Specialising as a scientific translator - what do you need?
Thread poster: William Wilde

William Wilde
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:49
French to English
+ ...
Mar 8, 2015

Hello all! This is my first post, although I've been reading posts on this forum for quite some time. I will try to keep my question fairly brief and hope I don't sound too ridiculous in asking it, but I haven't quite been able to get a solid answer on this (probably because there isn't really one).

I currently work as an administrator, getting to do occasional bits of translation and localisation. I'd eventually like to become a freelance translator and am thinking about specialisations. Something which I think I'd really enjoy is scientific translation, especially physics (and astronomy within that would be my ideal, or perhaps biology/medicine). My problem, which is undoubtedly common, is I only have a combined language degree (French and Portuguese) and no qualifications in science beyond school. I was considering perhaps doing the following:

-Getting an administration job in a laboratory/scientific organisation for a couple of years or maybe more, to get my feet wet in the industry.
-Studying short courses/diplomas within specific scientific areas.
-Getting a translation masters and passing the IOLET exam here in the UK.

Based on any experience anyone may have, would that possibly be enough to get agency/freelance work as a scientific translator, or will I be laughed away to make room for those who have actual science PhDs as well as the translation experience? Other specialisations I may like to look into are politics, international development and possibly patents, which might be more realistic.


Jenae Spry  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:49
French to English
You are a specialist because you say you are May 6, 2015

Hi William

Based on what you wrote, I'm not sure whether you're asking how you get work in a specialization or how you become qualified to perform the work in a specialization so I will answer both. I'm going to assume that you are already a qualified translator, but if not, your challenge is two-fold: (1) learn to translate and (2) learn science.

To become specialized, you simply state that you are specialized. I know that sounds silly, but I specialize in medical/pharma/biotech and I have a BA in French and an MA in translation, with zero background in science except what I have learned myself. I read a lot and I did a lot of research. Most specialized translators aren't also PhDs in a scientific domain...they are translators who have spent all of their extra time devoted to learning a specific area inside and out. They buy books, tools, and memberships that all pertain to and demonstrate their commitment to that domain.

To become qualified to perform the work of a scientific translator, you need to know the terminology and understand the topic. If you are brand new to that industry, start reading and learning. You don't necessarily need a degree in translation or a degree in your specialization. Both help of course, but everyone has different backgrounds. It all comes down to what you're capable of doing (hopefully, quality translation) and how you market yourself.

Hope this helps!


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:49
Chinese to English
Realistic expectations May 7, 2015

William Wilde wrote:

Something which I think I'd really enjoy is scientific translation, especially physics (and astronomy within that would be my ideal, or perhaps biology/medicine)...
Other specialisations I may like to look into are politics, international development and possibly patents, which might be more realistic.

The other factor you have to consider is market demand. Most scientific literature is written in English these days, so there isn't that much of a market for translating hard research papers. There are quite a lot of related materials - for astronomy, there might be popular astronomy books, telescope documentation, tv shows, etc. - but they're a bit scattered.

Medicine, on the other hand is a massive market. But it is rock hard and you will be competing with people with medical training, so you'll have to ease yourself into it.

With all of these technical specialisations, you might want to spend a bit of time thinking about what the actual documents will be. For example, you might be interested in biology, but actual bio-specialism documents can be astoundingly dull. There is only so much detail on how to prepare slides for a particular microscope that a person can read before going stir crazy!

Politics and int'l development are massive, and the docs tend to be more what you would expect - bureaucratic reports, economics, press releases, that sort of thing.

But I agree with Jenae: pick your specialism and go with it. There are no barriers to entry.


Richard Foulkes (X)  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:49
German to English
+ ...
I think you've got the right idea... May 7, 2015

Doing short courses on the likes of Coursera / Khan Academy, reading / subscribing to professional journals, taking CPD in a specialist field, attending conferences, etc. are all ways of building knowledge and demonstrating commitment to a specialisation aside from doing a degree.

Like Phil says, there are no rules, regulations or barriers to entry in translation so anybody can call themselves a specialised professional translator and nobody can tell them otherwise. People less qualified than you are already will be making a better living from translation than you are. I think how effectively you market yourself is almost as important as continuous development.

[Edited at 2015-05-07 08:43 GMT]


Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:19
English to Hindi
+ ...
Learn on the job May 7, 2015

As they say, where there is a will, there is a way.

Begin by taking up light scientific matters, to test out the waters, and your own level of preparation. One way to do this may be to write for children on scientific topics in both your source and target languages. Gradually you can pick up topics of increasing levels of difficulty. This will also establish your credentials are a scientific writer, which will also help in your translation career.

Who knows, you might even end up liking scientific writing even more than translation and decide on that as a career.

I don't know how old you are, or whether you are inclined to formally study science, which may take several years. May be not a practical route for you - but only you can take a call on that.

The bottom line is, if you have made up your mind don't let anything stop you from pursuing your dream. A positive attitude goes a long way in achieving your goal.


William Wilde
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:49
French to English
+ ...
Many thanks May 10, 2015

I'd like to thank everyone who's responded massively for your extremely encouraging and helpful responses!

Right now I'm looking at general translation courses which will help me sell myself better as a freelancer in whichever specialisation(s) I end up going for, and I will keep an open mind and try to at least dip my toes into getting more acquainted with science and scientific writing in the meantime. I'm still definitely considering the politics/development route as well, but it's good to hear that persistence is the main thing, which is something I definitely believe as well.


To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:

You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

Specialising as a scientific translator - what do you need?

Advanced search

Déjà Vu X3
Try it, Love it

Find out why Déjà Vu is today the most flexible, customizable and user-friendly tool on the market. See the brand new features in action: *Completely redesigned user interface *Live Preview *Inline spell checking *Inline

More info »
WordFinder Unlimited
For clarity and excellence

WordFinder is the leading dictionary service that gives you the words you want anywhere, anytime. Access 260+ dictionaries from the world's leading dictionary publishers in virtually any device. Find the right word anywhere, anytime - online or offline.

More info »

  • All of ProZ.com
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search