Advice for Beginners: Specialization

Many beginning interpreters oftentimes ask us about specialization and whether it's essential that they specialize. We get many of these questions from Judy's students at the Spanish/English translation certificate program at University of San Diego-Extension and from Dagy's mentees. We thought it might be helpful to give a short summary on translation specialization. 

  • One project does not equal specialization. This is a classic mistake that we also made early in our careers. Just because you have done a project (or two or three) in a specific area doesn't mean that's a specialization. You should really have in-depth knowledge. 
  • Choose wisely. A specialization is an area that you know very, very well and that you can confidently say you are an expert in. Remember that if you choose a specific area, say chemistry or finance, it's best to have significant experience, including perhaps a graduate degree and work experience outside the T&I field, in that specific area. You will be competing with colleagues who have both experience and credentials, so it's important that you are prepared. For instance, we have a dear friend and colleague who has a doctorate in chemistry. Naturally, Karen Tkaczyk's area of specialization is chemistry.
  • Non-specializations. It's impossible to be an expert in everything. It looks quite unprofessional to say that you specialize in everything, so we suggest staying away from that approach. Also be sure to put some thought into areas that you don't want to work in at all because you are not qualified, interested, or both. For instance, we once got a call from a client who really wanted to hire us to translate a physics text. We don't know anything about physics, even though we took eight years of it, and even though we were flattered, we politely declined and recommended a colleague. That project would have been a disaster. We also wisely stay away from in-depth medical translations.
  • It's OK not to have one. It's not a bad thing to not have a specialization or significant experience in any area at the beginning of your career. Everyone starts out without experience (we did, too), and we wouldn't recommend lying about any experience you have. However, think about experience outside the T&I field: perhaps you were a Little League coach and thus know a lot about baseball or volunteered at your local Habitat for Humanity and thus know a bit about non-profits. The experience doesn't have to be in both languages, but any background and educational credentials will come in handy. For instance, Judy's graduate degree is in business management, so business translations were a natural fit for her. We had also done previous copywriting work (before we started our business, that is), so we felt that the advertising field might be a good specialization (and we were right).
  • Add one! It might also very well happen that you will add specializations throughout your career, which is a good thing. We recommend choosing closely related fields so you don't have to invest too much time and resources.
  • Getting faster. As a general rule, the more specialized you are, the faster you will be able to translate because you will be very familiar with the terminology. For instance, we have colleagues who only translate clinical trials, real estate purchase contracts or patents. They have usually amassed large glossaries and translation memories and spent little time researching and lots of time translation, thus positively affecting their bottom line.
We think this is a good start, but would love to hear from both colleagues and newcomers. Join the conversation by leaving a comment!


Fernando D. Walker on June 6, 2013 at 4:28 AM said...

I couldn't agree more with you on this topic! Especially, about not accepting those jobs we don't feel comfortable with or we simply don't like.

In my case, I specialize in Renewable Energy and Sustainability because, on the one hand, I love these topics and, on the other hand, I feel that, with my work, I can help people spreading their green ideas and contributing to the protection of our planet.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on June 6, 2013 at 7:42 AM said...

@Fernando: Thanks for reading and for commenting! We do also think that this topic is essential, especially for beginners. We really like your specializations -- great stuff. We are both tree huggers and save the planet by recycling pretty much everything, planting many herbs and veggies (Dagy), driving a Prius (Judy) and not having a car (Dagy). It's fantastic that you are saving the planet through translation!

Nicole Rodrigues on July 17, 2013 at 3:03 AM said...

Dear Judy and Dagmar,

Thanks for writing and sharing with us another great post!

To a certain extent I am one of those accidental translators, as I do not have a degree in languages/translation (yet) and I haven't planned to become one from the start.

I have a Bachelor in Advertising and a postgraduate degree in Literature. After studying English for 12 years and getting my full proficiency certificate, I came to live abroad and the fluency in English proved to be very useful. So I thought myself how to translate by pretty much reading every single book about translation I could find online and in the amazing Swedish libraries close to me (I am from Brazil but I live in the South of Sweden for a few years now). Some online workshops, webinars, training sessions and thorough reading of amazing blogs by translators (like yours) have also helped me to feel that I was actually becoming a translator, after a while.

Very early on in my journey it was clear to me that I had to specialize, so it seemed natural to invest in advertising as my first expertise area, as the knowledge in this area had already been acquired. I continued polishing my writing, translating and advertising skills until I felt confident enough to contact advertising agencies around the globe and offer my services.

Soon I discovered that what I was offering was so much more complicated than “simply translating” (as it involves cultural and historical aspects, knowledge of localization methods, market and product research) that it even had its own name: transcreation.

So I became a transcreator by digging deep on this ground and since then (about 3 years now) I have been working almost exclusively in this area.

Ok, I´ll stop now before this becomes a book (... wait a minute [!]) :-)

Anonymous said...

Very nice article and great tips!

Transcreation on October 20, 2016 at 10:16 AM said...

I think one will be more productive and will feel more valuable if is specialised. It's a more complex and challenging path but you'll for sure get more rewards. As mentioned above by another reader, becoming a transcreator is an option to consider. In order to be a transcreator you have to be creative and aware of cultural factors in order to translate the brand message.

James Cayetano on May 5, 2017 at 12:20 AM said...

Awesome tips you have here. A very helpful post for everyone. Thank you very much for sharing!

Unknown on November 10, 2017 at 9:45 AM said...

I enjoyed your article and found it very useful. I agree that some sort of specialisation is important, however I also wonder if specialisation narrows down your job opportunities especially in translation? Do the pros outweigh the cons regarding specialisation? I am just a beginner so I´m not sure about a correct answer on this issue. Thank you.

Unknown on November 10, 2017 at 9:48 AM said...

I found your article very useful. I am just a beginner translator so I want to ask if maybe specialisation might narrow down job opportunities? I understand some sort of special talent is important, however if one has a wider span of knowledge, maybe there is more job opportunities available? Thank you. I enjoy your posts very much.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 10, 2017 at 12:06 PM said...

@Gabriela: Thanks for reading and for commenting! We are delighted to hear that you like our blog. Yes, specialization is key for good earnings in the future, but of course that does not mean that you cannot also accept generalist assignments. Most clients look for specializations, so it's key to have one (or several). We have several and it has served us well. Best of luck to you!

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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