How to Choose a Translation Specialisation

Different coloured fruit as a metaphor for using translation specialisation to be different from the competition

Written by Lucy Williams

Spanish-to-English translator and translator trainer

When I was starting out as a general translator, I read a lot about the need to find a translation specialisation, to create a niche. I could see all the benefits, but there was one big question. How do you choose your specialism?

Why specialise anyway?

Specialising helps you work faster, earn more and find clients. It also, hopefully, means you do more work that you enjoy. What’s more, as an expert, you can command better rates.

When I was starting out as a freelance translator, I read all about the need to specialise and agreed. I too wanted to make more money and have more control over what I worked on. Who doesn’t? But, when I first started translating, I didn’t have much experience. That forced me into working on a range of texts. I needed to build up experience and a portfolio.

Almost ten years later, I can afford to pick and choose much more than in those early days. I have developed specialist fields (fashion, marketing and tourism). But how did I get there? Here’s what I’ve learned can help.

Use what you’ve done before

One good suggestion is to use something you’ve studied in the past. Or an area you have experience working in, a career before translation, so you have real world experience and know the jargon.

Before translation I was a TEFL teacher. Before that I worked in travel sales. And before I ever entered the world of work, I studied international relations. None of those things really helped me much at the beginning of my translation career.

They were too long ago or too specific to end up being profitable. That’s not to say they were useless. But they weren’t enough to build a specialisation on.

So, what did help? If I didn’t get much leverage out of previous studies or work experience, what was useful?

The things I was good at weren’t necessarily the things I expected to be good at or enjoy.

Narrow down the type of work you enjoy translating

Starting out as a generalist was helpful. It forced me into working on all sorts of different projects. I really hated some of them. Sometimes because of the subject matter. Or because it took me so long to research everything.

Some of them I really enjoyed and could see I had a flair for that field. That helped me begin to see what I might be good at. The things I was good at weren’t necessarily the things I expected to be good at or enjoy. Each successful and enjoyable project became part of my portfolio. Bit by bit, that helped me get more similar work.

Wondering how to develop a #translation specialisation? Read this for great tips! By @LucyWTranslator Click To Tweet

Take a qualification

After several years, I decided to sit the Chartered Institute of Linguists Diploma in Translation. I didn’t have an MA in translation and felt I needed a qualification to stand out from the crowd. I had looked into various different MAs, but there was nothing I felt was compatible with my situation.

I live in Spain, and I felt that even a distance-learning MA would be difficult to manage with family life and working fulltime. As I explained in “How do You Manage a Work-Life Balance as a Translator?”, an MA wasn’t going to work for me.

I researched an MA from the University of Cádiz, because the taught component was in Seville. But Audiovisual Translation wasn’t really what I wanted to do either. I’d learnt from my experience as a general translator that I wasn’t prepared to study something I wasn’t interested in. Especially if I was going to pay thousands of euros to do it.

I finally settled on doing the DipTrans and took the Advanced Translation Course with DipTrans Preparation run by my now-colleague Gwenydd Jones. See my course review here. That was helpful for two reasons. Firstly, the course gave me insight into the two specialist papers I chose to sit: literature and social science. Secondly, it gave me an idea of what to expect if I sat the other options (legal, business, technology and science).

Starting out as a generalist was helpful. It forced me into working on all sorts of different projects.

How to decide what to study

Moodles and online courses can be a good way to dip your toe into a field and see if it’s something you might like. Have a look at Coursera, FutureLearn and for free or economic training and courses.

Webinars can be a good, inexpensive way of getting insight into a particular field. It can help you decide if you want to find out more or do further study. Check out my on-demand webinars on ProZ about the fashion and tourism industries.

Market yourself to reach the customers you want to work with

If you do have contacts in a specific field, make sure they know what you know. The other way I’ve got work is through networking and being recommended. Maybe someone recommends you for something that leads to more work in that field.

If you’re a member of platforms like ProZ, use your profile to showcase what you can do and as a tool to get the kind of work you want. I have been contacted by agencies through ProZ because of work I’ve mentioned on my profile. Some of those have become good customers.

Once you’ve finished a project you’ve enjoyed, add it to your portfolio or your profile. But make sure that you don’t break confidentiality. If in doubt, write to the client and tell them what you intend to publish, and ask them for permission to publish it. Also, tell the client how much you enjoyed working with them on the project. If it’s an agency, they may well have more similar work.

Search for agencies and customers that have work in the same fields. If you’re using sites like ProZ, check the job listings for similar projects.

Find out why choosing a #translation specialisation isn’t just about training and qualifications. By @LucyWTranslator. Click To Tweet

For me, part of the way I came to specialise in fashion was by taking on a small fashion-related project from one agency. That led to a bit more and a bit more. Then I was contacted by another agency with similar work after they saw details on my ProZ profile.

Have a long-term plan

If you start out like me, specialising takes time. My route into translation was atypical perhaps. No specific field behind me. No translation qualification. Read “How to Become a Translator: One Translator’s Story” for more details about my route into the profession. I spent a long time as a generalist. But I was prepared to take risks and invest time in learning a specialisation.

Take risks

One of my oldest clients comes from a job I saw on a ProZ job listing. I just knew I could it. It was the kind of translation I enjoyed and knew I was good at: translating scripts (for the Lucky Fred cartoon). I applied, did a test translation and was picked by the American consultant screenwriter. That looked good on my portfolio and led to other interesting work. On paper, I didn’t really have the portfolio to justify it at that stage, but I wanted it and I went for it. And it paid off.

There are many routes to specialism. The path you take will depend on many things. Where do you want to get to? What’s important to you? What risks are you prepared to take? If you don’t have an obvious path to specialism, think out of the box.

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