To specialize or not to specialize

There's a kind of ongoing debate among translators about whether you must or even should specialize in a particular field. I think that everyone agrees that in some cases — like medical or legal translation — specializing is necessary. The question is whether it's always necessary, and if so, how often?

Probably the biggest argument in favor of specialization is that it improves throughput and quality. When you know the field, you're more likely to be able to understand the source text and write convincingly in the target language. Since you spend less time looking things up, you also work faster.

Specialization doesn't have to be in a technical field. Finance is probably one of the more lucrative fields for J->E translation, and I wouldn't call that technical. Politics, business, economics, marketing — these are all valid specializations.

There's no single way to go about acquiring expertise, either. A lot of people learn their specialties in college, and/or by working in the field. Most translators did something else before they became translators, and that something else often becomes their specialty. Some translators turn hobbies into fields of expertise, and others simply pick it up on the job, perhaps as an in-house translator at a pharma company or the like.

There are various arguments in favor of not specializing. A common one is that it's boring — some translators would rather take jobs in a variety of fields, even if they work slower. One worry I have about such translators is whether their lack of specialized knowledge might keep them from realizing that they're making errors.

Other translators don't want to spend the time needed to acquire expertise in another field, and others claim they can't make a living unless they take all the work that's thrown their way. Another argument I've heard is that translation is a specialized skill, and some translators specialize in that.

Of course translation is a skill apart from source and target language mastery, and it's also essential for being a good translator. But that doesn't preclude expertise in a specialized field (or fields) either.

In the end, it's up to each person whether they specialize or not. I personally think specialization is a good idea, but I also branch out once in a while to fight off tedium. I've translated everything from an essay about string to a semi-erotic ode to motorcycles to the death certificate of an Allied POW in Thailand.

But for day-to-day translation, give me some nice juicy computer documents any day.

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