Translate in the field you enjoy

A lot of translators who are starting out, or who haven't yet achieved the level of income that they want, ask about what fields of translation have the highest demand. They choose a field of specialization based on potential income instead of interest.

I don't agree with that approach. I prefer to translate in a field that I enjoy, even if I could make more money in a different field. I really like software development and IT in general; I'm a programmer in addition to being a translator. This is one of the reasons that I like translating in the IT field.

The grass isn't always greener

A few years ago, a very successful medical-translator colleague offered to teach me the ropes of medical translation. I tried some jobs, with her providing corrections and feedback, but I quickly figured out that the field wasn't for me. I simply had no interest in it, and even making $200K/year+, I didn't want to be miserable for 8 hours a day. I went back to my IT translation, earning considerably less than $200K, but enjoying my work a lot.

Since that failed attempt at switching fields, demand for the kind of work I was doing has dropped considerably, due to international harmonization of drug testing. Top translators like my colleague are still doing OK, but a newcomer to the field like me would probably be struggling now.

Then a few years ago, a new wave of regulation hit the Japanese finance industry. There was suddenly a lot of demand for IT translation by finance-related companies, as they deployed new IT systems to meet regulations. One of my new clients from that industry practically begged me to do financial translation for them in addition to IT translation. They told me that IT translators were a dime a dozen, but what they really needed were finance translators; and they told me that they paid their finance translators a lot more than they were paying me…

But I had no interest in financial translation, so I turned them down. I have plenty of work and I make enough money to stay out of debtor's prison, so I felt no need to switch over just for a bigger paycheck.

Then, of course, the financial industry collapsed, along with demand for financial translation. The top financial translators are probably still getting work, but again, this is no longer "the" field for the up-and-coming translator.

Meanwhile, demand for IT translation remains strong. Even if demand should drop, at least I'll have the consolation of doing work that I enjoy. If I had switched to medical or financial translation, right now I'd be facing the double whammy of doing work that I hate for peanuts.

Become an expert

That's why I think that translators should pick a field that they really like, and set out to make themselves the expert in that field. A lot of wannabes read "Excel for Dummies" and call themselves IT translators, and I think that contributes to the "dime a dozen" mentality of some clients. But I want my name to be on the top of the client's list when they have an IT document that requires real expertise.

Even if you're in a saturated or niche field (within limits), I think you'll have plenty of work if you can make yourself stand out in your clients' eyes. Getting a reputation as an expert certainly helps in that regard, and it's much easier to put in the sheer time and effort required to become an expert if you like the field.

Branching out

This isn't to say that you shouldn't branch out, or do something different once in a while. In 2009, I've done translations (through agencies) for a candy manufacturer, a soft-drink manufacturer, and a museum. These were really interesting, and I learned a lot doing research for them. One of the funnest translation jobs I've had was about Ultraman. But while these are fun once in a while, I wouldn't like doing that kind of translation day in and day out.


I'll leave the financial, medical, and chemical translation to people who are willing to dedicate a major chunk of their lives to master those fields. I'll invest my time mastering a field that I actually enjoy.

6 comments to Translate in the field you enjoy

  • I couldn’t agree more! I always tell the students at Kent State to specialize in a field they enjoy researching. I hate anything to do with financial and my mind shuts down when it comes to a tricky sentence with financial terminology, but give me a report on ACL surgery and I will research it to my heart’s content until I understand every nook and cranny of the text. Good post!

  • This was a really great post. Emphasizing the need to specialize while also trying to branch out is a very sensible thing for translators to do.

    The problem is, if you feel you are a specialist in, say, Philosophy translation, and enjoy it very much, and want to go on translating Philosophy, you have to consider the fact that Philosophy translation jobs are rarely offered outside of publishing houses, who *usually* pay *less* (no matter where) than more commercial-oriented clients. So you have to balance the joy of translating a certain field and joy of getting a reasonable pay.

    Being a specialist in, but not only, Philosophy myself, I try to do what you suggest: branching out, but concentrating on a few subjects, some tending to pay more than others. Some of the best experiences (both in enjoyment and pay) in my career as a translator happened when I translated texts within the domain of Philosophy of Law, uniting two of my absolute favorite subjects of specialization. 🙂 Needless to say, those projects were not for publishing houses, not destined to get the dust of a library shelf, but to be used in some practical sense by my clients, who paid the full price for specialized legal translation in a less common language combination (German to Brazilian Portuguese).

    So, the key is specializing in what you really enjoy translating, but balancing that joy with good pay.

  • @Fabio

    You’re absolutely right; that’s why I said that the field can’t be too niche. 🙂

    In a field like philosophy, however, I wonder if you couldn’t do well translating university professors’ papers. I’ve done a few of these, and in my experience they usually pay a bit more than agencies do. Didn’t Tokyo University recently start a huge (and well paid) project to translate its humanity professors’ work into English?

  • Hi, I absolutely agree. I discovered during my agency internship that I liked medical translation: from that day on I started studying medical texts, followed medical translation courses, did lots of translation in the field. But don’t even talk to me about legal translation 😉 As Harvey MacKay says, “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” 🙂

  • Very insightful. Back in business school, I took Warren Buffett’s advice on picking stocks — he says you should invest in things you understand and you like (this was back when it was still a good idea to buy individual stocks). I think that’s solid advice.

    For the record, I am with you on medical translation — except for the very few healthcare related things I do (patient brochures, etc.) I really stay away from medical. I am just not passionate about it and gladly refer those projects to colleagues.

    I think sometimes these specializations develop organically. One of my favorite clients really wanted me to take on a water desalination plant project (for river water, very unique). Of course, that’s too narrow for anyone to specialize in, and I took a look at it and realized it was well within my possibilities — it was a mix of environmental monitoring, botany, and some desert wildlife issues which I do a lot of work with. I really loved this topic — and of course, I always forget to list it as a specialization.

  • […] de mon défunt grand-père : “choisis un métier où tu feras ce que tu aimes“, dont ce billet se fait l’écho en matière de […]

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