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To Specialize or not to Specialize, that is the Question

A lot of translators take a general route and think that they can easily translate anything and everything that comes their way. This is perhaps because they feel that they cannot get enough work if they concentrate on limited areas. However, this is not the case. Employers and project managers are now looking for translators who specialize in particular fields. Such translators may even find themselves very busy at times, especially since a lot of fields and sub-fields may be related. For example, a legal translator may be asked to translate various documents for different industries or sectors within a legal context such as official letters, formal correspondence, memos, employment contracts for HR, financial statements, auditor’s reports, etc. This is where collaborating with subject-matter professionals ranks high. For instance, when translating an employment contract for the HR department, the translator would know the legal terms, style, clauses, etc. that apply, but will need the knowledge of an HR specialist to understand certain HR terms, style, laws, etc. There are a lot of areas where translators may specialize in, ranging from legal, technical, commercial, financial, social, administrative, literary, media, etc.

Develop and improve your specializations over time. You need to specialize in one or more related fields of knowledge. Choose one or more related fields and regularly expand or broaden them by adding more. Working with related fields will allow you to save resources, time, and effort on research. Understand the jargons, registers, vocabulary, style, and writing conventions required in specialized texts. To specialize further and gain more in-depth knowledge in a chosen field or area, read a lot of related and specialist professional literature in the concerned field or sub-field, talk to and establish contacts with subject-matter professionals by working closely with and asking a specialist to check your work and give you feedback or clarification, listen to how native speakers and subject-matter specialists speak, communicate and interact with colleagues in the translation or another professional (subject-matter) industry, gain practical knowledge and hands-on experience, work or take relevant courses in your chosen subjects or industry, earn a degree or certification, obtain accreditation, attend workshops, go to industry events such as conferences and seminars, hold meetings and gatherings, etc. If you have little or no specialist knowledge in your chosen field or how the subject and terms are used in context, you are bound to make mistakes by simply replacing terms with dictionary equivalents. You need to develop thorough subject knowledge with some background, experience, or education through coursework, on-the-job practical training and experience, or self-study.

There are a lot of terminology, language, and subject-matter resources and reference materials that you can make use of such as books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, glossaries, term bases, word lists, specialized magazines, journals, periodicals, articles, online resources (websites, blogs, forums, discussion groups, listservs, portals…), among others for different subjects. You need to develop and maintain your own resources like glossaries and reference library to keep current and up-to-date with the latest developments and advancements as well as develop, improve, and use your skills and knowledge in your chosen specialization.  Doing this regularly will allow you to spend more time actually translating and less time researching.

To gain thorough and in-depth knowledge in a particular field or industry, you may spend some time in an organization where your chosen area or subject is practiced, i.e. if you specialize in law, try visiting law firms and talking to other (legal) translators, counsels, lawyers, paralegals, etc. there to know about the nature of their work. Some law firms may even allow you to make use of their resources, advice on useful reference materials to use, provide support and practical training experience by allowing you to actually translate some texts, check the work, offer feedback, and understand them in context, etc.

You may often wonder and ask where to specialize. What areas you should specialize in is hard to say. It depends on your personal preference, interest, passion, prior knowledge, background information, understanding of the topic, credentials, skills and qualifications, as well as who your target clients are, the country they are located in, and what is considered to be in demand for them. The more in demand and difficult the chosen specialization is, the more likely is the work and higher pay. Find an area that interests you and develop it further. Perhaps a good way to identify your own specialization and improve it is to read, write, or research thoroughly in a specialized subject and decide if you enjoy it. Another way is to take a specialized text, like a legal contract, and start translating it directly to see how you can go by it. Do you understand the concepts and ideas of the source text and can you convey the meaning and message accurately, clearly, and effectively in the target language?

You need to understand specialized terms. This does not mean only knowing how to retrieve and store the terms, but also knowing how to use them appropriately in context. Terminologists believe that the best way to remember a term is not just simply memorizing it, but learning and being exposed to how people speak, write, and use it in their actual daily life situations. Translators who have practiced other professions before coming into translation or practice translation alongside another profession can easily and quickly grasp the terms in their chosen areas of specialization. Research unfamiliar or obscure terms. Ask clients and specialists for help and support. When you are not sure of the materials, as well as have doubts or questions, it is better to ask or insert translator’s notes.

It is important to have actual experience and exposure to the jargons and registers of a certain profession to be able to tackle specialized texts. An effective and common way of doing this nowadays is engaging in discussions with people in the field or area by posting a query on a discussion group. Discussion groups are often effective since the participants are usually either translators or subject specialist. The only problem with discussion groups is that the discussion may go off-topic at some point (although these are often very useful), but it may take a lot of time for one to get the answer s/he is actually looking for, which may not come in handy when one needs an answer urgently.

Classroom training as well as other reference materials such as looking up terms in dictionaries and reading thoroughly in books and articles on a particular subject or term may also be considered a form of experience. Terms become more easily memorable when understanding how they are used in context. This is probably why teachers in elementary school do not only rely on getting their learners to memorize word lists, but they also get them to do practical exercises such as putting the words in useful sentences.

Stay away from projects that are not within your specialization. Refer such work to colleagues who specialize in the concerned field or area. Only accept projects that you are qualified to handle. Doing otherwise will ruin your career and reputation that you have built for yourself if you do not perform the assigned task and deliver it according to the required standards. One way to accept more specialized texts or documents may be through establishing a partnership with a trusted colleague who works in the same, related, or different subjects than you so that you can combine your skills.

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