When it comes to translation fields, most people think of a few well-known areas such as legal, medical, financial and software. However, did you know that there are dozens of translation fields and that each one requires specific skills and knowledge to succeed?
There’s more to translation than simply replacing one word for another. Although some texts are simpler to translate, like general texts, some others are more complex. The difficulty in translating a death certificate, for example, is not the same as in a medical report or a novel.
So let’s take a closer look at what translation fields of expertise there are, what kind of skills a specialised translator needs to succeed, and when a generalist translator might be a better choice for a particular project.
Generalist vs Specialised Translators
A generalist translator usually has a degree in translation or a related field and has at least some experience. They can target many different types of texts within their language pair but will deal with less complex material than specialised translators.
Even though many translators survive happily as generalists, ability alone is usually not enough to deal with complex texts well. Specialist translators can typically provide better-quality work than generalist translators of similar ability, and they can also do it much quicker. This is because translation ability is not what distinguishes specialist translators from generalists. What distinguishes them is the built-up knowledge and experience in their field.
Productivity plays a key role, too: specialists tend to work quicker. Generalists need to research what a specialist already knows, and their research efforts might not always be successful, especially when the information is not readily available online.
Why Is Specialisation Important for Translators?
“Everyone in the translation industry seems to agree that translators these days must specialise. (…) [One of the reasons for it is] the exponential expansion of knowledge: there is simply much more to know about any given subject and many new subjects to know.
No translator can be expected to have the knowledge required to translate all types of documents well and within a reasonable amount of time.”
Charles Martin, Specialisation in Translation
From the passage above, we can see that when it comes to translation, knowledge and experience in a specific field are key. We can’t expect every translator to know everything there is to know about every subject.
Therefore, specialisation is not only advantageous for translators but also for clients who hire them. From knowing which projects to take and what price to quote to understanding the intricacies of a particular subject, specialisation ensures that translators know their stuff and provide quality work with little supervision required.
The Main Areas of Translation
Below is a non-exhaustive list of translation fields, ranked by order of popularity (according to a survey we conducted among 400 translators worldwide)
It includes text types like equipment manuals, software documentation, operating instructions, automotiveetc. TIt includes text types like equipment manuals, software documentation, operating instructions, automotive documents, assembly instructions and installation guides, etc.
Technical texts might require technical skills like working knowledge of engineering or computer science (depending on the area).
Sometimes, technical translation collides with marketing translation; it’s the case of translators working with Software-as-a-Service or SaaS (hi!), marketing technology, etc.
Translators specialised in legal work with documents such as contracts, rulings, certificates, etc. They need to be familiar with the legal terminology and practices of the country they are translating into.
It includes transcreation and SEO translation experts (hi again!). Typical text types from the marketing field include website copy, ad copy, brochures, press releases, social media content, SEO-optimised copy, blog posts, UX/UI, presentations, and product descriptions.
Marketing translation requires a high level of creativity, a good understanding of marketing strategies, and a deep knowledge of consumer behaviour in both the source and the target markets.
The target audience of texts in this field are normally accountants, financial managers, and other finance professionals. Typical areas include bank reports, financial statements, annual reports, newsletters/information circulars for shareholders, etc.
Translators who specialise in this area work with travel-related text types such as hotel listings, travel agents’ websites, holiday brochures, airline websites, etc.
They need to have a good understanding of the destination country’s culture and conventions, the travel industry in general, tourism trends, and destination-specific practices.
Texts in this field include magazine articles, news reports, speeches, interviews, press conferences, political discourses—anything that is read by the general public.
Journalist translators need to be familiar with the conventions and jargon of the media industry, as well as relevant subject matter such as politics, sports, health, technology, culture, etc.
Medical translation involves documents such as clinical research articles, informed consent forms, patient education materials (dealing with conditions like cancer, asthma, diabetes), medical certificates/reports, and much more.
Medical translators need to have profound knowledge of the relevant medical field; after all, any error in the translation of medical material could have serious consequences. This makes medical translation one of the most difficult translation specialisation areas.
Social Science/Humanities Translation
The skills a social science translator must develop include an ability to grasp complex theories and concepts, an analytical mind, independent learning, innovation, cultural sensitivity, knowledge of academic conventions, etc.
Have you read Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings? What about The Little Prince or Don Quixote? If so, you have likely read a translated version of these books.
Literary translators work on all types of literary works, which include fiction and non-fiction books, short stories/novels, poetry collections, plays, comics/graphic novels, and more. Literary translators need to be writers: they should be able to create a text in the target language that elicits the same response in the reader as the source text, , all the meanwhile adhering to what’s culturally appropriate for the target audience.
Translators who specialise in art usually work with museums, auction houses, galleries, art critics/journalists, etc.
Art translators must be able to understand the work in both its cultural and historical context. They must also know how to write in an engaging style that suits both experts and laymen.
This translation field includes subtitling and video games (but also much more!). In the streaming era, with platforms like Netflix bringing the world ever closer, the need for specialists who can fluently and accurately translate audiovisual material has grown exponentially.
Translators specialising in this area need to know all the technical jargon surrounding audio and video production, how to work with subtitling tools or other field-specific software, as well as the relevant conventions and best practices.
What Are The Benefits of Niching Down?
- Specialising, or developing a niche market, makes sense for many reasons:
- It lets you develop skills in areas where few others are able to compete.
- It allows you to build a reputation as an expert in your field.
- It limits competition and makes it possible for you to easily undercut price-gougers.
- It allows your existing clients to call on you as a go-to expert in a particular field.
- It saves you time and effort (you don’t spend as long conducting research or waiting for clients to respond to your bids).
- It unlocks new opportunities, such as working on industry-specific translation jobs.
At the same time, however, you need to make sure that you will be able to translate with the right level of expertise in the niche you choose. Devote time and effort to a particular area of expertise so that you can become a true subject-matter expert.
What Are the Most and Least Popular Fields of Translation Specialisation?
According to our survey, technical translation seems to be the most popular among the different types of specialised translation.
The areas in which there seem to be fewer specialised translators include literature, travel and tourism, and audiovisual/entertainment. This doesn’t mean, however, that these are fields demanding little translation effort. Rather, it means that not as many linguists have specialised in them as in the technical, legal, or marketing translation fields.
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