Monday, 31 January 2011

Tinker, tailor, translator?

Tinker, tailor,
Soldier, sailor,
Gentleman, apothecary,
Ploughboy, thief

This old children's rhyme gives us a short list of possible careers or walks in life. If we transpose this to the world of translation, we could say that it gives us a list of special subjects. I may be an expert in the language of the “tinker”, who once roamed the streets collecting old iron and repairing household appliances. But I may be clueless when faced with the language of the soldier or sailor. And the language of the “apothecary” (pharmacist) or “ploughboy” require completely different sets of specialist knowledge.

This short list of just eight (8) specialist areas is extremely modest. By comparison, the list of subjects in the directory search offered by the German Association of Interpreters and Translators (BDÜ) at has over 200 entries, and the list of specific fields in the KudoZ terminology search function at the website offers about 170.

Should a translator try to cover all of these subject areas? Should we flit like butterflies from insurance to philosophy to hydraulics to social studies to beekeeping? Should we offer translations in metalworking, politics, psychology, accounting, horticulture, contracts, marketing, building, veterinary medicine, geology, automotive engineering, dentistry, labour relations, genetics, visual arts, business management, computer gaming, terms of business, geriatrics, job applications, software programming, electronics, tourism, recycling, poetry, nuclear physics, gambling, design, mathematics, brain surgery, journalism, geography, advertising, renewable energy, astronomy, agriculture, aviation, marine biology, geothermal energy, land law, taxation, education and sanitary engineering?

It is a rhetorical question, and the answer is naturally a quick and easy “No”. Of course we need to specialise in just a small number of areas. But perhaps that is easier said than done.

The ideal specialist is a person who has full training and years of experience in both languages. For example, a lawyer with legal qualifications in both England and Germany who has worked in law firms in both countries, a geologist, accountant, doctor, engineer etc. with bilingual qualifications and experience. Such people do exist. Some of them even decide to become translators (and a couple of them may actually read this blog).

But most translators need to adopt alternative strategies to specialise. Translation is a classic profession for the concepts of “lifelong learning” and “learning on the job”. This is not necessarily a disadvantage.

So how do we develop special subjects as translators? I will add a few ideas in the days and weeks to come. And feel free to add your own comments on this subject.


  1. How do apothecary and thief fit into the children's rhyme, I wonder? Those two words do not rhyme at all, no matter how strangely one decides to pronounce them...
    Anyway, back to topic.
    Not being a translator by profession myself, I still do some translation work for the company I work at, and sometimes for other people, too. Through my work in the sales team at a distributor's for point of sale hardware, I am quite familiar with what one could call techno-babble, and do not find it difficult to translate descriptions of new products, data sheets etc. So, for me, it was and is very much a question of learning on the job.
    I am looking forward to reading more about this subject.

  2. I suppose RHYME is an exaggeration. There are other traditional forms of this rhyme, too. I think the most common one goes:
    Tinker, tailor, soldier sailor,
    Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief.
    On the subject of experience and special subjects, it sounds as if you may have good groundwork for a specialism in IT and/or retail administration. Of course, specialist knowledge is only one aspect of the profession of translator, but if you have a "knack" for translation, your specialist background would certainly help.

  3. I think some of our BDÜ colleagues would have you roasted on a spit for your definition of the "ideal" above, but I concur. However, in today's world, it is sometimes difficult to define the limits of a specialty, and although I am a chemist by training, there are many areas of chemistry that would probably be beyond my skill to translate with confidence and impressive accuracy. These gaps for theoretical chemistry, certain biochemical subdisciplines, obscure analytical procedures, etc. can only be closed by diligent research and consultation. But the same would be true in various mechanical engineering fields. I think it's necessary to have a basic framework for understanding the context and concepts of a discipline as well as contacts with more specialized knowledge and a determination to penetrate the fogs of communication, even when they grow discouragingly thick.

    Our professional colleagues who feel that the primary requirement to be a good translator is the study of languages and translation without acquiring some deep grounding (more than a few audited courses) in their subject areas do concern me more than a little. We have a number of people in medical translation whose primary background in medicine is the occasional doctor's exam and perhaps a surgery to remove corns from their feet. Armed with the best dictionaries offered on eBay, they boldly translate instructions for follow-up care for critically ill patients, instructions often filled with medical jargon and language- or region-specific insider abbreviations. And these same professionals don't see the need for professional insurance. Yes, indeed. It's time to consider that career in tort law.