The publication of my State of the Industry on LinkedIn yielded a short debate on some aspects of our business. One of the comments was on the ever-present money issue, which I will comment on later. However, I also got interesting feedback on my profile as a “broad” translator––in contrast to a specialist. The feedback led to an interesting question: Is the future of translators in specialization?
This is a long read. Just to give you an idea of the topics:
- How I did not specialize
- The role of the market
- Technological changes
- Generalists vs. specialists
- The future of translators
How I did not specialize
Next summer I celebrate having started my company seven years ago. Much has changed since then. However, what didn’t change is my continuing interest in many different topics. Having originally graduated in politics and social sciences, I now translate both literature and workplace manuals, advertisements for huge companies and privacy policies for websites. I am neither a polyglot nor a polytrope, but everything I do, I do with dedication. Moreover, I only choose topics that I am comfortable with, and turn down jobs for which I cannot guarantee quality work.
This situation certainly has much to do with both nature and nurture. I am myself interested in many different things, but at the same time I grew up in an environment with totally different interests. Much of my family were technicians or technical minded, while I loved philosophy and politics.
A second factor that plays a role is my anxiety when I started this business. Starting as a freelancer means that one should give up all certainties and make the best of the new business. With my knowledge of many different topics I offered help to those who were looking for a translator. Sometimes that led to stressful situations, but I have never really reached beyond my capabilities and I have never ever turned down a translation job I had actually confirmed. That’s a part of my nature as well, I think: I don’t want to let my clients down.
The last factor I would like to mention is the broadness of an undergraduate studies in a social sciences faculty. Politics has really nothing to do with car maintenance manuals, but apart from that it interfaces with almost everything.
I must admit that the topics I offered help with – which are listed on my CV on the homepage – were very broad. Moreover, the list grew as I became more settled as a translator. At the same time I always turned down jobs I did not feel comfortable with, like adult toys and fashion. In some sense there is indeed a kind of specialisation, in that I do not offer help with any and all topics.
So far my confession.
My approach to accepting jobs in a broad range of fields and delivering them with the right terms and the highest quality has been fruitful since then. Luckily, I am now in the position to accept only the work I really like, but at the same time I have learned so much about so many topics and have never had a boring day.
But this is only my personal take on the discussion.
I would never have had any chance to get into this situation––which I love, but which some of my colleagues, understandably, deny––if the market had not supported it.
The role of the market
I can’t remember who my first client was or what my first job was (my Inbox knows), but I do remember that many of my first clients were companies that loved me because my price was just about average. People who posted quotes on Proz.com often were way too expensive or way too cheap. (Much has changed since then: I only once raised my word rate, but companies are now requiring us to quote for $0,05 per word, much lower than the average word rate then and far too low for a normal living.) They obiously didn’t look for experience or for a quality score. But there was more. Some also looked at me as a new (potential) victim. They tried to push me to lower my rates because I was “too expensive,” because I was “only starting in this industry,” or because they could promise me much more work to come. Perhaps it is significant that many of these companies are out of business now or are ignored by freelance translators because of their poor payment ethics…
Apart from their ignorance of experience in hiring, these companies also didn’t show interest in much specialization. Some of them posted a new quotation request for every new file they received (that’s frustrating as well), but many start sending new jobs covering a plethora of different topics once their clients said they loved the quality. Some clients sent me translation requests for tractors, shoes, jeans and contracts––even on the same day.
So translation agencies themselve were simply overlooking the naked truth of experience and specialization. I can think of three reasons for that: They had no time to waste on hiring a specialized translator; they were simply thinking that specialization equals too expensive; or they trusted a known freelancer, which gave them a sense of security.
The fact that I am still not specialized in any field is therefore––apart from my personal considerations––the result of the state of the marketplace as well. Agencies are no longer the same as 10 years ago (or even 5 years ago, as I noted above) and business tactics are changing. In the end it all boils down to money.
A last point worth mentioning is that project managers often do not know how to describe a certain job. In all the projects I have done in the field of apps and software, I started working on a given project because of my specialization in app localization. But once working on the project, agencies came up with “marketing” jobs to promote the apps/software, “legal” jobs to translate a few lines of terms and conditions and “finance” jobs that were related to some set of payment conditions. They often stick to a certain specialization, when in fact there are more fields involved, or they use a certain field as a container term while the actual translation job actually has nothing to do with it.
Apart from the market there is another important factor that plays a role in the existence (and birth) of generalists. Thanks to the introduction of CAT tools, translators do not need to have much knowledge of a certain field: Many terms and explanations can be found in translation memories and term bases. And if they do not provide the answer, then there is Google. Who remembers the translators who translated 2,000 words and looked up every single term in their dictionaries? Translators nowadays boast of their increased productivity (4,000 words a day as a minimum) and sell their services proudly because they have access to so many tools and databases. There seems no need for dedication or specialisation anymore and companies accept that.
Generalists vs. specialists
The debate about generalism and specialism is generally not a public debate between translators. When starting as freelance translators, or even before that point––when studying a language, translators often consider their specialisms and choose where to focus. But once active as a translator and established, they do not reconsider their choices. It seems that many professionals who have “arrived” are emphasizing specializations, but it is striking how many translators have a very broad “specialization.” When I am talking to colleagues or hiring translators for a job for an end client, I almost never meet translators that really specialize in only one or two fields. They often have done a multitude of different tasks and present themselves as omniscient. Is it just a matter of practical considerations or is it because no one requires a specialization?
Again, I think this has everything to do with the market. Freelance translators don’t know where to start, while agencies do not place any importance on specialization––except for quite sensitive fields like legal and medical translations.
The future of translation
That leads to the question I started with: Is the future of translation in specialization? Or would being a generalist simply suffice?
Given the trends among freelancers and agencies alike I think the future is all about generalism. Translators will increasingly focus on more than three topics because it offers them opportunities to earn more money and to gain a sense of safety. Furthermore, they can always ask peers or use terminology websites and databases to look up the terms they do not understand. Of course there will also be room for specialists, but I think their numbers will decrease in the future. Specialists are only needed for the critical jobs and for companies that understand their value.
Generalists, on the other hand, can never be too broad in their selection of topics: Five or six fields would certainly work, but more are barely possible. Translators should know that, not least from an ethical point of view: A technical translator who also specializes in coronary heart attacks will almost certainly go nuts at some point.