Specialization: Why and how

This post is aimed at people considering whether to specialize in one or more fields of translation. I think that it's good to specialize. It allows you to earn more money, and do better-quality translations. If you specialize, though, I would recommend choosing a field you're actually interested in. There's a lot of money in financial translation, but if that subject really bores you, you might be in for a dreary career.

My rule of thumb is to consider reading one book on your field per month. If that sounds like a huge chore, you probably want to avoid that field. If it sounds like fun, that field might be for you. Then again, topics can grow on you as you get to know them, and there's not much harm in giving a field a chance.

When I first started freelancing, I took just about any work people sent me. Part of that was because I was afraid of turning down work — I was just happy to be getting it — and part was because I didn't realize just how over my head I was. My first freelance job was the translation of a report on the health-care system of Vietnam. In retrospect, I'm afraid I must have botched the translation pretty badly. But the agency was very nice, sent me a few corrections, and kept sending me work. I guess they thought of me as a work in progress.

As I got more work, and could be more choosy — and started to get more professional pride — I started turning down work I didn't feel qualified to handle, and to actively seek out work in the fields I like (computers & telecommunications). And I found that rather than scaring away clients, turning down work I wasn't confident about usually made them trust me more.

How to specialize

Assuming you don't already have some specialized knowledge, how do you go about getting it? One way is to work as an in-house translator at a company in your field (or at a translation agency specializing in your field of choice). One of the good things about working in-house is that they usually don't assume you know the field, so it can be a good way to get yourself a specialization.

I have worked in-house at one place — a subsidiary of a big automaker. At the time I had almost no experience with translation, and the pay was good (compared to my alternatives). But I hated it, and quit soon after. I found that I really dislike automotive translation. However, they did put a lot of effort into giving me knowledge. For example, once when I was translating a document about molding bumpers, one of the engineers actually took me to the equipment, and walked me through the entire process of making a bumper, from feeding pellets from the hopper to painting.

Another good thing about working in-house is you often get to interact with the people actually using your translations. It's a nice feeling to see people getting use out of your work — something I don't often get as a freelancer.

Another way to gain this knowledge is as an apprentice or assistant to an experienced translator. Once, a translator offered to make me an apprentice in her field — medical translation. She makes a ton of money (like multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars per year) and has a backlog of work going out six months. So I tried it, but after about three translations of rat studies, I knew the field wasn't for me.

Companies hiring for these in-house positions are generally willing to take on novices to the field because it's very hard to hire experienced translators — they're usually making too much working freelance. That's partly in jest, but it's true that at most companies there's a very real ceiling on what a non-management employee can be paid, and that's usually less than one can make freelancing. So, the trade-off is education and security vs. more money and freedom. And of course there are all sorts of arrangements — for example, sometimes companies will pay freelancers "retainers," a guaranteed income in return for prioritizing work from them.

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