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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Specialist or Generalist?

Unless they come from a field other than translation, translators usually start out as generalists, i.e., they're forced to accept assignments offered to them in any field of human endeavor, from nuclear physics to Sumo wrestling. Is that an ideal situation? No one, least of all a beginner, can be an expert in all possible subject matters, but lack of expertise will sooner or later come back to haunt the non-specialist translator in the form of misunderstood concepts and incorrect technical terms used.

On the other hand, many areas of science and technology overlap today, to the point that one cannot be an effective medical translator without being familiar with electronic instruments, and an article about the environment may require familiarity with chemistry, meteorology, geology, and physics.

Therefore, while specialization is a must in certain areas, the translator must also have a broad general culture in related, and even unrelated fields, to provide excellent work with real-life texts.

According to an old saying, the specialist knows a lot about very few things and keeps learning more and more about fewer and fewer things, until ultimately he will know everything about nothing. On the other hand, the generalist knows a little about a lot of things and keeps learning less and less about more and more until ultimately he will know nothing about everything.

Which of these extremes describes you best? Do you think narrow specialization is an adequate substitute for broad general culture? If so, under what circumstances?