Specialized Translation: What It Is and Why You Should Do It

What Is Specialized Translation?

Specialized translation is translation of content that requires a specific knowledge in the relevant field or special aptitude and preparedness for the field.


Legal translation, for example, would require a basic knowledge of laws as well as translation experience in the field. Transcreation would be another example; you need a certain level of aptitude for the job on top of linguistic capabilities.


Email translation, on the other hand, would not be considered a field one can specialize in, because there is no specific knowledge that can prepare you for the job and probably no specific knowledge would be needed. 



Why Should You Specialize for Your Translation Business?

There are many benefits when you specialize in a field rather than overexerting yourself to cover just about everything.


Trust from clients and yourself

If you present yourself as a specialist in translation of a certain field and there are enough grounds to back that claim up, there is a higher chance for your clients to trust you more than other jack-of-all-trades translators.


Furthermore, your client’s trust isn’t the only kind of trust that matters. Your own trust in your capability to translate a certain document will be enhanced as well. If you work only in one or two fields, you will accumulate a considerable body of knowledge in your field(s) in a short time, and it will only continue to grow. This will help you translate accurately, use proper and relevant terms, and boost your confidence in yourself as a translator. 


Speed of your translation work

As you concentrate on your chosen field and translate similar materials over and over again, your TM will also help you speed up your translation. Who knows, you might even get a TM match of entire sentences or even an entire paragraph (not impossible!) if you specialize in a certain field. As a result, your translation time will become shorter and shorter.


Increasingly strong profile

This is how the virtuous circle goes: once you are able to assert yourself as a translation expert in a subject matter, you will get more work in that field, which will make you more knowledgeable and more efficient, which will improve your reputation, feedback, and trust from clients, which will get you even more work… As a result, you will be able to present yourself with a stronger online translation profile than when you first started specializing in a field.


Higher rates

As a result of your stronger profile and better quality of translation, you can enjoy higher rates than if you translated just whatever comes your way. Of course, just because you specialize in a field does not mean your clients will allow you better rates. It is your job to assert the higher rates that you deserve in consideration of your time and efforts for your specialization. For rates, you can read this post: Translation Rates: How to Set Them Initially, When and How to Raise Them Later.



How to Choose Your (New) Specialized Translation Field



Obvious ways to go

If you have a field that you studied in college that you love, that should definitely be your field of specialization. If you have worked in a field for a long time and you know it inside out, again, that should definitely be your field of specialization. 


Not-so-obvious ways to go

What if you don’t like what you studied and you don’t want to do anything regarding your previous line of work? Well, it’s not the end of the world. You can choose what you would like to specialize in. Here are a few suggestions for that.


  • Look into your translation invoices or work-related emails and think about what you enjoyed most.
  • Think about what you do in your free time and find out what your hobbies are. Is it about cooking or gardening? Or is it your car or computer? Games? Browsing other homes on the market? Whatever it is, ask yourself if that could be a field that you could specialize in.
  • What magazines do you read? Do you follow celebrities or news in a specific field? 
  • If you think about something day and night and cannot shake it out of your head, chances are you love it or you are obsessed with it. Then, you should ask yourself if that can be a field of something you can translate.


Additional considerations

The translation market is really big and there is always a niche for you. That’s what I believe. But you need to ask if the field of your choice is big enough to sustain you as a translator. Medical translation, legal translation, game translation, etc. are big enough for many translators in certain language pairs. But you need to think and investigate a bit if you intend to specialize in art history for the language pair of English and Vietnamese, for example. You can take one or two additional fields of specialization if one is not enough. To see the market size for a specific field, I recommend following the bidding trend on market place companies like ProZ.


How to dip your feet in a new field

When you’re first starting translation, how many fields can you really be familiar with? They’re all going to be difficult. When you want to try some other field that you cannot claim you are an expert in, what can you do? Well, you can try the good old trial-and-error method. Dip your feet into a new field to see if you like it or are at least a good fit. That way, you can step into a new area instead of clinging to fields that you don’t like but are clinging to only because you’re already very comfortable with them. Try the following:


  • When first taking on projects in an unfamiliar field, start with small projects instead of big ones (e.g. under 1,000 words).
  • When offered a job in an unfamiliar field, make your final decision only after asking for the file and studying it. (Just because it’s in a new field doesn’t mean everything about it will be new and unfamiliar. It’s only going to be new to a certain degree.) Only say “yes” to the project if, upon looking at the file, you decide that you would be able to do it with just a little more research.
  • Once you’ve decided to take on the project, you will need to invest much more time on that project than usual. It’s ideal to allot around three times the amount of time than you would need for a similar-sized project in a familiar field. If doing so conflicts with meeting the deadline, you can come to an agreement with the PM and usually extend the deadline a little bit. From the PM’s perspective, assigning a trusted hard-working translator a job from a new field is much safer than assigning it to a careless translator or a translator they don’t know, so it’s very likely that the PM will try their best to meet your needs and extend the deadline.
  • While actually working on the project, you will need to refer to many sites on the Internet with a certain degree of authority. A sentence that you, the translator, didn’t understand will not be made any clearer from your translation of it (this is my principle in translation).


[bctt tweet=”A sentence that the translator, didn’t understand will not be made any clearer from the translation of it.” username=””]


If you don’t understand something, you must build up the necessary background knowledge and sufficiently understand the content before worrying about anything linguistic. If you sift through the sea of information called the Internet, you will find that there is quite a lot of professional knowledge from various fields. Rather than asking someone else, it’s better to visit those kinds of sites to read, study, and understand, make a note of the standard terminology of that field, and bookmark those sites to revisit later.


If you go through the above process and take on a few projects from a new field, you will start to gain a little confidence and become comfortable in that field before you know it. Of course, even so, you still need to decide whether or not you’re going to specialize in that field in the future. That’s something you should decide after considering whether or not you are interested in that field and enjoy working on projects in that field, and whether or not that field guarantees a relatively high rate of payment, etc.



What to Do If You Get a Translation Request Outside Your Field of Expertise



One day, I got a request asking me to translate a document. I didn’t have any other projects going on at that time, so the timing was excellent. Once I opened the file, however, I found it was from a field unfamiliar to me. Should I accept it, or reject it? Wouldn’t you agonize over it, too? If I am going to reject it, what should I say?


If you are a just beginning your translation career and hungry for jobs, well, then you should take it. But if you already have sufficient jobs and are trying to specialize in a field to improve your business in the long run, then you should reject it. It has nothing to do your capabilities as a translator; it has everything to do with your business strategy as a freelance translator. (Some PMs thoughtlessly use the expression, “Can you translate _______?” This feels more like they’re asking about your ability to translate rather than whether you have the time or desire to take on the project. Then, it’s easy for a translator with a lot of pride to think, “Well, of course I CAN translate it” and jump into it. That’s the shameful past picture of somebody…)


Another factor that blurs the judgment of a translator in a situation like this is that a typical aspect of a translator’s work is that he/she doesn’t always have an abundance of jobs. When you get a request involving a big project (in most cases, big projects earn you much higher pay compared to the time invested in them) in a field you’re not familiar with during the short time you’re in a job dry spell, it can really blur your judgment. It’s not easy to firmly reject such a thing. However, translators are only human. No matter how much experience and knowledge you have, you can’t be familiar with every field.


[bctt tweet=”No matter how much experience and knowledge you have, you can’t be familiar with every field.” username=””]


Also, regardless of whether or not you can do it, it is unprofitable because it takes a long time. After all, time is the most valuable and very limited resource for you. So, if the source file is not in a field that you’re trying to specialize in for the long term, you need to clearly and concisely say, “No, I can’t.”


If you take on a difficult project because you can’t say those few simple words, you will struggle for a few days and end up producing a translation that is not up to your own or the agency’s standards, meaning you would have already spent an irrevocable amount of time, lowered your self-esteem, and just overall done something that will not help you at all in the long term. Instead of doing all that, it’s much better to just say, “No, I can’t.”


However, there are a few different cases. If the project is in a field you don’t know well but are interested in attempting, or is in a field that you want to eventually specialize in, then the situation is a little different. You should go back to the previous section on how to dip your feet in a new field.


If you would like to know more about business strategies as a freelance translator, check out my e-book: 9 Ear-Opening Tips for Freelance Translators Running Single-Person Enterprises E-Book.


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