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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?

4 Comments:

Blogger Colin Brayton said...

I think a broad liberal-arts background is essential, because it exposes you to the mental processes of a number of different disciplines, enabling you, as a translator, to learn the language of new topic areas more quickly.

Personally, for example, I specialize in financial translation because, thanks to a unique conjunction of life circumstances, I wound up working in financial journalism even though I majored in advanced poetry back in the day. Fortunately, they forced me to take things like statistics and learn how to operate a spreadsheet (although to tell the truth, back in those days, the spreadsheet was still just a thought in the back of Dan Bricklin's brain.)

So to me, the question of specializing vs. generalizing is more of a question of business strategy. You go where the work is and become a specialist in that.

But I think it is important to hedge your bets in that respect: You need Plans B, C, and D. You may someday have to start working outside your comfort zone again, and hopefully you will have not become complacent and lost your capacity to adapt.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Corinne said...

Gabe, thanks for the great post! I think that another issue to consider is the topics within a specialization that force us to be both specialists and generalists.

For example, about 80% of my work consists of translation for corporate lawsuits, which clearly falls into the category of legal translation. However, lawsuits aren't just about laws, they're about something else, which could be anything from hidden asbestos to a corporate office lease to laundered money to the ways in which you can die that are and are not covered by life insurance (just to name a few of the things I've translated lately!).

So in that sense, I think that areas like "law" or "finance" or "marketing" also involve many sub-specializations, or if you want to call it that, general knowledge of a lot of topics.

12:22 PM  
Blogger rcr said...

Something of everything and everything of something.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Chunlian said...

Well ! Is it possible (outside the field of politics) to learn "less and less"? But apart from this flaw in the old saying, the old saying was fine.

12:44 PM  

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