Despite widespread agreement within the translation industry that specialization is increasingly necessary, there is apparently much confusion about the meaning of this term and its derivatives ‘specialized’ and ‘specialist.’ Although the forces of technology and commerce are clearly making it necessary for laguege service providers to focus on specific subject areas, the extent to which they can become ‘specialists,’ as this term is normally understood, is questionable, given the inherent nature of translation and of the translation market. Such factors as the rapid expansion of information and knowledge in all areas, the growing importance of translation technology and the increasing availability of reliable terminology resources are also shaping the nature and meaning of specialization.
But what exactly do we mean by specialization?
That translators need to specialize is hard to dispute, if what we mean by this is that they should focus on one or more particular fields and not try to translate every document that comes along. Even a half-century ago, few professional translators would have probably disagreed with this. But if what we mean is that translators should become ‘specialists,’ then things get very fuzzy. How can translators and translation companies ruly claim to be specialists if the translation industry has no clearly defined areas of specialization? After all, doesn’t a specialist have to be specialized in some specific field that is recognized as such by his or her peers? Furthermore, to what extent does the nature of translation and the translation market even allow a translator to specialize in a specific area?
Even an apparently simple concept like ‘to specialize’ can be confusing. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it can mean « to train or employ oneself in a special study or activity; to concentrate on a particular activity or product ». According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary it can mean « to become a specialist ». The distinction between these two definitions is not trivial, as the term specialist connotes a certain level of knowledge and skill. By some definitions, ‘to specialize’ can also mean devoting oneself exclusively to one thing, whereas others allow for more than one area of specialization.
As a result, such terms as ‘specialization,’ ‘specialism,’ ‘specialized’ and above all ‘specialist’ are used so broadly and indiscriminately in the translation industry as to have virtually no meaning. People assume that being a specialist translator is similar to being a specialist in other professions, such as medicine or law, yet the concepts of ‘specialization’ and ‘specialist’ cannot be applied analogously to such a vast and unorganized activity as translation.
A specialist doctor, for example, has gone through the same common core of education and training as a general practitioner, has gained additional knowledge and skills, has therefore reached what is considered to be a higher level of achievement and has a clearly delimited area of expertise, such as radiology, cardiology, etc. There are thus clear distinctions between general and specialist medical practitioners. In translation, however, there is no common core of education or common standard of knowledge or achievement and the so-called specialist translator might not even have the basic language skills and knowledge of the ‘generalist.’ Furthermore, in the absence of an agreed taxonomy of translation specialisms there are no clearly delimited areas in which translators can be specialists. The concept of specialization therefore cannot have an absolute meaning in translation, only a relative one. For example, translator A, who is ‘specialized’ in accounting may consider translator B, who claims to be specialized in business translation, to be a ‘generalist’ or at best a ‘semi-specialist’ as far as accounting is concerned. Yet Translator C, who is specialized in international financial reporting standards, may very well think the same of Translator A. Where does it end? What constitutes a legitimate and relevant area of subject-matter specialization in translation?
Use and abuse of ‘specialist’
Being a specialist will no doubt never have the same meaning and status for a translator as it does for a doctor or lawyer. But since there are obvious commercial advantages to being perceived as a specialist, given the greater knowledge and skill this implies, this term will no doubt continue to be used by translators and translation companies. They should be aware however that haphazard use of ‘specialized’ and ‘specialist’ can appear suspicious and even ridiculous.
The Internet offers many examples of how the term ‘specialist’ is used abusively. Many translation companies claim to be specialized, simultaneously, in business translation, financial translation, legal translation, technical translation, etc., not to mention general translation! In other words, they are specialized in everything. Disregarding the fact that such categories are extremely broad in themselves, such a translation company would have to be very large and rigorously organized into separate departments, each managed by specialized staff for this claim to be at all plausible. When you further consider that such companies also often propose a broad range of languages, the number of ‘specialist’ staff that would be required to oversee the various specialisms for each language combination starts to boggle the mind. Yet innocent customers may be misled by the translation company’s claim to have a 10,000-strong battalion of lawyer, doctor and engineer translators at its beck and call.
Although such broad claims of specialization are far-fetched for even a large translation company, some freelance translators are almost as bold. On her website, one translator claims to be specialized in business translation, financial translation, legal translation, marketing translation, the arts and literature, and in several language combinations! How can this be possible? Isn’t a field such as business translation or legal translation vast enough in itself, with just one pair of languages to deal with? How can someone be specialized in just even business translation, considering that business consists of various disciplines, such as accounting, marketing, human resources and IT, each of which is a separate field in itself with a large and ever-increasing body of concepts and terms? Companies also do business in a wide variety of industries, of which the ‘business translator’ should have at least some knowledge. Although financial translation is a narrower category, a translator might know quite a bit about financial accounting but next to nothing about financial markets and products or asset management and may not have the writing skills to translate financial communication appropriately. The term ‘legal translation’ is also extremely vague. It would naturally include documents that are used by lawyers and judges in criminal and civil proceedings and which require a good knowledge of legal principles, systems and institutions, documents that require familiarity with a given field of law, such as commercial or intellectual property law, and also contracts and other legal instruments that may require very little or even no real knowledge of the law.
Although such claims might impress laymen and prospective customers they have little or no real meaning.
Pity the poor generalist
Just as translation websites the world over sing the praises of specialists, ‘generalist’ translators tend to be the object of much contempt. Unfortunately, in the translation industry the term generalist has come to mean someone who will accept any type of work in any subject area, even if highly specialized. Although I think there are relatively few translators bold and silly enough to do this, there are apparently quite a few companies that will take on anything. They are the main reason why ‘generalist’ has acquired this special meaning in translation and become almost an insult for some. This doesn’t seem fair. In medicine, general practitioners don’t attempt to practice all types of medicine, but refer their patients to the proper specialist if necessary. Furthermore, their broader, more general type of knowledge is recognized as useful and their practice of general medicine enables them to acquire and maintain knowledge and skills that the specialist does not have or has forgotten.
Wouldn’t the same thing also be true of many ‘generalist’ translators who know their limits, don’t take on work in areas they know little about and often offer a more varied background than the specialist, and above all a broader and deeper understanding of the source languagenot to mention fine writing skills? Can’t some types of documents that require no specialized knowledge in a given field be legitimately classified as ‘general’? Moreover, does this necessarily make such documents any easier to translate or any less important than those that require more specialized knowledge? Conscientious ‘generalist’ translators are definitely not getting a fair deal these days, as the emphasis on acquiring specialized knowledge and being a ‘specialist’ has tended to overshadow and diminish the importance of fundamental language and translation skills.
It is interesting to note that since the concept of ‘generalist translator’ is the complement of ‘specialist translator’ it can be every bit as vague. For example, one translator on the Internet claims to translate « all types of legal documents and general documents (administrative, financial, advertising, etc.) ». Apparently she considers everything that doesn’t fall within her own extremely vast and poorly defined area of specialization (legal documents) to be ‘general,’ including administrative, financial and advertising translation, each of which could just as logically be considered a specialism.
Myths and realities
Although it is no doubt impossible to prevent terms like ‘specialist’ and ‘generalist’ from being abused for commercial purposes, specialization and its derivatives can be useful concepts for translators if properly understood and used in a disciplined manner within the context of translation and the translation industry’s requirements. But until this happens there are two myths about specialization that will have to be cleared up.
Myth #1: Translators must be subject-matter experts
Despite what many people seem to think, translators almost never need to be experts in the fields in which they translate. They do not need to have degrees in medicine, law or engineering to translate medical, legal or technical documents. There are very, very few documents that require a practitioner’s knowledge and experience. Translators do not need to know, for example, whether a recommended medical procedure is appropriate or whether a clause in a contract is valid. This is for the author of the text to know. Translators need a more basic level of knowledge that enables them to understand underlying principles, do the research necessary to figure out what they don’t understand, and find the right term in the target language. For example, someone who translates accounting documents does not need to be an accountant but does need to have an accounting ‘culture,’ which can be gained from a university course or two in accountancy or from self-study. Similarly, a good background in advanced high-school math and physics can be sufficient to translate even very technical documents.
This has various implications. Since translators do not need to be experts in any given field (except in their languages and in translation of course!), they can ‘specialize’ in a variety of areas in which they have the necessary knowledge and experience. Furthermore, these ‘specialisms’ can have little in common. There is no reason why a translator cannot be ‘specialized’ in the oil industry, cooking and the stock market, if he or she has a good understanding of these subjects and appropriate terminology resources.
This last sentence brings us to another important point: not only is expert knowledge in a given subject not as important as generally imagined; it is becoming increasingly less relevant as knowledge expands in all areas and translation technology and terminology resources come to play an increasingly important role. Translators can simply no longer be expected to master the large body of concepts found in most subjects and the associated terminology in two or more languages. However they can, and no doubt must, increasingly rely on computer-aided translation tools and the growing body of reliable and highly specialized knowledge and terminology resources at their disposal. As is the case in all knowledge-based professions, but no doubt to a greater extent, translators are increasingly dependent on other people’s knowledge. Having access to appropriate resources will increasingly determine whether or not translators can do highly specialized work.
Myth #2: Most documents require specialization in a specific area
The proportion of documents that require a high degree of subject-matter specialization is also greatly exaggerated. The vast majority do not require specialist knowledge in any one specific area, but rather a relatively broad background in several. Many business documents, for example, require a good understanding of the basic principles of various business-related disciplines, such as economics, accountancy, company or contract law, finance and marketing, as well as a good understanding of a particular industry. The translator needs ‘only’ a good general business culture, in addition, of course, to high-level language expertise and appropriate tools, none of which a self-proclaimed specialist may have. Having a broad background in several related areas is often more useful in translation than being specialized in any single one.
Conclusion — Putting specialization in perspective
Although specialization and its derivative terms will no doubt continue to be abused for commercial purposes, conscientious professionals should give more thought to what specialization can and should mean within the translation industry. Not only does specialization need to be understood within this specific context; what it means to be specialized or to be a specialist also needs to be reconsidered in light of the widespread expansion of knowledge and advances in information technology. Being able to translate highly specialized documents is becoming less a question of knowledge and more one of having the right tools.
For the concept of specialization to be of any real use within the translation industry subject areas of specialization will have to be more specific than such broad categories as ‘legal,’ ‘business’ or ‘technical,’ which do not describe the types of documents a given translator is capable of translating in sufficient detail. Such categories will have to be broken down into relevant sub-categories that reflect specific types of knowledge and skills, while also constituting relevant and viable areas of specialization. Until there is a recognized taxonomy of translation categories, there will be no meaningful disciplines or areas for translators to be ‘specialists’ in.
By Charles Martin,
a business and financial translator