Advice with choosing a translation specialisation.
Thread poster: Erika Leblanc

Erika Leblanc  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:27
English to French
Apr 13, 2017

Dear translators,

I am a translation student currently working towards a degree in translation from English to French and eventually Spanish. This year (my last), I will have to choose a field in which to specialise. I am in quite a dilemma as to what to choose. I have a keen interest in history and politics (humanities in general), but I am worried that there may be not enough work in those areas, and I am wondering which type of document one has to translate in this field. I was also thinking of specialising in pharmaceutical or environmental. My main concern is to find a field in which there is a lot of work available in my language pair and at a good rate.

Any advice or any suggestions other than the areas mentioned above are welcome.

I would also love to hear about your experience in a given field, just to give me an idea.


Thank you in advance.


 

Angie Garbarino  Identity Verified
Member (2003)
French to Italian
+ ...
In your pair "English to French" Apr 14, 2017

There is a lot of work in the legal field, this is also a field in which MT is not used, due to the riks involved, Pharma is also a good one.

Good luck!


 

Max Deryagin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 21:27
Member (2013)
English to Russian
- Apr 14, 2017

Go audiovisual, subtitling or dubbing. It might not pay the best, but it is deifinitely one of the most enjoyable specializations.

 

Mario Chavez (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:27
English to Spanish
+ ...
Help for Erika Apr 14, 2017

I envy you a bit, Erika, for being able to have two working foreign languages besides your mother tongue(s).

Specialization is like buying a lottery ticket or playing the roulette: no choices are guarantees of anything. Since I have 26 years of experience working full time as a professional translator, and I continue to invest time in gaining knowledge (PhD student here in Lisbon, PT), may I suggest some tracks of action?

1) Start with a topic you enjoy reading about: it could be medicine, anatomy, pharmaceuticals, economy issues, legal topics (such as paternity leave, employee contracts, EULA contracts, etc.). You will be spending a lot of time in your profession translating, correcting others, etc. You might as well choose topics that you really enjoy reading and writing about.

2) Blog on your chosen topics just for pleasure. Forget about SEO words or getting more Twitter or blog followers. Participate in other blogs, whatever their profession, to gain experience in writing down a reply, a well-founded opinion, a sound argument.

3) Life has no guarantees, so don't expect that your chosen specialization will be a stable path to profitability or to a steady income. Clients come and go, world and local politics change the emphasis on one language pair over another. Whatever the case, read, write and translate about what you love.

Enjoy the ride.

Mario


 

Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 17:27
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
University specialisation, or lifetime specialisation? Apr 14, 2017

Erika Leblanc-Melnick wrote:
I am a translation student currently working towards a degree in translation from English to French and eventually Spanish. This year (my last), I will have to choose a field in which to specialise. I am in quite a dilemma as to what to choose. I have a keen interest in history and politics (humanities in general), but I am worried that there may be not enough work in those areas, and I am wondering which type of document one has to translate in this field. I was also thinking of specialising in pharmaceutical or environmental. My main concern is to find a field in which there is a lot of work available in my language pair and at a good rate.

Obviously it's a good idea to specialise at university in something you'll want to do later on when you set yourself up as a full-time translator. But I don't think it's necessarily going to happen that way. Specialisations occur from all sorts of sources, and may continue or may change somewhat over time. In your case, you say elsewhere: "interest in tourism, marketing, cooking, sciences, and humanities" and "AREAS OF INTEREST ... Tourism Humanities Health and Social Care Environment ...". Would it not be a good idea to pursue one or some of those areas?

I don't actually understand this wish that so many have to specialise in a subject area that has vast volumes of work associated with it. Do you really think you're going to get it all icon_smile.gif? It would just mean you're going to be one tiny voice in a big pool of suppliers, and in the EN>FR pair it's guaranteed to be a pretty enormous pool. Try searching in the directory here for the translator you're hoping to be one day (EN>FR, French native speaker, living in the UK, qualified and experienced, specialising in XXX) and see how many names pop up. And then think about how much work you personally need. Unless you're going to outsource - which is a whole new ball game - you certainly aren't going to be able to cope with more than about 15-20k words per week. Pretty much every specialist subject area in your pair has many, many times more than that available. Of course, you might want to get well-known in your chosen subject area before you try to specialise in just one tiny niche (think in terms of an environment specialist who specialises in air pollution and refuses all other environment texts).

It's the "generalists" who don't necessarily get paid much, at least in your pair. A translator in a rare pair probably needs to be a generalist, but then their whole pool is small so already they can command decent rates and afford subject specialist help when necessary. But in EN>FR, those who don't specialise are either inexperienced (and finding out what they like doing best) or they aren't prepared or able to take on the more difficult texts, so have to take whatever they can handle - which is often very poorly paid. There are hordes of those on certain general freelancer sites, beavering away for stupid rates. There are others, even specialists, who are poorly paid because they have no idea of marketing or negotiating and really shouldn't be running a business, or because they pay little attention to detail and deliver unpolished work, or because they aren't sufficiently available to meed the sometimes crazy deadlines.

I would advise you to choose your specialisation according to what you like doing, then make yourself the goto person in that area. Making the choice according to statistics and hearsay is not the logical way, IMHO. After all, you're going to be spending a good part of your life doing it!


 

Elif Baykara Narbay  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 19:27
German to Turkish
+ ...
+! Apr 14, 2017

Mario Chavez wrote:

I envy you a bit, Erika, for being able to have two working foreign languages besides your mother tongue(s).

Specialization is like buying a lottery ticket or playing the roulette: no choices are guarantees of anything. Since I have 26 years of experience working full time as a professional translator, and I continue to invest time in gaining knowledge (PhD student here in Lisbon, PT), may I suggest some tracks of action?

1) Start with a topic you enjoy reading about: it could be medicine, anatomy, pharmaceuticals, economy issues, legal topics (such as paternity leave, employee contracts, EULA contracts, etc.). You will be spending a lot of time in your profession translating, correcting others, etc. You might as well choose topics that you really enjoy reading and writing about.

2) Blog on your chosen topics just for pleasure. Forget about SEO words or getting more Twitter or blog followers. Participate in other blogs, whatever their profession, to gain experience in writing down a reply, a well-founded opinion, a sound argument.

3) Life has no guarantees, so don't expect that your chosen specialization will be a stable path to profitability or to a steady income. Clients come and go, world and local politics change the emphasis on one language pair over another. Whatever the case, read, write and translate about what you love.

Enjoy the ride.

Mario



Definitely.


 

Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:27
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Young translator choosing his speciality Apr 14, 2017

Erika Leblanc-Melnick wrote:
This year (my last), I will have to choose a field in which to specialise.


When I was a translation student, I also thought that a specialism is something that one chooses. But I have found that it is often something that creeps up on you.

What options do your university offer? Will your university train you specifically in your chosen specialism? If not, how do you plan to go about learning the specialism?


 

Erika Leblanc  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:27
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks everybody. Apr 14, 2017

First of all, thanks everybody for all those replies so far, it gives me food for thoughts.

It does make sense to choose something that I am interested in, otherwise, I guess it can end up quite tedious.

[quote]


Samuel Murray wrote:

Erika Leblanc-Melnick wrote:
This year (my last), I will have to choose a field in which to specialise.


When I was a translation student, I also thought that a specialism is something that one chooses. But I have found that it is often something that creeps up on you.

What options do your university offer? Will your university train you specifically in your chosen specialism? If not, how do you plan to go about learning the specialism?


Hi Samuel,

Indeed, my university will train me specifically in my chosen specialisation.

Here are the fields from which I can choose:

-Agriculture and environment
-Arts and literature
-Legal
-Economics and finance
-Education
-Business administration
-IT
-Politics
-Pure science (mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.)
-Biology and medical science
-Social science
-Sports
-Technology
-Leisure and tourism

I have already taken a legal course and a medical course so far. Next semester, I am going to take a legal translation and a medical translation course. But that was and is just part of the common core of my program's curriculum, though it can still give me an idea of what I like to translate.

Have you been trained in a particular field while studying?


 

Mario Chavez (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:27
English to Spanish
+ ...
Choosing or accepting specialisms Apr 14, 2017

Samuel Murray wrote:

Erika Leblanc-Melnick wrote:
This year (my last), I will have to choose a field in which to specialise.


When I was a translation student, I also thought that a specialism is something that one chooses. But I have found that it is often something that creeps up on you.

What options do your university offer? Will your university train you specifically in your chosen specialism? If not, how do you plan to go about learning the specialism?


Thanks, Samuel, for the questions you posited. Here in the USA, some universities offer 1-year translation certificates with some 'specialism' canned in the program: health care, medicine or such thing as viewed as highly marketable.

Alas, no one can tell what will be marketable in 3, 5 or 20 years from now. Trends come and go. It does help, Erika, to have some degree of encyclopedic knowledge and a notion of how different disciplines interrelate. For example, having college knowledge of math and geometry may help with architecture. Or a sound basis on hard sciences (chemistry, physics) will definitely help with pharma and civil engineering.

Specialisms (or specializations here in America) are not part of a color palette, something we blithely choose to use later. As Samuel infers correctly, some specialisms creep up on you, or, they choose you. A ready mind to read and write about a great variety of subjects may be one of the best strategies for the future.


 

Erika Leblanc  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:27
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
To adapt and be flexible... Apr 14, 2017

Mario Chavez wrote:

When I was a translation student, I also thought that a specialism is something that one chooses. But I have found that it is often something that creeps up on you.

What options do your university offer? Will your university train you specifically in your chosen specialism? If not, how do you plan to go about learning the specialism?

Thanks, Samuel, for the questions you posited. Here in the USA, some universities offer 1-year translation certificates with some 'specialism' canned in the program: health care, medicine or such thing as viewed as highly marketable.

Alas, no one can tell what will be marketable in 3, 5 or 20 years from now. Trends come and go. It does help, Erika, to have some degree of encyclopedic knowledge and a notion of how different disciplines interrelate. For example, having college knowledge of math and geometry may help with architecture. Or a sound basis on hard sciences (chemistry, physics) will definitely help with pharma and civil engineering.

Specialisms (or specializations here in America) are not part of a color palette, something we blithely choose to use later. As Samuel infers correctly, some specialisms creep up on you, or, they choose you. A ready mind to read and write about a great variety of subjects may be one of the best strategies for the future.


Thanks, Mario, I can see that it's not set in stone, one specialisation may be in high demand now only to decrease a couple of years later. It seems like the key is to adapt and be flexible.

It appears that in my language pair, as Sheila pointed out, just the fact of being specialised in something is a plus, that is if I can advertise myself properly, of course.


 

Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:27
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
The 4 factors that define a lucrative specialisation Apr 15, 2017

Erika Leblanc-Melnick wrote:
My main concern is to find a field in which there is a lot of work available in my language pair and at a good rate.

I think you've done well to recognize that areas in which you may have a personal interest may not be those that are conducive to prosperity. Nobody is saying that you should translate in an area for which you have a strong dislike, but when it comes to work, few people get to do what they enjoy doing all the time, so certain compromises are necessary. And not being able to support yourself economically usually leads to its own kind of misery.

Rather than suggest specific areas for you to consider, I instead offer a kind of checklist to apply to possible candidates for specialisation. As far as I can see, based on some personal experience and a bit of observation, a lucrative specialism should have the following characteristics.

First, it must not be easily acquired. This is common sense: if anybody can learn the knowledge in question with a couple of hours of work on the Internet, it is not worth much. There should be a significant barrier to entry of some kind. So you can expect to have to sweat to gain the knowledge. This may take the form of long years of firsthand experience in an industry (my route), distance learning, self-study or a qualification from a traditional educational establishment.

Second, it should involve an area where mistakes result in personal injury or significant financial loss. In theory, every slipup has consequences in this litigious era, but a mistake in translating the description of a hotel room is likely to lead to smaller problems than a mistake in translating the manual for medical equipment that dispenses drugs into a patient's bloodstream. The former error may result in inconvenience, while the latter mis-translation may result in injury or even death. When there is more at stake, clients are more likely to select a more highly qualified (read: expensive) translator.

Third, it should not be linked to discretionary spending. When times are hard - and remember that economies are cyclical - people cut back on non-core spending. For example, consumers who are happy to spend money on overseas holidays when the economy is booming can, and do, cut those expenditures in leaner times. If you specialise only in tourism, you may find yourself at the mercy of the business cycle. Translation that is driven by regulation or by other relatively unchanging factors (healthcare for example) will be more stable.

Fourth, aim to be in the top 10% or 20% in everything you do. There is no one translation rate. There is no one market. Instead there is a multiplicity of translation markets depending on language pair and specialism. I have no data to prove this, but I believe that the best rates are paid only in a limited segment at the top of each (roughly pyramidal) market and that rates fall off sharply thereafter. If you're not at the apex you will be paid much less.

Good luck.

Dan





[Edited at 2017-04-15 01:46 GMT]


 

Christian Nielsen-Palacios  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:27
Member
English to Spanish
+ ...
Big fish or little fish? Apr 15, 2017

Lots of good advice here...
Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a small fish in a big pond?
Just this week, I read in one of the Facebook groups for translators about a woman who only translates material about horses, into Dutch. She admit that there is not "a lot" out there, but she only has to get enough work for herself.
My own goal is to become the "go to" translator for architects and manufacturers of construction products in the US wanting to do business in Spanish-speaking countries (I am an architect). It hasn't quite happened yet, but it will. In the meantime, I enjoy translating documents about cupcakes and doughnuts.


 

Janet Ross Snyder  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 13:27
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Specialization does not necessarily determine what work you're offered Apr 15, 2017

Sheila Wilson wrote:

Obviously it's a good idea to specialise at university in something you'll want to do later on when you set yourself up as a full-time translator. But I don't think it's necessarily going to happen that way.


I agree. In my case I got a Master's degree in Spanish, thinking I would teach high school Spanish in a state where Spanish classes outnumber French classes 5 to 1. When I actually started looking for work, the only job I was offered was a job teaching French full time, even though I had had only 16 semester hours of college French when the offer was made. Before the school year began, I entered a French immersion course and then kept studying French on my own after teaching it all day. When I quit teaching and started translating, I started out spending about equal time with French and Spanish texts, but as time goes by, more and more of my billing is for FR>EN. The best plan is to be nimble and flexible, and never stop learning.


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:27
Member (2008)
Italian to English
I was lucky Apr 15, 2017

I was lucky - before I became a translator I was a busy architect working on large-scale projects with big multidisciplinary international teams of technical specialists (French, Italian, and English-speaking). This work included designing and building the projects in coordination with clients, end users, engineers from different disciplines, consultants, etc. I was doing this bilingually Italian/English/Italian spoken and written including technical specifications, contract documents etc.

This led me to become interested "on the side" in the mechanisms of translation until many years later one day I realised I was interested in translation as a second career - specialising in architecture/construction and related areas.

So I can confirm that being specialised in a particular field, or a group of inter-related fields, brings significant advantages: you don't have many competitors and you gradually build up a portfolio of clients who know that you have expertise in those fields.

When it comes to doing things the other way round (becoming a translator first and then choosing a specialism) my suggestion would be: get a job as in-house translator for a company working in your chosen field/s and stay there for a few years until you have mastered all the terminology. Then strike out on your own. You need practical experience, for the language to be alive (rather than studying it from books).

[Edited at 2017-04-15 17:02 GMT]


 

Erika Leblanc  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:27
English to French
TOPIC STARTER
Great advice Apr 29, 2017

Dan Lucas wrote:

Erika Leblanc-Melnick wrote:
My main concern is to find a field in which there is a lot of work available in my language pair and at a good rate.

I think you've done well to recognize that areas in which you may have a personal interest may not be those that are conducive to prosperity. Nobody is saying that you should translate in an area for which you have a strong dislike, but when it comes to work, few people get to do what they enjoy doing all the time, so certain compromises are necessary. And not being able to support yourself economically usually leads to its own kind of misery.

Rather than suggest specific areas for you to consider, I instead offer a kind of checklist to apply to possible candidates for specialisation. As far as I can see, based on some personal experience and a bit of observation, a lucrative specialism should have the following characteristics.

First, it must not be easily acquired. This is common sense: if anybody can learn the knowledge in question with a couple of hours of work on the Internet, it is not worth much. There should be a significant barrier to entry of some kind. So you can expect to have to sweat to gain the knowledge. This may take the form of long years of firsthand experience in an industry (my route), distance learning, self-study or a qualification from a traditional educational establishment.

Second, it should involve an area where mistakes result in personal injury or significant financial loss. In theory, every slipup has consequences in this litigious era, but a mistake in translating the description of a hotel room is likely to lead to smaller problems than a mistake in translating the manual for medical equipment that dispenses drugs into a patient's bloodstream. The former error may result in inconvenience, while the latter mis-translation may result in injury or even death. When there is more at stake, clients are more likely to select a more highly qualified (read: expensive) translator.

Third, it should not be linked to discretionary spending. When times are hard - and remember that economies are cyclical - people cut back on non-core spending. For example, consumers who are happy to spend money on overseas holidays when the economy is booming can, and do, cut those expenditures in leaner times. If you specialise only in tourism, you may find yourself at the mercy of the business cycle. Translation that is driven by regulation or by other relatively unchanging factors (healthcare for example) will be more stable.

Fourth, aim to be in the top 10% or 20% in everything you do. There is no one translation rate. There is no one market. Instead there is a multiplicity of translation markets depending on language pair and specialism. I have no data to prove this, but I believe that the best rates are paid only in a limited segment at the top of each (roughly pyramidal) market and that rates fall off sharply thereafter. If you're not at the apex you will be paid much less.

Good luck.

Dan





[Edited at 2017-04-15 01:46 GMT]


Thanks again everyone,

I apologise as I did not have the time to reply as I have been having exams for the past two weeks.

I was just reading an article (in French) about the field of economic and financial translation, apparently, clients are ready to pay good money for this type of translation, and are only hiring specialised individuals. Looks like there is a high demand in my language pair.

This is actually what is worrying me about specialising in tourism as it does slow down in times of economic hardship.

But then as Mario said, seems like it's like a Russian roulette anyway.

Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a small fish in a big pond?

Christian, indeed, this is something I have got to ask myself.

Thanks again for all the advice


 


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