As quoted in Warren Buffett’s biography, he and Bill Gates believe that focus was the most important thing in getting them to where they were. I think this is true for our profession as well. By focusing on a limited number of areas of expertise, you get better in those areas and eventually become an expert in your field. On the contrary, when you spread yourself too thin by taking up whatever work comes your way, you can expect lower performance that is detrimental both to your image and bottom line.
Look at some of the successful translators of today, those who charge over $0.20 per source word. Judy and Dagmar Jenner, the authors of an insightful book, The Entrepreneurial Linguist, specialize in IT, legal, banking, finance, e-commerce, marketing, food, tourism, localization, business. This is a very focused selection without any areas that could strike as totally unrelated to the others such as healthcare, chemistry, or power engineering. Another example is Corinne McKay, a translator, author, and translation coach who works in as few areas as legal documents, international development, corporate communications, non-fiction books, and official documents. By focusing on those few areas, Mrs. McKay has been able to establish herself as an industry expert, while also having time and energy to pursue other endeavors, including writing and coaching.
As an editor, I see a huge gap between the translation produced by someone who understands (i.e. specializes in) the subject area and someone who hopes to get by on experience and intuition. To avoid mistranslations, the latter translator succumbs to general words or phrases, assuming those will definitely include the original meaning. Also, they have no other choice than translate literally, since they can’t improve the word-for-word translation (this is what a specialized translator normally does through better understanding of the subject area). Here is an example from a recent English to Russian translation:
Source: histological anomaly
Original literal translation: гистологическая аномалия
Suggested translation: новообразование, требующее гистологического исследования
Although it may sound fine at surface level, this word-for-word translation might be questionable under close scrutiny. First, it implies that “histological” is a property of the anomaly, while it is actually a method of studying the anomaly! Second, although the Russian word “anomaly” will be of course clear to the end users, it is hardly the word they would use themselves. This and other general or literal translations tend to be vague and oftentimes difficult to understand, causing an undesirable reaction in the end users such as frustration or laughter.
Let’s sum up the benefits of the power that lies within specialization:
- The more focused you are in your areas of expertise, the better you get.
- Specialization is practiced by some of the top people in our industry and translation agencies, so it might be a good idea to model their approach.
- Remember that too general or literal translations might be useless to your clients and detrimental to your reputation.
To benefit from our focus on specialization, ask us for an English to Russian translation quote.