Becoming specialised in translation

Looking at it strictly from an epistemological point of view, I have always found Translation and Interpretation to have a lot in common with Journalism. Both fields hone the skills necessary for the search and collection of information pertaining to a wide spectrum of fields. There are major overlaps between the two professions. Translators need be able to deal with the translation of legal, medical, technical or financial documents entrusted to them by clients. Journalists need to be able to inform the general public, with full knowledge of the facts, about current affairs in the political, economic, cultural and social sphere.

However, the more specialised, technical or complex the subject matter is, the more complicated the process of searching, gathering and, above all, “assimilating” information will be for the translator or journalist. We cannot (and should not) expect someone to be able to miraculously gain the knowledge that it takes four, five or even six years of specialised study to acquire, in the few hours or days before writing a specialised article or translation.

Therefore, it’s not uncommon for newspapers to employ the help of lawyers, doctors or civil engineers to write pieces on particular subject matters. These may include; a criticism piece about a ruling made by the Constitutional Court, a review analysing the impact of a vaccination campaign on adults and children, or an article updating readers on the work progress of a high-speed railway line.

Similarly, we would expect the intervention of a bilingual or quasi-bilingual psychiatrist, linguist or economist when translating similar topics. It would be logical to assume their involvement when dealing with the following; a study on the effects of alcohol on people with dysthymic disorders, a comparative analysis of Spanish and German lexicography or a brochure on exchange rate insurance or other complex financial instruments. Unfortunately, whether it’s due to a lack of qualified professionals or malpractice by translators and their agencies, this is not what happens in the majority of cases.

What I mean by translator malpractice is that many times they accept projects which contain specialised language that stands far outside their linguistic ability and knowledge. More often than not, translators fall victim to the “I need to accept anything that comes my way” mentality which many professionals experience when first starting out or when experiencing a particular drop in their workload. Many say “yes” to absolutely anything that they’re sent.

Regarding the malpractice of many companies, in order to save costs or due to sheer negligence, they assign projects with a highly complex subject matter to any translator.

The client is well within their right to request that the company appoint a specialised professional. They may also make any type of enquiry regarding the terminology used by the translator. The translator, in turn, is duty-bound to provide any type of explanation that must show, without any doubt, that they possess expertise in the subject matter.

I’m writing this article speaking from experience. Many englishpanish clients, especially those with documents pertaining to the academic-scientific and legal-financial fields, come to us having suffered from bad experiences with other companies or individuals who took on projects for which they were not sufficiently qualified. The main problem: the projects weren’t assigned to specialised translators.

Translators need to, at least, aspire to be an expert in the field in which they are translating.

To my knowledge, there are several steps that a translator needs to take before being able to consider themselves as ‘specialised’.  During the first three or four years on the job, the main aim is to translate all types of non-technical content and to revise material of a technical nature which has previously been translated by a specialist translator. At the end of the day, a translator, just like a journalist, can only really get to know a field little by little. For example, when faced with a purchasing agreement: ideally, the translator would be specialised in legal translation. However, if one of the parties in that contract were to be a company dedicated to the generation of thermal solar energy, there may many clauses with highly technical content which would, therefore, be more appropriate for an engineer than a law specialist.

Before accepting a translation project, a translator should really think about the skills they possess and their training in different specialisations. They need to be honest with themselves about where their knowledge falls and in what fields. In doing so, they find out what they can and cannot realistically translate.  It’s very common to find CVs of translators whose specialities range from subjects as diverse as Biology, Law and Engineering. Translators need to, at least, aspire to be an expert in the field in which they are translating, but also need to rely on their previous training and experience. Hence, ideally, a legal translator will have also studied law; a translator specialising in psychology should have studied psychology, etc.

By no means am I saying that these additional studies are the be-all and end-all for a translator to do their job well. There are other ways of reaching the same objective (specialisation). This may be the constant and repetitive revision and translation of the same subject and the subsequent self-teaching that comes with that practice. In any case, undoubtedly clients always feel more reassured if they are told that their legal translation is being done by a law graduate or that the translation of their user manual has been taken on by a team of engineers. But, can anyone say that they’re really surprised by that fact?

About Francisco de Borja González Tenreiro

Born in Galicia, Spain. Degree in Law from the University of Santiago de Compostela, studies in Translation from Birmingham City College (Birmingham, UK) and in Philosophy from UNED. Expert in legal, financial and institutional translation and interpretation, with more than fifteen years of experience as a translator and interpreter in Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Portugal and Brazil. In his long career as a simultaneous interpreter he has been the Spanish, English, Portuguese and Galician voice for many well-known personalities coming from the world of culture, science and politics, such as the latest two U.N. Secretaries-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon and Mr. António Guterres. He has also been the editor-in-chief for several bilingual publications, an award-winning column writer and is the general manager and head of legal-financial projects for englishpanish.

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