Translation Specialist or Generalist?

August 18th, 2016

Most translators seem to start out as generalists.

Translation Specialist or Generalist? | One Hour Translation

Most translators seem to start out as generalists, meaning that they feel they have no option but to accept assignments offered to them in all areas of translation. This hardly seems fair because no-one, and least of all a beginner translator, is automatically an expert on every subject matter.

Translators Must Have Knowledge in Fields Both Related and Unrelated to Their Specialization

And for those translators who specialize, today we’re seeing the overlapping of many areas of science and technology, where an article on the environment could well require knowledge of physics, geology, meteorology and chemistry; and it would be difficult for a translator today to become an effective medical translator without a fair amount of knowledge of electronic instruments. So, even though specialization is important in certain areas, today’s translators must have general knowledge in both related and unrelated fields in order to provide accurate, high-quality translations. This seems to emphasize the fact that translators must be well-informed about a wide range of topics that sometimes seem unrelated to their stated specializations.

Every Translation Involves Different Topics

Perhaps this is what makes translation such an interesting career, because even though a translator may specialize in a certain area, each translation can involve something different, which requires the translator to either know or quickly learn about that topic. Even with legal translations, the translator must be very familiar with legal terminology, but the translator will learn something about a wide range of topics along the way.

Let’s look at patent translations: these translations will be dealing with the terminology specific to patents, but every patent is about something specific – perhaps a drug for cancer, a new fashion product, or a part for a car, so while a patent translator is certainly highly specialized, meaning they translate nothing but patents, the patent translator is, in fact, someone who works in a new specialization almost every time.

Reasons Why Translators Need to Specialize

In general, most people in the translation industry agree that it’s to the translator’s advantage to specialize. This need to specialize has become more apparent in recent years due to the exponential expansion of knowledge. By this, we mean that there are many subjects to know about and so much to know about any given subject. Even a highly experienced professional translator could not be expected to have all the knowledge needed to translate various types of documents to a high level of accuracy and within a reasonable amount of time.

Another reason, and probably the main reason, why it’s becoming more important for translators to specialize is the Internet. The Internet has made it so much easier and quicker for translators to deliver their work to their customers anywhere in the world. Today’s translators are able to promote their services and translation skills far beyond their local markets, which means that the Internet has made it so much easier for translators to specialize.

The Internet: Friend or Foe?

And, of course, the Internet has given translators immediate access to a wealth of information, allowing them to venture into more specialized areas. But the downside to this is that the Internet has increased competition because anyone who needs a document translated is able to search all over the world for someone who’s prepared to meet their price and their specific needs. Perhaps this explains why more translation agencies, and self-employed translators, feel compelled to specialize in one or more subject areas.

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