Specialization In Translation

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 language 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.
Everyone in the translation industry seems to agree that translators these days must specialize. There are mainly two reasons why this need has become increasingly apparent in recent years. The first 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.
The Internet is the second and main reason why specialization is increasingly necessary. Firstly, by enabling translators to deliver translations rapidly to customers anywhere in the world and promote their special skills and services far beyond their local markets, the worldwide web has made it much easier for translators to specialize. Secondly, by putting a wealth of information at their disposal and thus allowing them to venture into new and more specialized areas. But the Internet has also intensified competition, by enabling people with documents to translate to search the world over for someone capable of meeting their specific needs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aunes Oversettelser AS has been in the business for 26 years, and we are specialized in technical translations. We are specializing in the Nordic languages, and can offer services into Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Icelandic. The premier translation agency for Norway and the Nordic region! Technical translation services for businesses in the Nordic countries and translation agencies world-wide.
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