Do you do nuclear research or cardiology, or research soils, or study the influence of warmhouse effect on the wheat crops in Nunambria?

You just can't be Jack of all trades, and it takes time and effort to find domains you fel comfortable in and have a good knowledge of. So do specialize! As Lawyer-Linguist said, there's little prospect in general/gastronomy/cuisine areas as these are the areas where general knowledge and good research skills are sufficient.

At the same time, good language skills are a great asset (I came to believe there aren't so many translators who are at ease with theit native languages) - so persue the trade, be patient, specialize, and the result will come.

Cheers,
Oleg


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Stephen Gobin
United Kingdom
Local time: 20:41
German to English
+ ...
Specialisation to an extent Feb 13, 2008

Hello Jean, don't take this the wrong way at all, but I have looked at your CV on your proz profile and I notice that you have completed a post grad course of study in translation and it surprises me that this course you did may not have answered your queries that you've posted here.

Specialising, or perhaps concentrating might be a better word, on a specific field or fields is, I believe, key. Knowing a specific area obviously cuts down on research time and because you understand the concepts and what these actually mean in the "real world" is of enormous benefit in terms of speeding up the translation process and thus being able to bring home the bacon sooner. Nobody is an expert is everything under the sun, so I think you need to think about areas that interest you enough so you can build up your expertise without it becoming an awful chore and making you feel miserable within your own four walls. It is not necessary to be a surgeon, doctor, lawyer, high court judge, physicist or chemist - and if I were a surgeon, doctor, lawyer, high court judge, physicist or chemist then I would probably stay in that profession because I would be earning a lot more money and have more social standing than a translator;- - but if you do want to translate texts from a specific field of the law or science, then you will need to understand the concepts used and more importantly know how these concepts are expressed in English-language texts of a similar style so you able "mimic" accordingly (this obviously means reading documents in English to pick up the terminology used and the relevant style).

Another thing I would say that diverges from what others have hinted at here is that even so-called "general" texts (tourism and websites) are not push overs either. I have translated tourist literature and websites and they can be full of difficulties and challenges (geographical features, the natural world, architecture, history, cultural references, religious customs) as much as any legal text and moreover no translation I have completed has been a piece of cake, whatever the field.


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Özden Arıkan  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 21:41
Member
English to Turkish
One more point to consider... Feb 13, 2008

... besides everything thus far said on specializing, which I completely agree.

In a rare language combination you might as well survive, even prosper as a generalist. But in your pairs there are thousands of translators. Therefore, specialization seems to be the only way to stand apart. I cannot imagine a generalist in a pair as competitive as Spanish or French to English surviving with decent rates. And speaking of rates, I'd second Lia on her related advice, even if I wouldn't take the liberty to tell you that your rates are rather low (or, have I just taken it?)


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 21:41
Spanish to English
+ ...
corpus articles Feb 15, 2008

Jean Wallace wrote:

I have recently begun working as a freelance translator. Work has been slow but above all my worry is that I have been turned down by a few agencies after completing translation tests.
The tests were based on a variety of subjects such as IT and legal language, generally fields that I am not particularly expert in. However, to tell the truth, even though I have had jobs in different areas, I don´t consider myself expert in any.
I would like to believe that I have a both a good style of writing in English and an adequate knowledge of both the source languages I translate from, having both studied and lived in these countries. However, at this point I am starting to despair that I do not possess the talents to work as a translator.
My question is: should I take this a sign that I should seek other opportunities in other careers? After all not everyone with language skills is cut out to be a translator. Or, is it necessary to specialise in a subject or subjects in order to become a good professional translator?

Thanks for any helpful advice on this issue.



Two articles on the use of corpora by Wilkinson

http://www.accurapid.com/journal/35corpus.htm
http://www.jostrans.org/issue07/art_wilkinson.php

Our article will be submitted to JOSTRANS and will be published (if accepted) in summer:-)


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