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Translation is not an easy task, especially when the subject matter is specialised. Translators may have to translate legal, scientific, medical and technical articles, documents and manuals. How do they do it? The usual answer is that translators who advertise their specialised translation ability have had training in that subject matter in another life. But how true is that? Are many translators really taking up translation after being doctors, solicitors or scientists?
It’s impossible for translators to get away with pretending that they have knowledge that they don’t. Many subjects that translators have to deal with have their own specific terminology. Even if a technical dictionary is kept handy, it doesn’t necessarily help the translator who hopes to break into a specialised translation sector. Translation or human translation anyway, has never been a matter of blindly translating chunks of text word for word. Translating a legal document does require an understanding of legal terminology as well as the law as it applies to both the source and target. So how do translators do it?
Translation Projects With Human Sources

Three Quarters of Translators Reported to have no Formal Training Except Translation

One survey of translators a few years ago revealed that three-quarters of professional translators had had no other further training in anything other than translation. Out of 245 translators contacted in the survey, only 78 had been trained in their particular translation niche i.e. medicine or law. The survey asked those translators what they did when they were confronted with a specialised text. The majority of those who responded said that they either turned to the Internet for help or contacted a human source, i.e. someone they knew who had more specialised knowledge. Interestingly, 78% of translators asked about how they got their knowledge said that the availability of the Internet meant that they didn’t have to rely on human sources as much as they might have had to do in the past.

Does a Lack of formal Training in Specialised Subjects Really Matter?

Maybe the fact that nearly a third of all translators based on the survey had actually had other training and experience apart from the translation is sufficient to satisfy the demand for specialised translation tasks. After all, a lot of translation is pretty mundane translation of things like certificates and personal documents. Once a generalist translator has got the hang of translating these ‘bread and butter’ documents, there is little need for extra knowledge.
Similarly, the big growth over the last decade in translation has been a huge demand for marketing and website translation. While this niche also has its own terminology and way of doing things there is more leeway in terms of accuracy. The focus for these translators is an in-depth knowledge of cultural nuances, not scientific or legal terminology. Translators who translate marketing messages and business websites must have a good working knowledge of the societies that the marketing applies to – that of the country in which the marketing is emanating from and that of the countries and the markets to which the messages and websites are intended to reach. That sort of knowledge doesn’t need to be anything that comes from formal training and can come, instead, from personal experience.

Specialised Translation is Likely to be more Expensive

However the translator that takes on specialised translation tasks gets his or her knowledge of the subject matter and terminology, it means that it is going to involve a premium price. Translators who have had a legal background or a background in aeronautics or engineering have an obvious advantage over those who haven’t and can therefore rightfully command a higher job price. Even translators who need to do some serious research on the subject at hand have to deal with the fact that they are going to take longer to translate a text accurately. It takes time to sift through relevant web pages on the Internet. It takes even longer to contact experts who may know more than they do on a subject. Time is money in any business, and even though translators tend to charge by the word rather than by the hour, it is understandable that in-depth specialised translation is going to be more expensive than more run of the mill tasks.