French-English translation student choosing a specialty
Thread poster: sarahng
Local time: 09:52
Dec 7, 2013

As the title suggests, I am currently getting my master's in French-English translation. I know that in order to maximize my chances of gainful employment after I graduate, I need to take advantage of the resources available to me now and start developing a specialty. However, I'm feeling a bit lost about how to choose as when I have asked professionals for advice, I've been told to specialize in whatever I'm passionate about and become competitive for the field by reading a lot. I'm not saying that this is bad advice, but I have a broad range of interests so I definitely want to consider money and demand when choosing a specialty, and I know that there is a lot more to convincing a potential employer (or client) that you are capable of translating a certain type of text than just being able to say you've read a lot of them!

A little about my background: I have a B.S. degree in psychology (from a small school, so my curriculum included a good deal of hands-on research and writing up that research in the style of a journal article). I have 1.5 years of work experience doing recruiting mainly for engineering (biotech and semiconductor) and IT positions, and I also did some marketing work for an IT consulting agency when I was a recruiter there. My interests are kind of all over the place. In school, I had a brain for math, science, and programming, so to speak, but not enough interest to try to become a scientist or programmer. I especially loved biology (and was good at it - AP bio student of the year, not that that matters 10 years later!). I have some basic programming knowledge, not enough to actually get a job in it, but I took enough classes to know that I have a knack for it and could easily brush up my skills. I figure that one of my strengths as a budding translator is that I have a relatively strong natural ability in those fields for a person trained as a translator, so I have always assumed that my specialty would fall in science-medicine-IT-tech. However, I'm also interested in environmental policy, especially marine/coastal issues (I took several classes in this area in college). I know that there are many NGOs which I could volunteer for on the side of a better-paying specialty, though. I love cooking and reading cookbooks and food blogs, and I also read several fashion magazines, so given that my source language is French, gastronomy and fashion might be possibilities. When I'm reading for fun (or flipping through the LeMonde app on my kindle), I tend to gravitate towards health/nutrition/fitness, beauty/fashion, and science/environment articles.

So, in short, these are some areas that I have considered. I would appreciate any input you can provide about factors like how viable is it to get into these fields without special training (i.e. medicine without medical training), the pay grade (I am not asking for anyone's personal rates, just whether it pays higher or lower on the spectrum), the demand in my language pair, etc.
-Medicine (mental health, wellness, and nutrition are areas that I already know a lot about -- I'm not sure if those would be included under medicine or public health or something in between)
-According to a presentation by a translation industry trend researcher that I attended, the less glamorous areas of engineering (like manufacturing and petroleum) are direly in need of translators. Perhaps that would be a good area to look into? I know some terminology as I used to read hundreds of resumes from engineers (manufacturing included) per day, and I have family in the field.
-Software/website localization (I have heard conflicting reports about how well this pays)
-On the totally opposite end of the spectrum, cultural specialties like food and cooking and/or fashion and beauty products (like the little instruction booklets that come in the boxes with your skincare products)

Thanks in advance for any information!

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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:52
Member (2007)
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In-house or freelance translator? Dec 7, 2013

It would be useful to know how you see yourself starting out. Will you try to get your first professional experience in-house in an agency; as an in-house translator for a large company; or will you set yourself up as a freelancer? The most important thing (after the ability to do the job, of course) is to give your potential employer or client the best possible message. It needs to be clear, uncluttered, and match exactly what they're looking for.

An agency recruiter will be looking for an all-rounder, I would imagine, if they're in the market for college leavers. I'm sure they'd go for someone with experience if they needed specialists. So they'll be looking for someone to churn out page after page of "general" translations. They would class a lot of things as general, as long as they weren't highly technical, so you'd probably be dealing with different subjects every day. That first experience would give you both an idea of what interests you most and some background in translating it. I think they'd be quite happy to employ someone who already has an interest in so many different areas.

An end-client will be a specialist itself and won't deal with anything outside of their own sphere. Of course, an engineering company needs legal contracts, needs to market itself, needs to recruit staff... so there will be a little variety but not much. They will want you to be passionate about what they do. They could actually be put off by emphasis on other interests.

As a freelancer, there's one golden rule: only do what you can do superbly well. Why would anyone pay you to do anything else? Particularly in your pair where there are thousands of other translators willing, and perhaps more able, to take on the work. Both for places like, where you'll be building a profile (hint, hint), and in your quotes, you have to present a very coherent message. Anything that confuses the client will make him/her pass to the next prospect. I reckon that a client who sees that you specialise in, for example, engineering, gastronomy and IT will likely see you as a master of none. Not that you can't work in all these areas if you get the chance; just that it may be better to limit the marketing to a coherent set of specialisations.

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Local time: 09:52
Freelance Dec 7, 2013

Thank you for the detailed reply. My end goal is absolutely to be a freelance translator. I'm willing to work at an agency first to get experience and pay the bills, but I want to transition into freelance work as soon as I can. I also want to eventually work remotely, which I know most translators do, but perhaps that isn't the norm in certain specialties which would influence my decision.

So, I know that I definitely need to choose one particular specialty to market myself in, and ideally I need to start specializing while I'm still in school so that I can focus my volunteer translations, topics for my school assignments, and internship all around that specialty. The difficulty that I'm running into is that I am finding it hard to get any real answers about market conditions, employment conditions, and the like, or even any answers beyond "Specialize in what you're passionate about." I'm hoping to find some information about the pay, availability of work, ability of a person without a specialist background to truly become competitive in the field, etc to help me make a decision so that I can begin specializing! I find everything on the list I wrote interesting enough to happily embark on a career in it. However, there's no single topic that I am so incredibly passionate about that I would choose it over other options if it meant struggling to find work or making half as much money as I could in another specialty. I am happy to choose my primary specialty based on business motives (barring things that I'm just totally uninterested in) and dabble in some of my other interests on the side or on a volunteer basis.

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Texte Style
Local time: 07:52
French to English
Why only one? Dec 9, 2013

Sarah, if you're interested in the money, you need to specialise in law, finance, pharmaceuticals, medical or very high tech, and you need to have some training in these fields. You don't need to study medicine, I know a couple of former nurses who now do medical translations for example. Although I wouldn't recommend training to be a nurse in order to become a translator!

Other than that, it sounds like you have plenty of interests, which is a good thing. You don't need ONE specialist subject, you need several. I remember in 2008 with the financial crisis, I was working in an agency at the time, and we were suddenly inundated with CVs from translators specialising in the automotive and other industries. They had put all their eggs in one basket and the basket had a huge hole in it.

I'm interested in a whole lot of different stuff and that has served me well. At one point I was doing lots of technical translations about textiles, now I'm doing stuff about the fashion trends for next year. I have done architecture but I prefer art exhibitions. My enthusiasm for the exhibitions shines right through, so the clients come back. I used to do loads of menus, now I've branched out into more general tourism. I have done my fair share of boring corporate magazines and health and safety guidelines, and am now working more in sustainable development. I have worked for all sorts of cosmetics firms but have narrowed that down to organic cosmetics only (I refuse to use shampoo made from the sludge residue from oil refineries and won't translate anything for people who produce such stuff). Clients come and go.

You sometimes find yourself working on something outside your comfort zone because you're in a quiet spell or because you're offered good money and a generous deadline, and discovering a whole world you had never dreamed of. I recently did a report for a psycho-sociologist working for a company that was obviously worried about the health of their staff. I wouldn't normally have agreed to doing the job, having a pretty poor opinion of psychologists in general, but I loved it, now this woman sends me all her reports. I relish the fact that people's working conditions will be improved as a result of my translation. This speciality found me.

So I would suggest picking several specialities, without closing too many doors, and you'll probably find plenty of enjoyable work.

[Edited at 2013-12-09 23:45 GMT]

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Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:52
English to Polish
+ ...
Go in-house first and see where that takes you? Dec 10, 2013

Otherwise get some schooling in a substantive area of business or some other field or specialise in one where you already have some schooling. It does help a lot. It's not the magic of a degree but rather the effect of concentrated learning with external assistance, supervision and enforcement of proper discipline, which makes organised formal education so effective.

As a bonus, such a degree will help you find clients and impress them and make your CV stand out.

You already have a nice B.S. in psych to achieve this, by the way.

I have always assumed that my specialty would fall in science-medicine-IT-tech.

Sounds logical in your case. I suppose your gold mine would be in those huge interdisciplinary projects, which sometimes a single translator can handle due to being able to work on 1) at all and 2) faster than others because of the knowledge of all the fields involved which he already has.

However, I'm also interested in environmental policy, especially marine/coastal issues

That should be something you could handle without pursuing education in the field, I guess, though it would make sense to work with NGOs first, learn, gain experience, get referrals etc.

And don't forget psychology, although it may be difficult to gain access to such sources, just like with literary translations or academic translations in all fields.

As for software localisation, that's more like having a good style, good intuition, not fussing over huge texts with 30% new segments and 30% in the 75% range (discounted 33% or so), following huge instructions and analysing reference materials, submitting to lengthy QA procedures and so on and so forth. It doesn't really matter so much what you specialise in. Your knowledge of coding and general familiarity with software will be helpful but don't expect it to be ambitious work. It'd be like going from doctor to paramedic. Or I'm just jaded (for the record, I'm an old-time coder myself).

[Edited at 2013-12-10 18:58 GMT]

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French-English translation student choosing a specialty

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