Posted by: patenttranslator | August 9, 2013

Specialization in Translation Makes Sense, But Overspecialization Can Be a Kiss of Death


I have been watching a lot of really good actors and actresses recently in a lot of pretty stupid movies, mostly American films and a few French flicks, with weak, implausible and unimaginative plots, laughable for all the wrong reasons.

Which got me thinking about the similarities between the job of these actors and actresses and my unglamorous job. There are quite a few.

There is an occupation in the movie industry called casting director. The main job of a good casting director is to match the right actors with the right roles, just like the main job of a good translation agency, and there must be a few still left out there, is to match the right translators with the right translations. Few people realize how crucial to the success of a good movie or a good translation are the skills and instincts of the person who is doing this initial matching. If the wrong actor or translator is matched with the wrong role or translation, there is not much that can be done to prevent a complete disaster.

Some actors can play almost anything. Dustin Hoffman can play an idiot savant (Rain Man), a woman (Toutsie), or a pirate (Hook). I don’t think that Bruce Willis could play a woman very convincingly …. maybe an idiot savant. He belongs to the category of actors who basically play only one role … a muscled-up good guy fighting the good fight against the rest of the evil world and in the end winning, however improbable such an outcome might have seemed at the beginning of the movie. Except that when it is Bruce Willis, everybody knows that he will overcome even the most impossible odds in the end.

Other actors, like Clint Eastwood or Christopher Walken, basically play themselves, but they do it so well that the audience can never get enough of them.


Some translators can translate almost anything, some proudly specialize in “only something”, and some like myself fall somewhere in between these two categories.

It is accepted wisdom that to be successful as a translator, in particular a freelance translator, one has to specialize, preferably in a field that has a bright future, such as medical translation, or financial translation, or patents or something like that.

And it is true that translators who do not specialize probably lack the specialized knowledge that one needs to have to do really good work, as opposed to translation that may still work, but just barely.

I decided early on, sometime around 1990, to become a specialist in the translation of Japanese patents. It was a logical decision for me for two reasons:

1. I majored in Japanese studies and I really like the language, and

2. I was assuming that there would be a lot of work for me in this field as there must be many Japanese patents that somebody needs to have translated to English and relatively few people who can do it well.

I am glad that I have chosen this particular field of translation because I was able to be in contact with the Japanese language and pretty incredible technological developments described in the thousands of Japanese patents that I have translated over the last 26 years.

But I am also glad that I did not overspecialize, both with respect to the language from which I translate and with respect to the fields that I translate.

For about 20 years, 90 percent of my translations were mostly patents from Japanese to English, with an occasional birth, marriage, or death certificate translated from Czech or German.

But nothing last forever. I still mostly translate patents and articles from technical and medical journals, but the language de jour for me is now German rather than Japanese. Within the last few weeks, for example, I have been translating patents, contracts, technical articles and personal documents from German, Russian, Polish, Czech, and French. I would say that German represents the bulk of my work, and Japanese probably represents less than 25% of what I am translating these days.

I talked recently (online) to a guy who runs a small but extremely busy translation agency who used to supply me with Japanese patents for more than a decade and he told me that he too hardly sees Japanese these days. It’s mostly Chinese for him, he said. Incidentally, I talked to him because he asked me for a price quote for a long translation from French.

I do have a long Japanese patent, about 10,000 words, with a long deadline on my desk right now, but the last time when I spent  most of a month working on long Japanese patents was …. let’s see …. 5 months ago.

I consider myself very fortunate that in addition to Japanese, this mad patent translator can fake very convincingly also a few other languages.

Overspecialization can be dangerous when you are a translator. In the long run it is safer when you are able to translate from several languages, or in more than only one language direction, and in more fields than just in one narrowly defined area of specialization. Another option for translators who specialize in a given field is to become a highly specialized mini-agency in addition to continuing to work as translators. Most of them will be probably much better “casting directors” and proofreaders than typical PMs (project managers) who work for typical translation agencies given that these PMs usually can’t even read the languages that they are assigning to translators.

Unlike highly talented and highly paid actors, translators will never be rich and famous and they will never have a captive audience. It probably makes sense to try to be as flexible as possible in the roles that translators need to play, or to make another comparison to the acting profession, to try to be more like Dustin Hoffman than Bruce Willis or Christopher Walken.

And the fact is that I enjoy the other languages and subjects that I am translating, as well as the additional role of a casting director (when I work as an agency) at this point in my life just as much as I enjoy translating Japanese patents.


  1. […] I have been watching a lot of really good actors and actresses recently in a lot of pretty stupid movies, mostly American films and a few French flicks, with weak, implausible and unimaginative plo…  […]


    • I do admire your strategy for avoiding burnout Steve. I’ve been translating since the mid-50’s and also never get bored either but sometimes a bit stressed by taking on too much work simultaneously :).


  2. Thanks, Michal.

    It’s actually more about avoiding serious cash flow problems than avoiding professional burnouts.

    So far I never got tired of what I am doing for a living either, except that once in a while I could use another vacation that I can’t afford to take as a sole practitioner.


  3. Specialization vs. diversification. It may seem a contradiction, but, like Stanislaw Jerzy Lec said: “Proverbs contradict each other. That is the wisdom of a people.”


  4. I am not sure that there is such a things as wisdom of the people.

    In fact I doubt it very much given how much bs they put up with without even noticing.


    • Steve – really not a quibble but my reading is that the expressions “wisdom of THE people” and “of A people” are significantly different in their emphasis and/or their meaning .
      As I read them “of A people” would be more indicative of an entire race whereas “THE people” would more accurately define “the masses” that comprise multiple individual representatives of the proverbial man in the street..


  5. […] Some translators can translate almost anything, some proudly specialize in “only something”, and some like myself fall somewhere in between these two categories. It is accepted wisdom that to be successful as a translator, …  […]


  6. In short: it’s important to specialize, but it’s equally important to have B-plans in other languages and/or specialization fields, in case the market changes. Extremely interesting!

    Much more interesting than some youngsters trying to acquire Internet visibility by distributing totally useless “hints and tips ” to their colleagues, thus stealing their precious time…

    Proz even encourages some of those youngsters to get paid for that!
    And Proz encourages (over-)specialization, without mentioning your vital B-plan concept!
    The translation world is still very unprofessional…

    Thank you very much, Steve, I always enjoy reading your blog posts!


  7. Thank you, Isabelle.

    Yes, I believe that it makes sense to have a plan B and also plan C for just about anything.


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