How to Specialize as a Freelance Translator

One of the best ways to improve your earnings as a professional translator is to specialize.

What is specialization?

For translators, it means that you focus on a specific area, say medical, legal, finance (or something even more niche) and learn everything there is about it, in both your languages.

The main reason you should specialize in translation is because you’ll have less competition as a translator. Less competition in this instance means that you’ll be able to charge higher rates, make more money, and won’t have to fight with general subject matter professionals offering their services on Fiverr.

So, how can you specialize?

Four Ways to Specialize in Translation

There are basically four different paths you can take to become a specialized translator.

Let’s look at each of them individually.

1. College Classes/Degree

When most translators talk about specializing, this is the path that they automatically think about.

Go to school, take classes, and maybe get a certification or a degree to “prove” that you know your subject matter.

This has even led to a number of university certificate programs offering specialized translation certificates. Here are a couple I just randomly pulled out of Google.

University of Texas at Austin Medical Interpreter Certificate Program

Medical Interpreter Certificate Program at the University of Texas at Austin
Medical Interpreter Certificate Program at the University of Texas at Austin

This is a 3-month in-person program that costs $1,500.

University of Louisville

Certificate in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Louisville
Certificate in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Louisville

In order to get accepted to this program, you need all of this:

Screen Shot 2017-09-14 at 7.41.09 PM.png

What a pain, if you ask me.

Pros to a College Degree/Certificate

It looks nice.

Having a degree or a certificate from a university that most people have heard of can be nice. It might be able to impress any potential employers or clients.

It can be a confidence booster.

It can certainly inflate your own ego and provide you some confidence if you didn’t have any before on becoming a professional translator. However, that means making it through the whole program.

Cons to a College Degree/Certificate

It costs money.

Usually a lot of money. Money that can be spent elsewhere in your pursuit of becoming a professional translator.

It takes time.

Again, usually a lot of time. Take the University of Texas at Austin program I mentioned above.

It is a 3-month in-person program. That means you have to physically show up for three months wherever the classes are being held, presumably at the university.

That might be OK if you live in Austin, but forget it if you live anywhere else. And even if you did live in Austin, who has time to spend however many hours a week driving to and from classes in Austin traffic after working a full day and taking care of yourself and your family? Not many people that I’ve met.

It’s no guarantee of a job.

A lot of these degree/certificate programs point to increased opportunities to get a paying job after you graduate. The truth is that most freelance translators don’t have clients because they don’t have the right marketing skills to find clients. However, nearly zero percent of these programs actually offer classes on how to market your translation business.

Why is that?

Because they don’t really care about helping you build your translation business. If they did, they’d give you the tools to do that. Not make you take a class on how the theory of poetry translation.

2. Online Classes/Certificates

Another option besides taking in-person university degree or certificate classes is to take online courses.

Again, there are a bunch of options if you’re interested in this type of training.

You’ve got your traditional colleges and universities who are trying to get in on the online education market and offer these certificate program.

University of Arizona

University of Arizona
University of Arizona Online Translation Certificate

This program costs over $2,500 and consists of three classes: Online Medical Translation, Online Legal Translation, and Online Business Translation.

Not a very specialized program.

Instead of going through traditional institutions, another option is to go through companies that specialize in online courses.

Here’s one that is offered at Udemy:

Financial Translation
Specialized course in financial translation from Udemy.com

This course costs about $30 and has 29 “lectures” that total about an hour and a half. I haven’t taken the course, so I don’t know anything about it.

OK, so what about the pros and cons?

Pros to an Online Degree/Certificate

Cost

Online courses are usually cheaper than traditional ones. However, that’s not always the case. Online programs that are offered by websites like Udemy are usually much cheaper than those offered by traditional colleges.

Convenience

This is the best advantage for taking online classes. You don’t usually have to show up anywhere and can take classes on your own time. This also means, though, that if you’re not committed, it’s easy to skip classes and end up procrastinating because you don’t have anyone to answer to except yourself.

More Specialized

With online classes, especially the ones offered by places like Udemy, you can be sure that the classes you’re taking are specialized. You won’t have to suffer through a class on medical translation if you’re really only interested in doing business or financial translations.

Cons to an Online Degree/Certificate

Cost

As I mentioned above, the cost of the more traditional online courses is still prohibitive to most people, and especially to translators just starting out.

Limited Quantity

There really aren’t that many specialized translation courses offered right now. Even more so if you want to specialize in something more obscure or exotic than just your basic medical, legal, or business translation.

3. Experience

One of the best ways to become a specialized translator is to already have real-world experience in that specific area of specialization.

That means that you have already studied extensively that particular subject and/or have worked extensively in that area.

Translators that have real-world experience, in fact, are in the best possible position to turn their knowledge in an area of specialization into a profitable career in translation.

Of course, that assumes that you want to translate in the area you’ve worked in for the past twenty years.

Pros to Experience

Knowledge

Really, this is the best pro you could have. With experience, you know the industry. If you’ve worked in your specific industry in your target and source languages, even better. The time it takes for you to become a professional translator will shrink drastically with that knowledge.

Because here’s another Translator Rules Truth.

It’s a lot more time-intensive to become an expert in an area of specialization than it is to become an expert in translation.

If you’ve got the specialized industry knowledge already and have to learn the translation industry, you’re in a much better spot than someone that knows the translation industry but has to learn about their specialization.

Relatability

With experience, you already know your potential clients. You’ve had to deal with them already when you worked in your industry.

You have a better idea of what they want, what they need, and what they mean when they say certain things.

Translators coming in from outside the industry have a harder time picking that stuff up.

Cons to Experience

Time

Really, there’s only one drawback with experience. Young translators don’t want to spend the time it takes to get the experience.

If you just graduated from college or high school and want to translate for a living as a freelancer, you are not going to want to go to school/work a job to get the experience you need to offer specialized translations.

You want to start translating now. Unfortunately, if you do that, you won’t be in as good as a position as someone who has the experience.

4. YouTube

Last, but not least, YouTube videos.

Nobody knows (well, maybe one or two) how many videos are on YouTube at any one point.

Check out this thread from Quora.

YouTube Translation
That’s a lot of YouTube videos.

As you’ve been reading this article, hundreds of videos have been uploaded to YouTube.

That’s crazy.

But it’s also awesome for anyone that wants to learn how to do anything.

For anyone that wants to learn about anything.

You have at least thousands of hours of knowledge at your fingertips for nearly any subject area.

Let’s say you want to become an expert translator on making fabrics.

Well, first things first.

You pull up an English video on say how thread is woven into fabric.

Then you pull up a similar video in Spanish.

And you keep watching as many videos as you can stand, learning everything there is to know about fabric and the various processes it undergoes.

The great thing is that you can do this for nearly any subject you can think of.

You are only really limited by your imagination.

Pros to YouTube

It’s Free

Yep, no cost. Only your time.

(Nearly) Limitless Topics

You’re not limited to what someone thinks you need to learn.

You are only limited by what you want to learn and by how much time you have to learn it.

Cons to YouTube

No Fancy Certificate

You won’t inspire much confidence in your potential clients by saying that you learned everything about XYZ by watching YouTube videos. However, that just means that you’ll have to be a bit more creative about how you market your specialization services.

(Still) Takes Time

It might take some time to search through a bunch of videos until you find ones that you can use to help you become an expert in a particular field. And once you do find the videos, you still have to watch them, take notes on the vocabulary, and see how you can incorporate what you learn into your daily practice so as not to forget.

Conclusion

Whatever method you choose, whether its college classes, online courses, experience, or YouTube, there are plenty of choices you can make on how to become a specialized translator.

The biggest obstacle is really yourself.

Make a choice to do one of these things and you will be better off (usually) than when you started. It just takes a decision to start.

Want an easy decision to make? Buy my Translation Rules book to become a better translator.

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