Today’s interview is a great one. If you don’t yet know Rose Newell or her blog, you should.
Rose is based in Berlin and translates finance and technology material from German to British English. Here’s what she has to say about specialising:
Why do you specialise? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
I would recommend every translator, indeed every professional, specialises in what they do best. Why do I do it? Everyone is better at some fields than others: be it professional experience, academic background or general interest – any of these will enhance your insight into a given field, making you are faster and better. It works a bit like RPG games: the more you do something, the more experience you gain, which improves your abilities. If you spread yourself between very diverse fields you are making your task harder, because you have so much more to learn and this learning will be slower in each area as a result. There are also significant business advantages to being a specialist rather than a generalist. My combination is relatively common, so it is not like I can sell myself as simply “a qualified German to English translator” – it’s not exactly “Farsi to Korean”, where the combination alone would be your unique selling point. I must differentiate to attract the best clients. I also prefer to stick to my specialist areas because I am more confident – and this confidence means more than correct terminology, but deep understanding and the confidence to decide resolutely that there is an error in the source, and take appropriate action. I can do that with IT, technology and finance. I would never be able to do this with engine parts descriptions, so I will turn such jobs away.
Now we come to the drawback: being specialised means turning work away when it does not match our areas of specialisation, even if in reality I could probably do a better job on many of them than a generalist who may take the job without the same qualms. Referrals are usually the way to go: this protects my integrity AND the profession, since a professional experience with translation providers helps our overall image. It also works both ways – my colleagues know what I specialise in, too, and what goes around comes around.
Do you feel that marketing yourself as an IT, finance and technology specialist allows you to charge higher rates?
Definitely. Differentiating myself through my specialist areas means I can market myself better to clients and obtain higher rates. Further, it is really the only way to go if you want top-notch direct clients. They will always be more willing to accept higher rates than an agency. For example, I won a new client at CeBIT because my MA happens to relate very closely to his invention. This meant I instantly grasped the concepts and he felt more at ease, relating me more as a colleague in his field than a service provider. The client was assured that I was the right person for the job and his chances of finding someone better were very slim. A generalist in this situation has nothing to say to differentiate themselves from the next generalist translator or agency. Expertise will trump a good sales pitch from even the best of bulk translation providers – provided the client is looking for that, of course.
How and why did you select your specialist field(s)?
A specialist area should be something obvious to you, I think. My specialist areas were pretty obvious choices for me. Or rather, my father chose them for me:
My father’s background is in financial forecasting at the Royal Mail, managing a big budget while keeping an eye on the economy as a whole to look out for potential changes. He has a habit of predicting things – as when I was three, he decided that it would be a good idea to start giving me computer time. He thought this black and white box of lights was the future, so as my tiny hands played with different shades of grey on Paintbrush, he managed to prime me for my interest in geekery. My father would pass on his old computers every time he upgraded – which happened often. Learning by observation, as is common among linguists, I worked out how to use Windows and MS DOS from looking over my father’s shoulder, first rescuing precious files and reformatting my hard drive via MS DOS at age seven.
My fascination with computers and technology never ceased, so it wasn’t a big surprise that when the IT boom hit, I knew more than the teachers did. Classmates would queue behind me in IT lessons, often joined by the teacher, who would push to the front. The remuneration for this assistant teaching came in the form of the school’s IT prize, but the lack of quality teaching meant I temporarily lost interest in an academic sense. The fascination continued, of course, and I have been reading IT and technology journals, magazines, books, websites and forums for as long as I can remember. Later, I decided to do my MA not in translation, but in “Human Aspects of Information Technology”, especially when offered a generous excellence scholarship. This was partly for my own satisfaction – but also for the benefit of my career, and ultimately, my clients.Why I chose finance is a little similar. My mother is not the greatest fan of computers or finance, so my father would often discuss these things with me instead. I would hear many finance-related tales from the office and comments on the news, which of course meant I adopted an interest in finance and economics, which later led to my later study of economics at AS level and politics through to degree level. At university, I would invariably take an economics slant on any course I studied or essay I wrote – where my centrist attitudes dismayed certain lecturers and fellow students at both ends of the spectrum. That said, the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail was… painful.
Put simply, my interest in finance lies in how it reflects wider scheme of things: even the driest of financial reports for a small business or 200-word article in an economics supplement can reveal underlying social and economic trends and likely future developments. I have not yet confirmed this interest through further study, but it is far from ruled out for the future.
Why I didn’t choose anything else? They just don’t interest me as much as IT, technology or finance. Simple.
How would you go about adding another specialist area?
As you’ve gathered from the above, I don’t really believe in choosing a specialist area simply because you want more clients. Really, a specialisation will choose you. (Or, as in my case, your father will choose them for you…)
That is not to say you cannot add one, but I think to really work it has to be something you are genuinely interested in – something you will happily read about in your spare time and spend time researching, not caring too much if a job overruns because you’re enjoying the learning process. I know some people say they have not yet found what they want to specialise in, but I admit not having much advice here. Perhaps they could read more to see what they enjoy reading? Or perhaps they could look to their hobbies, interests and professional experience? There are others out there who would choose based on rates surveys, which generally state that those willing to translate patents or military documents will be paid a lot more for their trouble. If choosing in this order – first choosing a desired specialism, then acquiring the knowledge – I would say gaining experience and knowledge is a priority. Perhaps also working in the field, reading related materials in your source and target language, translating some documents for practice or connecting with others in the industry through trade fairs and conferences. Then all the standard rules for producing good quality apply – if you are new to that field, take considerable care with your terminology research, consulting experienced colleagues where necessary.
My final word of warning would echo the words of Chris Durban: think about how you would do in a sort of Turing Test among experts in that discipline. Consider whether you can pass as one of them. To take IT as an example, do not think that knowing how to use software or owning a computer, iPad and smartphone mean you are on their level. You need to have some idea of how these things work, from computer languages to hardware. A n00b will be quickly found out and left out of the conversations a good translator needs to be part of.