Great translators try their hand at a variety of text types and subject matters before choosing a specialty. You never know what you might enjoy. Plus, it’s a great way to hone your “meta-skills”: research, terminology management, and quality control. You will make mistakes, certainly. Sometimes even major errors. That’s OK. They’re a natural part of the learning process; they’re good for you.
Unfortunately, clients don’t have the patience (nor should they!) for you to cut your teeth on their projects. So how can you gain competency and confidence in different fields, without botching a job?
1. Ask a veteran translator to be your mentor. This was cited at a recent translator conference as more important than any other experience on your resume. Experienced colleagues have been there, made that mistake. They’ve read the books and tested the waters. And—lucky for you—they’re usually more than happy to share what they have learned along the way, from tips on working with difficult clients to carefully compiled glossaries. So be friendly, be respectful, and ask around at your next translator meet-up or in an online forum. You never know who might be willing to help.
2. Try to reproduce texts already in translation. The United Nations website publishes charters and reports in multiple languages, for instance. Large corporations offer multi-lingual homepages. And so on. Find a few short passages in your working source language(s) and give it a try. Then use the “official” translation to check your work. Keep track of words or phrases that were especially tricky to understand or research.
3. Read widely and build glossaries as you go. Wikipedia is a decent place to start if you have zero background on a given topic, but check the bottom of the entry for outside links. Your local library can help, too. Once you get a handle on the topic in your native language, see if you can’t decipher school texts in your source language. Visit association websites, from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers to l’Association Française des Parcs Zoologiques. Don’t limit yourself to dry news and trade papers. It all builds vocabulary.
What other ways can language professionals improve their skills? How do you teach yourself new subjects?