6 Specialization Tips for Your Freelance Translation Career
Episode 007 – Customer service for translators – interview with Marcela Reyes
March 10, 2014
Episode 008 – Branding for translators – Interview with Valeria Aliperta
March 24, 2014

Six tips for choosing a specialization for your freelance translation career

ID-10022938Is it important to specialize if you are a new translator without much experience? The answer is yes. Online competition can be steep and by specializing you can stand out from the crowd. But that is not the only reason.  Certain subjects simply demand a specialized translator in order to be able to produce a good translation. A highly specialized medical journal simply cannot be translated by someone without any experience in the specific medical field. A manual for a blow torch cannot be translated by someone who barely knows what a blow torch is. I should know, since I attempted to do it when I first started out. I quickly realized that it was not a good idea.

Some people become freelance translators after having pursued another career, and for them it is easy to choose a specialization. But how do we choose a specialization if we have recently graduated from a translation education, or have recently launched our freelance translation business translation program, with no previous work experience?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Base it on your previous experience. Many translators come in to the profession as a second career. There are lawyers and doctors who got tired of their everyday tasks have switched to becoming translators in the legal and medical fields. My education is in marketing and I have worked with IT-services, so that is what I chose to specialize in when I started out. Many subject matters in translation require the kind of expertise that only people who have worked in the field can have, such as the translation of highly specialized medical research articles, and chemical documentation.
  2. Pick an area that you enjoy reading about and researching. You are going to do a lot of reading in your specialization so make sure you find it interesting. If you cannot relate strongly to the subject you are not likely to become a real specialist in it either.
  3. Weed out the areas you do not want to specialize in, that you have no interest in learning more about and do not feel competent translating. For me it is legal translations. I do not have any legal experience to start with and I think many legal texts are difficult to read and plain boring, but that is my personal opinion.
  4. Pick a profitable field. This point does not exclude the previous ones, but is worth considering. If you specialize in an area where there is not much need for translation in your languages or that does not have money to pay for translations, it will not be profitable for you. It is wise to focus on an industry (law, IT, pharmaceuticals) in which clients have to translate texts in order to do business with other countries and cultures. It is also smart to focus on an industry (corporate communications, hospitality, tourism) where clients hope that a good translation will bring them more business and profit.
  5. Think of your interests and hobbies. We usually know a lot about subjects we are interested in and our hobbies. For example I could probably translate yoga material quite well since I have done yoga in both the US and Sweden and I love reading about it. I am also fairly well versed in nutrition and could make this an area of expertise if I really wanted to.
  6. When you have chosen a specialization, you can improve your skills in the field by taking courses, either university courses or online courses. You can also attend workshops in the subject matter and read as much as possible about it. Try to also find a more experienced translator in the field that can mentor you and/or proofread your work in the beginning.

For more information and help to create a marketing plan and get your year started right, check out the Quick Start Guide – 8 steps to a marketing plan for translators.

10 Comments

  1. Jesse says:

    Neat! Thanks for the tips. I’m looking to specialize in oil and gas, and yes, choosing something profitable really is important! You have to think about where the money is in terms of what documents people need to translate. This usually leads to legal . . . but not all the time! I have come to know many translators who are very specialized and they are doing really well. I think you are right about taking courses as well, essential! There will always be something you will learn that will help you.

    • Tess says:

      Thanks Jesse! Do you have any additional tips? Oil and gas seems to be a good specialization.

      • Jesse says:

        One tip I can think of is to consider the types of documents that need to be translated in your language pair. When you are thinking about specializing, ask yourself ‘is there a lot of work for me in this language direction?’. I know of a renewable energies translator who does ENG>SPA, which seems like a good combination with materials in English needing to be translated for South America. I can definitely see a future in that. I’m hoping to get my hands on those Spanish docs about oil and gas and descriptions of rigs and processes, environmental impact reports, etc. and I see some future in that. I hope I’m right! Mexico and the USA are only going to work more together in the future and materials in both languages will be crucial.

  2. […] freelancers, we’re constantly told that we should specialise. And we should. But when you’re starting out, that can be a really hard task. There are very […]

  3. I am a Spanish to English translator and looking to specialize in the tourism industry. How do I go about finding out if that is a profitable field. I’ve tried searching online but I can’t seem to find any data on needed translation pairs and matching fields.

    • Tess says:

      My first gut reaction is that it is a profitable field. Think of the clients that would need your services. Can they afford your translations? If so, then it is a profitable field.

  4. […] Translators have to define their unique value propositions more sharply, and one way to do this is to become an expert in a carefully chosen narrow field. Get more tips for choosing a specialization for your freelance translation career. […]

  5. Anna says:

    To me, choosing a specialization is proving to be one of the most difficult things about becoming an established translator.
    My main interests lie in fields where there is either little work opportunities or a lot of formal education to do (and rightly so). For example, I’m passionate and curious about mental health and neurological issues, but I’d basically have to become a doctor to be qualified for translating in this area. I’m 25 and still studying languages at university, how would I go about getting enough qualification in the field before turning 50? Getting two degrees isn’t possible for anyone. And even so, would there be enough work?
    I kind of feel that many young translators would benefit from some sort of guidance or coaching, there are a lot of questions that we ask ourself and few resources to help us answer them.

  6. Marco says:

    Translators can specialize in various fields over the years. Working in projects in those fields is exactly how you gain experience; after all, we can’t get a PhD in a new field just because this would be the way to learn according to some. The internet is out there with all you need to do anything. I have translated agriculture, engineering, and real estate content (just to name a few fields that are highly technical to say the least), and I pulled it off because I researched every single word that I did not know at that time. True that you will make mistakes, but so will you when you are specialized; it’s impossible not to make mistakes sometimes. Still, if you believe in yourself, you can translate anything.

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