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To be, or not 2 B… The question of translation specialisation PART ONE

Figuring out you translation ‘specialisation’ (or more commonly used in the UK -specialism) is a pretty important part of becoming a translator, and it actually leads on from my article: The price is right! Or is it…? Along with setting rates, deciding what you want to translate is also a very important step in the process of setting up your own translation business or even if you intend to work as an in-house translator.

So far, in my ‘career’ (ha ha) as a translator, I’ve translated 19th century German texts – to be more specific, both were journals by musicians talking about other musicians. In normal university classes, these were text types that I’d never come across, and certainly A LOT longer than anything I’d ever translated before  – I remember the whole class balking when we were told we would have to translate a text that was 800 words long. Those were the days!

In both these cases I was working as an intern with one of my university lecturers, and she knew exactly what I had and had not learned – (had not learned how to read Gothic German lettering for example – a useful skill!) and therefore, I had a bit of a safety net when it came to translating.

When starting out in business, this is not likely to be the case – although that’s not to say that everyone wanting to be a translator has to be an absolute expert to start with! There are also several ways of developing a specialism.

Some translators are experts who have previously studied something else – like law or pharmacy and have developed language expertise. A change of scene or the flexibility that translation offers is what drives them to change career. In some cases – like legal or medical texts, it’s important to have someone who truly understands the ins and outs of the business as no outsider could – although that is obviously not to say that all experts in these fields are ex lawyers or doctors or that every ex-professional is suited to translation.

Similarly, university translation courses are also great ways of developing a specialism, in a ‘low-risk’ environment – for example, my course at Cardiff University offers a variety of specialised translation modules in politics and law, business and administration, scientific and technical, medical and pharmaceutical as well as subtitling and interpreting. Other universities may offer similar or even more alternatives. Depending on the structure of your course, you could take a couple of these modules and see which suits you best.

Part of the reason that specialising in a particular field of translation is so important is because it protects you as well as the client. Obviously you want to produce the best product possible, but by choosing a particular area to focus on, you will be able to offer translations that are better focused and researched than someone taking any work that they can find. At the same time, this means that you are able to complete translations quicker and more accurately = more time for more work/leisure AND likely to command better prices.

Charles Martin discusses the myths and realities of translating, including the dreaded ‘generalist’!

Corinne McKay has a great article on how to chose a translation specialisation, especially if you think that you don’t know where to start. Here are some of her key points:

  1. PICK SOMETHING YOU’RE INTERESTED IN – it sounds blindingly obvious,  but in all likelihood, we’re all probably guilty of thinking ‘But I don’t know anything about anything!’ (Or maybe that’s just me!?!). Use your passion or hobby or Mastermind special subject to help you…
  2. FIND A (NICHE) MARKET – sometimes your off-the-wall hobby or interest might just be the place to start looking for translation work. You never know which company or business is looking to expand into a different market, and would be glad of your expertise and enthusiasm. But…
  3. CHOOSE  A SPECIALISM WITH ENOUGH WORK – whilst sticking to obscure translations about yak wool might interest you, if there’s not enough paying work in it, you might have to considering ‘expanding’ a little bit.

As someone who is in the process of deciding this for myself, I cannot give any sort of 100% fool-proof advice on what works. From my research what I do know is that there is no absolute way to make and be a translator – some study it at university, others happen upon it, and for some it’s a change of career. Either way, this does not make one translator ‘better’ than another, and each person’s interests and experiences is what helps everyone develop a specialisation in the first place.

And for those wondering, I’ve selected the business and administration module for my MA course. But since my Dad is an architect, architectural translation interests me a little too…I’ll have to wait and see!

For more advice and perspectives on translation specialisation, here are a few recommendations:

  1. The Translation Company‘s look on specialisation.
  2. How to choose your specialisation by Chiara Grassilli at
  3. Translation Specializations – concise advice on finding your specialism on

Next week, I’ll be looking at translators and specialists – in particular is it better to be a specialist first, and translator second? Does it really matter? If you are a translator, which way round did you start – language or subject? I’d really love to know!

As always you can leave me a comment below or you can tweet me @amjscorr.



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