How do you know when you’re ready to tackle more specialized translation tasks?

I was thrilled to participate in Georgetown University’s language and communications career expo last Tuesday. Man, did these students have some great questions! I’ve been in touch with a few of them since, with more practical queries rolling in. For all the future translators and interpreters out there wondering the same, I’ll try my best to answer what I can. (Current T/I professionals, chime in!)

Today’s question:

How do you know when you’re ready to get into the nitty gritty of a specialty field?

I wrote about the importance of generalizing here, but it’s true that, eventually, you want to start focusing your work. What do you choose? How do you choose it? When do you start the transition?

The short answer is, you just know. One of those light-bulb moments, and bam, you know you’ve leveled up.

The symptoms that might tip you off can include the following: boredom with your typical T/I jobs, doubting that T/I rather than alternate career X should be in your future, hard-core procrastination on your business-related tasks. . . If you’re in the language services field, chances are you’re a pretty smart cookie with wide-ranging interests. You need a challenge to keep you on task. And that’s when you start to specialize.

Debutante translators (to avoid using age as a marker, since that’s so not important in this field) are not the only ones to get this urge to up the difficulty. Veteran translators are always finding ways to keep themselves on their toes! They might do this by adding in a new specialty. Or, they learn a new software program to help their work, start offering an extra service like training sessions, and so on. Linguists, like language, constantly evolve.

So, once you know you’re ready to “level up,” how do you find your focal point? Well, what tasks have you found challenging in the past? I mean tough, time-consuming, why-did-I-take-this-on, cross-your-eyes-in-confusion tasks. Something you had to abandon but were mad, rather than relieved, to have to give it up. That’s probably a subject that you want to understand, but need to spend time and brain power on. It certainly will be a change from the usual!

There are many options for learning more about the subject you choose to specialize in. Take classes (which is the best option for your resume), borrow books from the library, volunteer with a relevant company or organization. Some professionals go back for a second degree, or an associate’s degree, or a certificate. Others take classes specifically for translators/interpreters on the subject matter, which often focus on vocabulary and sentence structure (very useful!).

Begin the transition when you feel prepared to put yourself out there. This doesn’t necessarily mean feeling 100% comfortable—in fact, sometimes a small amount of nerves helps you keep your quality high. Be honest with yourself. Test the waters with some low-profile, lower-stress projects. And do it!

Veterans, do you have any other advice to add for debutantes with this question? Those of you new to the field, do you have any other questions I can try to answer for you? Let’s get chatting!


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