Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The specialist opportunity

As a translator it is important to develop expertise in special subjects. But how can we do this? One possibility is to use the opportunities which arise in the course of our work, and then develop them. In my first few years in the translation business, especially in my work for various agencies, I came in contact with a number of subject areas. Some of them were isolated encounters – the topic did not really arouse my interest and I did not develop it. Others became a springboard into a genuine specialism. It has taken time, effort and money to develop these special areas, but I believe that it is worthwhile.

I would like to begin with a little chart to show ten possible stages in this process:

Some special areas are well defined, and there are clearly targeted courses to help us develop our knowledge.  Other specialist areas are less formally structured, and greater resourcefulness is required to develop our skills and find information.
Let me explain this by three examples with anecdotes from my own experience:
1. Technology (the partial specialist)
2. Architecture/building/property (the self-taught specialist)
3. Law (informal learning and training courses)

1. Technology (the partial specialist)
The first translation agency I worked for specialised in technical subjects. I worked on a freelance basis, but usually in their offices. On my first day I was nervous about the subject area and expected that I would be far too slow because I was new to the subject. However, in my very first job there (about a conveyor belt for transporting coal) I found that I could work quickly and well, and I even found a logical mistake in the source text which the end client then corrected. Within a couple of weeks I gained a reputation for speed and competence.
Encouraged by this success, I then took and passed the State Translation Examination in Berlin with Technology as my special subject.  But "Technology" covers many individual disciplines, and I didn't see any realistic way to develop my skills and knowledge in this wide-ranging field. So although I started well and still occasionally do jobs in technical subjects, I only regard myself as a "partial" specialist.

2. Architecture/building/property (the self-taught specialist)
I started my freelance translating career in 1991 in the most exciting city in the world - the reunited city of Berlin. I had been here long enough to know about the Berlin Wall and the exciting days of political and social upheaval. When the building boom in Berlin began in the early 1990s, this led to a number of translation jobs. I became increasingly familiar with architectural and building texts and translated a number of books on the subject. I started to collect reference works in both languages, especially in my native British English. Then came the opportunity to work on a bilingual dictionary of building (Cornelsen Wörterbuch Bau), which meant that I had to research even more monolingual texts. I even attended building trade fairs (one in Berlin, one in Birmingham/UK) and collected brochures and other information. I subscribed to a couple of e-mail forums where practitioners talk about their trade, exchange references, argue with each other – and never ever worry about other languages or how to translate anything that they say.
This has led to work in a number of areas and text types: the lyrical prose used by architects and journalists to describe works of architecture, technical descriptions of building processes and materials, texts on urban planning, road and railway construction, rehabilitation of polluted sites, heritage conservation, property advertising materials, a couple of interpreting jobs in construction planning meetings, contract translation and interpreting jobs related to property purchases etc.
I have never heard of any structured courses or teaching materials directed at translators in these subject areas. The translator can benefit from courses in related areas (e.g. Law), but on the whole, this subject area is a field for the self-taught specialist.

3. Law (informal learning and training courses)
Here, too, I started from small beginnings and developed specialist knowledge and skills over a number of years. I had some previous experience with legal texts before I began translating as a career, but no formal background. When I passed the State Translation Examination in Berlin, I became eligible to work as a court-approved translator and interpreter. This led to my first experience of a formal training session in the area – a seminar held by the BDÜ which explained the basic principles of working for the courts.
After several years of informal learning and many successful translation jobs, I then heard of a number of courses on legal translation at the City University in London, and I have attended a total of five such courses, ranging in length from one day to four days. Some of the people who attended these courses worked hard to obtain a degree (Diploma or M.A. in Legal Translation), others (like me) just attended them for the learning experience as CPD courses ("Continuing Professional Development"). Courses like this are not cheap – the course fee for each course comes to a few hundred euros, plus the cost of transport to London and accommodation. But this investment is important if we take specialisation in our translation work seriously.

Over to you, dear reader. Where have you been through similar steps to become a specialist? What other possibilities have you identified? Have you found this development easy or difficult?