The specialized specialist

Calliope! The Wonderful Operonicon or Steam Car of the Muses.
Gibson & Co., 1874.

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. How can translators and translation companies truly claim to be specialists if the translation industry has no clearly defined areas of specialization? After all, doesn't a specialist have to be specialized in some specific field that is recognized as such by his or her peers? Furthermore, to what extent does the nature of translation and the translation market even allow a translator to specialize in a specific area?

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. By some definitions, 'to specialize' can also mean devoting oneself exclusively to one thing, whereas others allow for more than one area of specialization.

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.
A specialist doctor, for example, has gone through the same common core of education and training as a general practitioner, has gained additional knowledge and skills, has therefore reached what is considered to be a higher level of achievement and has a clearly delimited area of expertise, such as radiology, cardiology, etc. There are thus clear distinctions between general and specialist medical practitioners. In translation, however, there is no common core of education or common standard of knowledge or achievement and the so-called specialist translator might not even have the basic language skills and knowledge of the 'generalist.' Furthermore, in the absence of an agreed taxonomy of translation specialisms there are no clearly delimited areas in which translators can be specialists. The concept of specialization therefore cannot have an absolute meaning in translation, only a relative one. For example, translator A, who is 'specialized' in accounting may consider translator B, who claims to be specialized in business translation, to be a 'generalist' or at best a 'semi-specialist' as far as accounting is concerned. Yet Translator C, who is specialized in international financial reporting standards, may very well think the same of Translator A. Where does it end? What constitutes a legitimate and relevant area of subject-matter specialization in translation?

Use and abuse of 'specialist'

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.

Although such broad claims of specialization are far-fetched for even a large translation company, some freelance translators are almost as bold. On her website, one translator claims to be specialized in business translation, financial translation, legal translation, marketing translation, the arts and literature, and in several language combinations! How can this be possible? Isn't a field such as business translation or legal translation vast enough in itself, with just one pair of languages to deal with? How can someone be specialized in just even business translation, considering that business consists of various disciplines, such as accounting, marketing, human resources and IT, each of which is a separate field in itself with a large and ever-increasing body of concepts and terms? Companies also do business in a wide variety of industries, of which the 'business translator' should have at least some knowledge. Although financial translation is a narrower category, a translator might know quite a bit about financial accounting but next to nothing about financial markets and products or asset management and may not have the writing skills to translate financial communication appropriately. The term 'legal translation' is also extremely vague. It would naturally include documents that are used by lawyers and judges in criminal and civil proceedings and which require a good knowledge of legal principles, systems and institutions, documents that require familiarity with a given field of law, such as commercial or intellectual property law, and also contracts and other legal instruments that may require very little or even no real knowledge of the law.

Although such claims might impress laymen and prospective customers they have little or no real meaning.

MARTIN, Charles. "Specialization in Translation: myths and realities" [full article] in Translation Journal and the Author, volume 16, no. 2, April 2011.