One of the issues with which beginning translators most frequently struggle is specializing: what to specialize in, how to decide what to specialize in, what the most/least requested specializations are, how important it is to specialize, etc. While there aren’t too many hard and fast rules when it comes to translation specializations, here are a few general guidelines.
- The larger the language, the greater the need to specialize. Here in the U.S., translators in smaller-diffusion languages like Finnish or Thai often don’t need to specialize at all, because there are so few of them that specializing would be impractical. On the other hand, French, German and Spanish translators must specialize in order to find a niche in a rather large market.
- Pick a specialization that you enjoy researching. This advice comes from Jill Sommer, who teaches in the graduate translation program at Kent State, and I agree completely. Think about picking up a news magazine; which section are you most likely to read first? Business? Finance? Health? Technology? Any area that you enjoy learning more about is a potential specialization.
- Realize that for better or for worse, many translators are self-taught in their specializations. Many people seem daunted by the idea of specializing, fearing that they need to go back to school and get a nursing degree to be a medical translator, or become a paralegal to be a legal translator. Certainly, many translators do have a strong background in their areas of specialization, and if you come into the field as a former financial analyst, physician or attorney, you are likely to command a higher income than a translator who learned that terminology on the job. But if you’re entering the market with a general liberal arts background, don’t be intimidated by the idea of selecting a specialization.
- Oddly enough, specialization can lead to more work rather than less, as clients think of you as the go-to person for documents in your area of expertise. Also, as several people have commented on this blog, one way to make more money as a freelance translator is to work faster, and the better you know the terminology of the documents you work on, the faster you can translate.
- While it’s theoretically possible to specialize in almost anything (I’ve met translators specializing in horses, philately, and fisheries, to name a few), you’ll probably want to pick an area that you know is in demand. A few such domains would be medicine, medical instrumentation, pharmaceuticals, law, finance, automotive, computer hardware and software, engineering, environmental science, patents, advertising, technology, the hard sciences and general business documents.
- Consider delving deeper into a specialization that you enjoy. A great way to position yourself ahead of your competition is to take courses in the terminology of your specialization, or to spend a day at a place of business or an industrial facility that works in your specialization, then let your clients know about it!