I mentioned briefly last week that beginning translators should forget about specializing. Sure, lots of business and entrepreneur gurus advocate “focus” for increasing sales. Become an expert and the clients will be all over you, they say. But this is terrible advice for beginning translators. Why? Because your focus should be translating. Full stop.
Language is a fluid, flexible, collaborative medium. Vocabulary sets do not exist independent of other specialty areas. Just think how pervasive sports metaphors are in the English vernacular: a repeat offender “strikes out,” a successful salesperson “hits one out of the ballpark,” and a persistent college applicant “goes for the gold.” If you specialize too early, you limit your chances of recognizing references to culture and language outside your specific field(s) of expertise.
Without a general knowledge of other fields’ phraseology, you also limit the jobs to which you can apply. Many top language service employers require testing before your name goes into their databases. I don’t mean just any old agency; I’m talking big-fish organizations like the United Nations, World Bank, and the National Cryptologic School, for example. And they don’t just test the obviously relevant areas of expertise. Usually you’ll have three passages to translate:
- one general text related to the business,
- one finance/legal/economic text, and
- one science/technical text.
They want to trip you up. They want you to make mistakes. They need a reason to cross your name off their lists, because you are not the only translator aching to go on their freelance roster. Well, that and they want to be sure you can handle anything they throw your way. Science terms end up in patents, and construction vocabulary goes into builders’ contracts. You need to know how to recognize them, research them, and use them well.
So take a few years to focus on the basics. Learn which false cognates and faux amis trip you up regularly. Master the art of terminology research. Find out what method works best for you to keep track of rare or slippery words and phrases. Create your best quality-assurance process so your target texts are always cleaner than the source. And most importantly, translate. Translate everything. Try out as many different texts as you can. Your future translating self will thank you.
Are you a generalist or a specialist? Why do you prefer one or the other?