Being a ‘specialist’ in the translation field is not clearly defined, but for freelance linguists, ‘specializing’ generally denotes a focus on one or more specific fields rather than trying to translate every document that comes your way. Sometimes less really is more and here’s why.
Specializing enables you to work more efficiently and earn more since the more you know, the quicker you can work and the more projects you can complete. Furthermore, the more knowledge you have, the better your final product is, and the more you may be able to charge.
It is also easier to sell your services if you can label them. It’s an easy way for clients to remember you and what you do. Similarly, clients will be able to find you more easily if you advertise your specialization(s) as you can have more focused advertising and targeted communication.
You will likely never be as specialized as the client themselves. However, they do appreciate the effort and you become a trusted professional by sharing that very specific knowledge.
Finally, by charging more per project, you can be more selective with the work that you do and the clients you work with, making your professional life more enjoyable.
Start by reflecting on what you enjoy and your interests. Having real-world experience and knowing the jargon is what you’re aiming for, so think about your hobbies, personal passions, previous jobs, education, and lived cultural experiences.
It’s important to study the needs of the market. Are the specializations you’re considering in demand? Look at business information from reliable sources e.g., industry experts, government websites.
Find out if translation buyers in the industry typically use freelancers or only in-house linguists, and what their rates are. Is your language combination required in that sector. (While cricket is a much-loved sport in the UK, there’s unlikely to be demand for translation of the Ashes commentary into German any time soon!)
Examples of sectors:
The big three sectors are generally considered to be medical, legal, and financial, followed by science, technical, and IT. Other sectors which are still good bets are education, marketing, and non-profit organizations.
Other sectors with a lot of money and a decent amount of work for freelance translators but can be more difficult to get into include arts and entertainment, recreation, information and culture, accommodation, travel, tourism, food services, sports, wellness and well-being, retail and wholesale, construction, manufacturing, and real estate.
You don’t have to ignore your major passion in cloud formations or a niche love of bugs in order to make money. Why not do both? Freelance linguists often have multiple specializations, which may or may not have anything in common. As long as you have a good understanding, the necessary knowledge, experience, terminology and information sources, then there is no reason not to.
Focus on a few sectors, gaining the in-depth knowledge of a specialist, but make sure you diversify your sectors so that you aren’t entirely dependent on one specialty. This way, you can take your business in a different direction if the work dries up.
There’s no finish line to cross or exam to pass that automatically gives you the status of ‘specialist.’ So, market yourself to clients you want to work with even if you’re just starting out. All it takes is one company to give you a chance, for you to do a great job, and for them to continue employing you for future projects or even recommend you to others.
There are many useful tools and resources out there, whether you’re just starting out or looking to expand.
Books, audio books, podcasts, or radio shows.
Keep up to date with the latest news, changes, relevant people, places, associations, and companies.
Use YouTube or the many documentaries on Netflix or Prime.
Webinars, self-study courses, or taught modules, for example on ProZ and The Institute of Translation and Interpreting.
Join professional associations to access webinars and courses, and to meet other like-minded individuals.
Attend trade shows and conferences.
Consider the various social media networks too, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, or take part in forum discussions.
Use both source and target language sources when building your specialism. Precision and reliability in your writing is essential (target language) but to accurately decode the source text, ensure that your source language knowledge is up to scratch too. Create a glossary of terminology early on and ensure it stays up to date. Keep a note of where you found the definition or any extra information. You never know when you might need it again or a client may come back and question your judgment.
Translators need a basic level of knowledge and understanding of the core principles. Moreover, they must be able to research anything they don’t understand and to encode it in the target language. Many translators are self-taught in their areas of specialization: they pick a topic they are interested in, start with work that isn’t too technical, and learn along the way. As time goes on, you’ll figure out which texts bore you to tears and which are more do-able and enjoyable.
Ensure clients know what you like, are interested in, and are capable of. Keep your CV, portfolio, and ProZ profile (or similar) up to date, demonstrating your interests and any projects you’ve enjoyed (as long as it doesn’t breach any confidentiality agreements).