Posted by: patenttranslator | January 21, 2015

Specialization Can Be a Key to Prosperity, But Versatility Is a Key To Survival


I used to specialize almost exclusively in translation of Japanese patents. For about 20 years, that was about ninety percent of what I was translating, with the occasional manual of some kind, for a fax, a medical device, or communication software and things like that, all of it from Japanese to English. It was a good choice for me because I majored in Japanese studies with emphasis on the language and there were so many patents to be translated and relatively few people who could do it reasonably well. Based on how busy I was translating mostly Japanese patents for such a long time, I must have been one of them.

But as Heraclitus put it, everything changes, nothing stands still, and change is the only constant in life.

Only a few years ago, stores that sell computers and various electronic gadgets used to be full of Japanese TVs, after competition from Japan killed off American TV manufacturers decades ago. Although I can still find Japanese TVs at Best Buy, I usually find them just in one row of televisions made by SONY, hiding among Chinese and Korean made TVs, which are usually significantly cheaper than SONY TVs. Panasonic may still be there, but what happened to Hitachi? Didn’t Hitachi used to have the best TVs?

Just like there are fewer Japanese TVs and other electronic gizmos on the market, there are fewer Japanese patents that need to be translated. I am hoping that Japanese technology will survive the wars of Asian Tigers, but right now, Japan is not exactly winning. Somebody did ask me this morning whether I could translate a long Japanese patent, but it was not really a serious proposal because the guy wanted me to translate 12,000 words in 1.5 days. I looked at the patent, saw that it was more like 14 thousand words, and I obviously had to say, no, sorry, I can’t do that.

Fortunately for me, I can fake very convincingly several other languages in addition to Japanese. German is the other language from which I translate frequently, even more frequently than from Japanese, as technical translation from German is very much in demand these days. But so are translations from several other languages that I have been studying for decades, Russian, in particular, but also French, Polish, and even Czech and Slovak. In fact, the last patent I translated just a few days ago was in ….. Polish. I still get quite a few Japanese patents to translate from my old clients, but these days they are often in a batch of patents that also includes patents in German or French, which I do myself, or in Chinese and Korean, for which I hire other translators.

One customer, a subsidiary of a giant corporation, used to send me only Japanese patents (chemistry) for quite a few years, but now they send about 5 patents in Chinese for every one patent in Japanese, and more patents in German than in Japanese.

So I no longer consider myself strictly a patent translator. It is a luxury that I can no longer afford. In addition to patents, I also translate a lot of contracts these days, from Japanese, German, Russian and Polish, as well as management reports and things like that as I can’t afford to be as picky as I used to be. The only thing that I stay away from is financial translation, with the exception of relatively simple descriptions of yearly financial results of companies.

There must be something wrong with me: financial texts simply do not speak to my heart the way technical and legal documents do, although the world is dominated by the finance industry and controlled (driven to ruin would be another way to put it) by a few greedy Shylocks from their multiple, immense mansions between which they are commuting on their private airplanes.

So many well meaning and experienced translators keep saying on their blogs that specialization is key to survival and prosperity, but they don’t seem to caution at the same time that while it may be true to a point that a specialist can charge higher rates, the other side of the coin is that nothing lasts forever, not even what seems to be a very safe specialization.

If I were a young man, I would be learning Chinese or Korean at this point because I think that translators who know these two languages really well will be very busy for quite some time. But still, I don’t know for how long they will be busy, I only know that it will not be forever.

Specialization is a really powerful tool that can put a translator on the map, but it should not be overdone. Being versatile and having more than just one specialty is even more important, because, as Heraclitus knew already 2,500 years ago, things tend to change after a while and the changes are often unexpected and dramatic.


  1. I fully agree, Many thanks<<<<<1


  2. As someone who’s studying to (potentially) enter the field of patent translation, I read this post with particular interest. Looking into your crystal ball, do you still see German-English patents as a reasonably safe/sustainable/lucrative area to jump into at this point? I’ve heard wildly disparate opinions from different translators, and would be very interested to hear your take. I’m attracted to patents because the content interests me, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a tactical move as well. What’s your advice from the top to someone at the bottom of the hill? Maybe a post idea for sometime soon?


  3. “I’ve heard wildly disparate opinions from different translators”

    Of course. Translators never agree on anything.

    There are many patents and technical documents that need to be translated from German, more so than from other European languages such as French or Spanish, and fewer native speakers of English who really know German well, because German more difficult to learn for native English speakers than for example French or Spanish.

    I have several customers who send me patents in German more frequently than in other languages.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Steve
    You have really hit the nail on the head. I graduated in Chinese and Natural Sciences (Physics etc.) long ago and I have also specialized in J to E electronics etc. However, these days I am getting more Chinese. If you have any Chinese to outsource, it would be welcome!
    Keep up the good work – your blog is most informative!
    David Apps BA Hons Cantab MITI
    IngatestoneTranslations Ltd


  5. Specialization is certainly a way for translators to get a one-up against competition, and a very solid one will certainly keep food at the table for years. However, you are right in saying that with specialization comes limitation, and change can make that limitation glaringly apparent in certain times. That should be something that translators should be prepared to face, and correctly predicting the change of tides will help professionals invest on a “second” specialization.

    And no, there’s nothing wrong with you. Everyone will have problems in shifting form one area of expertise to another. It may take some time for you to form a new love affair with finance, or you may still give it a tepid reception after a hundred translations, who knows?


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