Degree studies: Languages vs. Specialization?
Thread poster: Mark Benson
Mark Benson  Identity Verified

English to Swedish
+ ...
Oct 12, 2010

I am 27 years old. I started translating for my grandfather's patent consultancy business when I was 20. Since then, I've been registered here and on other sites, and I've taken on a number of projects from a number of different individuals and agencies.

I've studied a bit at the university, but I never got out a degree. I've only studied languages.

Now since the economy changed, things aren't going well and I'm thinking about how I should make a living. As a translator?

Considering this option, I'm thinking about whether to get a degree in languages, or to study something I'm interested in and thus acquire a specialization.

To think that one could ever be fully trained in a language is foolish, but to think that one could translate texts that one does not understand the informational and conceptual contents of is delusional. And then besides the competence aspect is the business aspect...

If I look at the amount of work I can get today, I'm simply not able to support myself. What should I do to change that?

If I could make things better by getting a degree in English, I'd still be restricted to doing general translation work, and the question is then whether it would be worth while in the long run for me personally.

This is how I look at it:

A degree in languages, plus whichever further qualifications you can get as a translator, would restrict me to work in a sort of "professional linguist" framework; translating, teaching and whatever else there might be, while a degree that would give me a specialization as I continued to do translations would qualify me to work in another field than translations.

And then, aren't there different ways of showing qualification for linguistic work? Is a degree the most practical one?

I don't say that there's a limit as such. A degree is a degree, the rest is up to oneself, but... When it comes to financing and earning, I'd have to say that it looks pretty obvious to me that a fresh baked translator without any specialization would find a hard time on the labor market, as opposed to someone who could exit degree studies and find another job, and then finance the whole transfer into working as a translator.

I will hit the post button now and have lunch, and return and fill in later, just to get things started...

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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:33
Member (2007)
+ ...
Some food for thought Oct 12, 2010

Hello Marco,

I can't address all your questions as I don't have all the answers (and I have very little in the way of qualifications), but I have a few more questions to give food for thought:-

Have you considered translating between your two native languages (Italian and Swedish) as your main pair(s)?

Into or out of English automatically gives you an awful lot of competitors. I don't know how much work is out there in your other languages, but every language pair needs some translators and there seem to be very few registered on ProZ (which is probably representative of the translation world in general).

Looking at the directory, it would appear that you would be only the 55th translator to register on the site with Swedish to Italian in the top 2 language pairs, native in Italian. Already that's not a lot of competition as many of these will specialise in medical/legal/science/... texts, but you would jump onto the first page if you became a paid member or even if you got points for giving the best answer to a couple of KudoZ questions (always a good thing to do anyway). I know that ProZ isn't the only place to get jobs, by a long way, but it might prove a good niche market for you.

Note that in unusual language pairs it is not as usual to specialise. Instead, the same translator tackles a wider range of texts and uses a specialised target-language proofreader to check the terminology where necessary. This puts up the cost to the client but that's the penalty of wanting something non-standard and most clients understand that.

Which brings me to my second question: Are the rates you give in your profile your actual working rates?

Surely you can't live on those rates in Sweden, can you? Do prospective clients take you seriously? And do you really accept anything from 15-40 euros per hour? An hour is an hour, after all and there are only so many of them in a day. If you need to earn 40€ an hour to survive, why work for 15?

Last question: Is there no type of text you'd really like to do more of?

Yes, you could study a field intensively at uni. That's obviously one way. But you could also develop a specialisation over time (trying to avoid the most jargon-rich ones early on or else being prepared to spend a lot of time on research so earning less per hour), by learning from experience.

This could be connected with an existing hobby or interest. A percentage of translators have developed very well-paid sidelines specialising in this way whilst also accepting more general work.

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Sibylle de Schmidt  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:33
Member (2009)
English to German
+ ...
Specialization! Oct 12, 2010

Hi Marco,

I am of course biased, but I would always vote for specialising in a range of subjects, als I have done with medical/pharmaceutical translations.

In your case, you can choose, what ever you like as a specialization, as long as you find it fun to work in that area, because you just started.

Questions, I would ask myself:
1. During my translation projects, had I to do with texts/subjects, that I found interesting/liked? (In my case, that was f. i. medical market research)

2. Did I want to learn more about it?

2a. If yes, are there courses for terminology, that I can follow without having to work in the field of that specific specialization? (that is, if you in general like translating)

3. Am I young enough to learn and get working experience in a field and come back to translating later in my life?

3a. Am I in the mood, to start a quite specialized education in another field?

4. Can I get working experience (earning money) in a specialized area and utilize that later for my translations? For example a path like: call center - technical support - more IT knowledge - translating in the IT area...

Finally, my personal opinion - I think working experience is much more important than any degree you can aquire, however for your image as a translator and being a member of professional organizations and federations, a degree makes it easier.

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Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:33
Member (2002)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Comments Oct 12, 2010

MarcoB wrote:
I started translating for my grandfather's patent consultancy business...

So you are already familiar with patents? That is a useful specialisation, with quite a lot of work available. If I were in your shoes, I would focus on patents and not bother about a degree acquired purely to become a translator.
...whether to get a degree in languages, or to study something I'm interested in and thus acquire a specialization.

You claim in your ProZ profile that you are native in Swedish and Italian. Is that really true? If so, it is better than a degree. If not, a degree is an expensive way of getting a specialisation, particularly when you already have a specialisation. And there are plenty of alternatives to a full degree course.
I'm simply not able to support myself. What should I do to change that?

Charge a realistic amount. Your ProZ profile says you charge 0.03 - 0.05 eur per word. Plenty of English to Swedish translators charge 3 or 4 times more than that. Swedish rates are higher than most other languages. getting a degree in English, I'd still be restricted to doing general translation work ...

In the major languages some sort of specialisation is essential to distinguish yourself from the crowd. In lesser languages like Swedish specialisation is less important, so doing general translation is viable. That is certainly true in the opposite direction – Swedish to English, as I do.
To sum up: focus on your strengths, namely patents and your strongest language combination. And talk to your grandfather about becoming an expert on patents by working there.

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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:33
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
You could take ´Open University´ courses Oct 12, 2010

In Denmark there are excellent 'Åben uddannelse' courses leading to a qualification called ED (Erhvervssproglig Diplom) if you take enough modules. There is no need to take more than you find useful. I think six or seven modules add up to about a year's work at university in terms of ECTS.
Is there any equivalent in Sweden? Surely there must be.

You can select modules that suit you - economics, technology, Law etc., and if you take one or two at a time, although you do not end up with a degree, you do end up with some very useful knowledge, and need not invent the wheel every time yourself.

I suggest you contact the SFÖ and ask what is available in Sweden.

From the amount of Swedish I am asked to translate, and regretfully have to say I cannot take on, there is plenty of work out there waiting to be done, and you should be able to earn a reasonable living.

Besides, as a translator, you may stop taking exams and gaining diplomas, but you can never stop studying the background and terminology of what you are translating.

Best of luck!

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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:33
Member (2007)
+ ...
Patent translating - is that straightforward? Oct 12, 2010

Peter Linton wrote:
So you are already familiar with patents? That is a useful specialisation, with quite a lot of work available. If I were in your shoes, I would focus on patents and not bother about a degree acquired purely to become a translator.

I'm not so sure about that. I know next to nothing about patents, but there are patents and patents - no?

One patent may be about a medical appliance, the next about a chemical process, the next a military application, ... I would have thought you needed a highly technical medical/engineering/scientific background to be able to translate any and every patent.

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Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:33
Flemish to English
+ ...
University evening courses. Oct 13, 2010

With what I know now (at age 50), I would have :
1. Studied law or applied economics
2. Then languages and not vice-versa

To be a translator (lawyer-linguist) at the European-Court, you have to be lawyer first and linguist after.

In the normal world, studies which lead to a standard career are: (a lawyer/barrister is also a well-paid freelancer).
b.Applied economics or commercial engineer, which opens many doors.
c. Computer sciences. One of my aquiantances is a civil engineer, majored in computer sciences. At the moment, he works at a major bank as a freelance computer-programmer.
d. Engineer
e. The sciences.

Among those who pass interpreter-admission tests are not necessarily all translators.

Of course, this is a restricted view. Everybody successfull in his/her field can earn a decent living. The only thing a tennis-champ/golf-champ knows is how to hit a ball. However, the best can retire at age 26.

I should study English? Mmm... what is the return on your investment (time and money)?
If you want to study languages, go to a school for translators and interpreters, where you have to choose at least 2 foreign languages. It will make you stronger when competing with people who chose that direction.

Translation: Thé overnight profession. It is a crisis, I want to make a living, I know language X,Y,Z, so I'll just start translation. This confirms what a professional said to me:Translation is something you do when you are not capable of doing something better or when you have nothing else to do". I wonder how many jumped on translation since the crisis began.
Other possibilities: take evening courses in web-site building, dtp, progamming or networks. Short investment of time to learn how to built a website, a dtp-programme, Visual or, in Sweden probably at low tuition for job-seekers and a fast return.

[Edited at 2010-10-13 09:22 GMT]

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Degree studies: Languages vs. Specialization?

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