Specialization and the Translator


Ever since I began studying translation, I have been told by more experienced translators as well as translation agencies, that as a translator I should specialize in a particular subject area. As a business strategy this makes sense, you want to find your niche, an area you know about that others — in my case Japanese Translators — don’t know as well so you can not only be a conduit between languages but be a specialist in that subject. While there are many Japanese Translators, there are relatively few who specialize in Heian literature and few who can read or understand ancient Japanese or have studied paleography to be able to read kuzushiji.

An example of Edo Period Kuzushiji
However, there is a Catch-22 of being too specialized in a subject area that has a limited market as it limits the type of assignments you can get. Of course, a Heian specialized translator would be the go-to person for a University or literary company wanting to translate some lesser known diaries, but that doesn’t mean there are many projects in this genre of translations. About 90% of translation are technical translations, a statistics one of my professors told me on the first day of class. Yet technical translation encompasses a wide genre of specific specializations: IT,  life science, medicine, automotive, manufacturing etc. The User Manuals for medical equipment that I proofread at one job and the daily updates for machine/casting lines at the factory that I translated for another job are both technical, but require different specializations.

There are specialty translation groups, regardless of language pairs, such as NAJIT the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, and ALTA the American Literary Translators Association. JAT, the Japanese Association of Translators has four translation genre specific specialty groups: Law, Pharmaceuticals, Patent, and Entertainment. (They do also have groups for translator tools, interpreting etc.) This is of course, not an all-inclusive list of specializations. For Japanese specifically, within entertainment in addition to literature, dramas, and movies, one can translate manga, video games, and anime, which encompasses a large and profitable localization industry. Many universities teaching Translation as either a BA or MA, such as Babel University, focus on the specializations IT, Law, Finance, and Medical.

So then how does one pick a specialization?

Does someone with specialty knowledge become a translator or does a translator go on to become someone with specialty knowledge?

Of course, it goes both ways. There are people who have studied medicine, law, pharmaceuticals, various branches of science, IT, finance, marketing, etc who decide to become translators and can easily select their specialization, because of their work history and undergraduate degree. There are also linguists who studied the humanities then went onto study translation, who decide later on to pick up a particular specialization either because of an interest in that area study or because they happened to get a job where they translated that genre and with experience as well as extra studying became an expert in that area. Specializations are earned through work experience in that subject area, translation experience in that subject area, and through a degree or other formal studies of that area.

My BA is in Linguistics and Global Studies, which is a combination of Economics, History, Anthropology, Politics, and Intercultural Communication. These studies give me qualifications for academic translations in the humanities, and my Global Studies major gives me a spring-board to learn more in-depth about International Law and to potentially specialize in law in the long-term. In my experience, however, there is not a huge market for academic translations and without taking extra course, it is not sufficient to give my a qualification in the law.

So then the next question, is how to become qualified in a subject not previously studied or directly worked in. I have heard arguments that an ideal translator is someone who have worked in that field and becomes a translator, i.e. an author who decides to translate literature, a lawyer who decides to translate legal texts, a banker who decides to translate financial documents, an engineer who decides to translate technical documents. The main thesis of this argument is sensible, one should translate what they understand. However, it seems to negate the importance of linguistic knowledge as well as the role of research that even a layman is capable of. I may not be an expert in insurance or family registers, yet I can do serious research into these subjects in both the source and target language and create a well-written translation. Of course, there are more specialized texts in medicine or automotive-related that I could not in good faith accept.

So then how much research makes one an expert? Of course, a Google search may be sufficient to understand the meaning of a particular text, but few would claim that qualifies them as an expert. I have gone to one talk about Patents and attempted to apply for a training program doing them, enough to understand how complicated this genre of translation is. (I’d go as far as to say, it made me realize this specialization much like automotive specific technical translation is not for me.) Taking a course in your desired genre (ie. finance, medicine, pharmaceuticals, law, etc) either content or translation focused is one step towards specializing in the subject, that in and of itself is insufficient for specialization. Ideally if someone wants to be an expert in a particular industry they need to study that industry by reading textbooks, taking courses, getting experience translating between their language pairs in it, and keeping up with companies and people in that industry. One talk I went to by a legal translator recommended joining industry groups so that you can talk to the leaders in that industry and learn what the most pressing issues were. Reading one book or going to one lecture on a subject doesn’t make one an expert, however, doing countless hours of research, doing various courses on the subject whether it’s online or in person, reading lots of books on the subject, and joining groups about this subject overtime can turn one into an expert.

One should pick a specialization that they are interested in or passionate about, or one that they understand, while keeping in mind what market is like for this area. (Localization is a large industry, but it doesn’t pay as well as a specialization in law or medicine. Conversely, getting qualified in law and medicine is quite expensive and time consuming.) I know people who work in localization and love manga and light novels, they are experts at using slang and translating humor. I know a medical interpreter who never studied nursing, but who did training in healthcare interpreting and feels fulfilled in her job. I know some self-proclaimed generalists who are quite happy translating all sorts of texts and find nothing wrong with not specializing. For myself, the last few months, I have begun looking more into translating contracts and specifically human rights law and immigration law, and while I’m certain there are more actual jobs in contracts, within the next five years I would like to specialize in this area of international law.

At a later date, I’ll speak a little more specifically about Legal Translation.

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