A fellow translator posted an interesting question regarding specialisations on one of the lists I belong to. He had been asked whether he had experience in radiotherapy translations and could undertake a job on this subject. His dilemma was that during the ten years he had been translating in the medical field, he wasn’t sure he had actually worked in that particular field. However, he had been able to successfully tackle a variety of assignments, so despite his lack of experience in the specialist field of radiotherapy, he was confident he could take on the project, but what to say to the client? This was my reply:

The answer to your question is very simple and is contained in your email. It shows that you have some experience on the subject and that you’re a good all-rounder who, with some careful research, is able to tackle lots of different texts related to the various aspects of the medical world. If they still want someone who has millions of words in that specific field under his/her belt, they’ll carry on looking, and if they don’t find anyone, which is likely, they’ll get back to you knowing exactly what they’ll get.

I recently was in the same position. A client asked me if I would be able to translate a document on optic fibres. Now my knowledge of optic fibres is minimal and my first instinct was to turn it down, but a quick search on the Internet showed me that there are lots of resources available to help me understand what it’s all about. Besides, the client had quite a lot of reference material to give me, including a recent translation done on the same subject. I took the job and it’s all going very well.
I agree that an optic fibre engineer, who also holds a degree in translation, would have been the ideal choice, but such a combination of skills is quite rare. I also think that all a good translator needs to tackle a project in a specialised field (provided it is not too obscure!) is the ability and time to do enough research to understand the basics of that area and familiarise herself with its terminology. That is, of course, after checking the source document to make sure that it doesn’t contain too much jargon and is actually intelligible. The areas I wouldn’t touch at all are finances, which I just don’t understand, and others, like law, which have developed their own language, to the point that I do feel it is necessary to be specifically trained in that field to be able to use the exact right terms. The main thing in the decision process is to be honest with the client so she knows exactly what she’s getting from you.