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?


  1. May I comment, too, even though I do work in translation only very occasionally?
    Your description of how you came to be specialized in various areas is very interesting, and I like the chart you have added.

    For almost 9 years now, I have been working in the point of sale hardware industry, where most manufacturers are from Taiwan, China or Japan, with a few exceptions from the UK and US. All these usually offer their product information in English - but on the German point of sale market, there are still a lot of dealers who are not fluent enough in English and prefer reading such information in German.
    This means that I was often asked to translate data sheets or other product information, and so I acquired some experience and specialised knowledge in that terminology.
    Admittedly, I have never attended a course, and I am certainly not on a par with professional translators, but dealing daily with people in this industry, I have come to know what matters to them and how to write in order for them to understand.
    And because this has (and still is) a gradual process, I do not find it difficult.

  2. Being a state-examined translator myself (congrats on having passed your exam in Berlin, Victor!), I do not quite agree with your graph and/or theory.

    IMHO the more promising approach is to have a solid foundation of professional knowledge in a special field and then put the (acquired) translation skills on top of that.

    E.g. somebody who has a degree in law would bring in most of the necessary knowledge for translating legal texts right from the start.

    From my point of view, the profession of a translator is a 'secondary career' and/or a further qualification.

  3. Markus, I agree that a law degree (or even better: two law degrees in different languages) is an ideal route into legal translation. I included this in my first post on specialisation, "Tinker, tailor, translator?". But career biographies differ, and there are other good paths into the profession. The decisive point at the end of the day is the quality of the translated texts which are delivered. And the translator who has acquired special subjects later in his/her career must always aim for the highest possible quality.

    I am intrigued by your description of translation as a "secondary career". This sounds similar to the often-heard assumption that "anyone can translate". I hope you didn't mean it in that way. In fact, good translation is an extremely difficult and rare skill - and a number of my clients in law firms, architectural offices and heritage organisations have explicitly confirmed that they recognise this.

  4. Librarian, your example "POS hardware" is a good example of a special subject which does not correspond with the classic academic disciplines. It combines computer skills and commercial knowledge, along with the everyday language of people in the retail business. And your inside experience puts you in a good position to bridge the cultural gap.

  5. Victor,

    > I am intrigued by your description of
    > translation as a "secondary career". This
    > sounds similar to the often-heard assumption > that "anyone can translate"

    Nope!! Not at all. On the contrary!!

    (You've put your finger on the private battle [if there is such an expression] I've been fighting for decades.)

    What I am trying to say is that a profound knowledge (gained by training or university studies)provides a potential translator with a solid stepping stone for his future career. Your theory reminds me a bit of the German saying 'Ein Pferd von hinten aufzäumen'.

    I do not deny that there are numerous translators who successfully did it 'your way', but I don't consider it the 'Königsweg' (pragmatically speaking).

    No offence intended, whichever way.

  6. Hi Victor,

    Interesting analysis, and I like your diagramme (may I use it in some lectures? I think it illustrates the development of translator specialisation quite well).

    I would, however, like to comment on Markus Jahn's comment "E.g. somebody who has a degree in law would bring in most of the necessary knowledge for translating legal texts right from the start."

    I fear that is frequently not the case- although I agree that having a law degree will be helpful in order to understand some of the concepts, it can also be a hindrance without the additional skills of a translator. Lawyers who have 2 languages but no translation training often fall into the trap of translating something in a way that makes sense to their own legal system, even if by doing so they change the meaning slightly. The other danger is that they may interpret the source text, and thus essentially combine legal interpretation with translation (and thereby possibly leading to a dangerously unambiguous result, where the source text was ambiguous).

    Nor do I think that a legal translator, for example, need necessarily be a fully qualified lawyer- what they do need is a comprehensive understanding of both legal systems they work with.

    That said, I do agree that it can be helpful to come from a particular professional background and 'add' translation as a skill with which to build up on that background.


  7. Hi Richard,
    Sure, feel free to use the diagramme. No strings attached, just the usual bumph about saying where it comes from (how about that for a watertight legal definition, hehehe?).
    Must get started on my job for the week - a circular from a law firm to its clients about new case law and legislation in Germany. This law firm is one of my regulars and I have done several of these circulars, which often involve happy trawling through Google to chart territory that was previously largely unexplored. In other words, the normal sort of stuff for a legal translator.

  8. Thanks- of course you will be appropriately bumphed (incidentally, I always felt that the less is being said, the more 'watertight' it is, as it imposes a greater obligation of good faith on the parties...)