Translation and specialisation

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.

By | 2016-10-18T15:49:49+00:00 July 20th, 2007|Freelance Translation|5 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Percy Balemans July 20, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    I absolutely agree about being honest with the client. That way, they can make their own decision. Like you, I also have several subjects which I will never touch, and they happen to be finance and law as well. 😉 Both are subjects which require specific knowledge about both the subject itself and the language used, and I simply don’t have that knowledge. Nor am I interested in acquiring it, these subjects just don’t appeal to me.

  2. Enigmatic Mermaid July 21, 2007 at 12:25 am

    For some strange quirk of fate, radiation therapy is one of my fields of expertise. I’ve been translating about it for ten years now. It’s still challenging at times but I can solve most of my dilemmas by going back to previous files I have translated, asking questions to the client or searching the internet.
    I do not feel, however, that my experience with this subject matter qualifies me to translate in other medical fields, except those that are closely linked to RT, such as medical imaging, oncology and radiology.
    I guess I am in the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m definitely not an all arounder in medicine, but I do know a thing or two about linear accelerators and brachitherapy.

  3. céline July 21, 2007 at 10:24 am

    Enig, how did you get into the radiation therapy field in the first place? It must have been a steep learning curve, unless you’ve studied it at some point.

  4. a.erol July 22, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    There are a few main streams, subgrouped into hundreds of fields. I think, specialization has to be in the main streams. One has to decide whether to focus on law or medicine, engineering or literary, academic or business. Subgroups are like classrooms in schools. We identify ourselves with our schools, not our classrooms. If we are focusing on medicine, then we have to have access to many resources on medicine, both through the internet or in person. This doesn’t mean there may not be some exceptional and gifted translators who can cover almost all areas!

  5. Enigmatic Mermaid July 24, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Hi Céline
    I don’t have a medical background and the only medical training I’ve ever had was some neuroanatomy and physiology lessons I took when majoring in Psychology back in the Plystocene.
    I got into radiation therapy by way of imaging technologies, a field in which I had considerable experience as a translator.
    I debuted by proofreading translations of RT, then editing and only after I had been doing this for about a year and a half I landed my first translation job on RT. Therefore, the learning curve was not so steep. But I remember projects that made me lose some nights’ sleep over a particularly difficult passage.
    I continue working for this end-client. We have a very comprehensive bilingual glossary, tons of reference material and very competent medical translators and project managers on the team.

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