Monday, 7 March 2011

The legacy specialist

How can we specialise as translators? Perhaps you entered translating on the strength of your language skills alone, and you have gradually realised that you need to decide what subjects to focus on. Perhaps you have done a translation course at university, but the special subjects covered in the course did not provide enough depth to make you into a real specialist.

So where do you go from here?
The first step is to take stock. What do you already have in your favour? What skills, hobbies and interests do you have outside your work as a translator? What holiday jobs did you do as a student? Have you worked in other careers which gave you an insider's perspective in specific fields? Perhaps you can develop such areas into a real specialist subject.

For example, if you have been involved in a technical hobby (e.g. amateur radio, PA systems in a theatre or church, car maintenance, house repairs, computer software or hardware, computer gaming), this may give you a good background. If you understand the concepts used in these subject fields and the jargon in at least one of your languages, you can build on this. And your familiarity with the field will help you to advertise your services, too.

This principle could also apply if you have previous background in banking, investments, law, medicine, sports, entertainment, publishing, politics or a host of other areas. It is worth examining them and considering what potential they may offer. If you identify an area which could be useful in your translating career, the next step is to explore how you can develop this specialism, e.g. by collecting reading material in the area in all of your languages, attending courses, finding information and discussion forums on the Internet.

My own biography contains various examples of such subject fields. In some cases, I have never got any benefit from them and it never occurred to me to look for work. Other fields have brought one or two jobs but had no lasting effect on my career. And one or two have blossomed into special areas in which I now have a wide range of knowledge and experience.

One of the "no shows" is the area of sports and games. In my school and university days I had a reasonable general knowledge and limited skills in sports such as football (soccer), cricket and tennis, and a good knowledge and moderate skills in chess. But the nearest I have come to working in these areas were a couple of legal texts which happened to involve footballers, but without any reference to the sporting action.

I have not done much translation related to school education, although I did a one-year university course in Education and spent several years working “at the chalk face” in both Germany and England. Apart from official translations of a few school leaving certificates (mainly German “Abitur” reports), this area has brought hardly any work. The other subject area in which I once worked in-house, publishing, has been slightly more productive. I have occasionally worked on subjects that I learned about there such as layout and typesetting. I have benefited from my in-house understanding of employee organisations and work safety procedures. And my experience in a publishing house helped me to get a number of book translating jobs. But my work in the publishing house also introduced me to an area which is now a major specialism. I became involved in copyright work, mainly to obtain publishing rights for material drawn from other sources. This meant that I needed to read the German Copyright Act and explain some of its provisions in correspondence with offices in England and other English-speaking countries. This gave me a good background several years later when I started to translate legal texts. I then had to develop this subject area step by step to reach the level I am at today. The steps in this development were extremely important, but they are another story for another blog entry.

Another area in which I already had considerable background was the Christian religion. I had been actively involved in a variety of Christian churches in both Germany and England, (and still am). Even before I started translating as a career I had often acted as an interpreter for sermons in local churches. In fact, this area was my natural first step as a freelance translator, and in the first three or four years much of my work was in the field of Christian book publishing (mainly translating from my mother tongue of English to my non-native German, but that, too, is another story). I even worked on a bilingual dictionary in this area. This dictionary has been out of print for many years now, but a revised version of the German-English section is still available on my website. However, over the years I have done less and less work in this area, and distinctly Christian texts are now few and far between.

A very mixed career biography. Some potential subject areas never got off the ground (chess, cricket, football). Others seemed promising but only occasionally brought in work (education). One area gave me a solid bilingual background which helped me to get started, but has gradually declined in importance over the years (Christian religion). Another area which once took up only a small part of my time has gradually developed into a major specialism (law). And other specialist areas only developed after I started working as a freelance translator 20 years ago.

Dear fellow translators, how has your career drawn on the knowledge and experience you had before you started translating for a living? Did your legacy of experience help you, or did you need to develop completely new skills?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, Victor, how life takes paths we cannot predict, but that is one of its most enjoyable aspects. It also keeps one humble about assuming what will come next.

    A very large part of my translation work is in some way related to academic subjects I studied, hobbies or work experience. But once again, the distribution is not at all what I might have predicted. I was a research chemist for natural products, adhesives and silicones and a materials developer for medical application as well as a physics teacher, software developer and hobby farmer fixing an aging tractor and raising Romanov sheep. All of these things have brought in translation work over the past decade to a greater or lesser degree, but like you I found that a little legal background has proved to be the most useful in terms of attracting clients. While working on an advanced degree in chemistry at USC and working in industry, I decided to take a course in contract and tort law at USC law school since contracts and liability were issues discussed frequently at the research center where I worked. Later as a consultant, what I learned in this course became even more important, and as a translator I might be living on a diet of rice and stale bread at times without it. Or not. I think many people in the business world acquire a basic understanding of certain legal and regulatory issues in the course of their work (as you did), and formal study of the law is not a prerequisite for success here, however useful it may be.