6 steps to develop a translation specialization and make it work

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So you want to specialize?

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One of the Intercultural Zone’s faithful readers, Catherine Jan, emailed a few days ago with a specific request:

“Can you offer some advice on how to develop a new area of specialization?  I’d like to dig deeper [into the area of photovoltaics] and find work in this area. But I have no previous experience to refer to.”

That’s a great topic, Catherine, thanks for suggesting it.

Readers are invited to contribute their advice and to suggest other topics for future posts!

1. Choose the new area with care

Developing a new area of specialization is a serious commitment. You’ll be investing time and energy for a future ROI. Where are you going to steal that time from? Your work hours (assess how many you can afford to invest)? Or the time you spend with your loved ones (getting their support is important)?

This new expertise has to prove sustainable.

  • The subject has to be compelling: Does it speak to me? Do I have a real feeling for it? Will it satisfy my intellect for a long time? Would having to adapt 100 pages in one shot boost my brain or put me to sleep?
  • Is the demand for this area of specialization durable, or is it some fly-by-night trendy craze businesses will ignore in a year or two?
  • Is this area of specialization is narrow enough that I would provide real added value (and bill accordingly), yet not so restrictive as to make my new skills hard to market?
  • What areas do I already specialize in I can leverage to land projects in this new field?
2. Plan
Road map

Make a business plan for this particular area, just as if you were starting a new business.

Figure out what you need to invest in, what that is going to cost, how you are going to fund these investments, over what period of time. The main ticket is your time. And it isn’t free. Develop an early prospect list. The ideal is to speak with some of them to get some of the info needed to conduct your own SWOT analysis. Estimate also what ROI you can reasonably expect within the next year or two.

Are the signals green or are a there a couple of yellow blinking lights?

3. Assemble the basics

Go on a treasure hunt! What’s out there that can help you scope the subject and focus how you are to acquire this special knowledge?

Professional associations and publications, specialized glossaries and dictionaries, upcoming trade shows, recognized specialists, fellow translators, companies and annual reports. What aspects of this new field interest  you most?

What related knowledge might you need? In Catherine’s example – photovoltaics for domestic use – might familiarity with architecture, roofing, and national/local programmes supporting the development of sustainable energies be useful?

Always, READ and QUESTION!

4. Go sniff around
Build relationships

Sniffing around is fun and important. Attending trade shows, demos, playing mystery customer and so on are great ways to discover the culture and the environment of the field you seek to become involved with. Who are the players? What are they like? What savoir-faire and savoir-être did they need to become successful? What issues affecting their business keep them up at night?

Developing a new specialization also means creating a new client base, individuals and companies with whom you are going to build relationships. To do so, it is important to speak their language, understand their world and default to curiosity and empathy to connect successfully with them as a professional and as an individual.

5. Find training opportunities
Reach out

Depending on your targeted specialization, there may or may not be a large choice of courses you can sign up for (translation-specific or otherwise). If it’s a desert out there, you’ll just have to be more creative.

A few suggestions:

  • Go where it happens: get a guided tour of a factory or plant, research lab, and so on. You know where what you are aiming for happens.
  • Find specialized colleagues for insider advice, mentoring, resources that didn’t hit your radar yet.
  • Find barter opportunities: by now, you’ll have assembled a list of prospects and contacts. Some may be willing to swap, say, your helping them spruce up their language skills in exchange for them helping you understand some challenging aspect of your new field, reviewing a home-grown glossary, or allowing you to be an observer for a few days of the company’s activities.
6. Getting those first projects
Generosity and diligence

You will have noticed (yes??), there is a build up here. You have started to develop relationships with individuals in your targeted domain. You’ve demonstrated your commitment, interest, resourcefulness, openness and skill over time. And they have provided valuable help along the way.  These individuals should be the first you target, with modesty. Why?

– They know you. Showing up is half the battle!
– They have already invested in you. Most would be willing to do so again and want to see an ROI.
– They know you are not a top expert yet. They expect you will ask questions and have doubts, and they are more likely to provide that valuable feedback than clients who have not been privy to your learning process. They recognize the added value you ARE in a position to offer them, whether it be in the quality of your writing skills or your proficiency in related domains (for example, translating a legal contract for a photovoltaic start-up).

Let’s hear some success stories from colleagues!


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  • Patricia,
    I’ve spent a great deal of time on steps 1, 2 and 3 – and now comes the hard part. Steps 4, 5 and 6 are all about leaving my virtual world and reaching out to professionals in the industry. Despite my lack of experience in this field, I’d like potential clients to understand that I’m offering a valuable service.
    Bartering services is an excellent idea – I hadn’t thought of that. And having someone review my glossary would also be very useful.
    Thanks for your realistic yet encouraging advice,

  • To catherine,

    You might also want to intervene in forums relating to your chosen field. Since the virtual world is growing everyday, getting to virtually know people from your field specialty might take you a long way.
    Also, you might want to register with translators portals such as ProZ.com or translatorscafe.com.
    They give you the option to indicate your domain of specialisation. If you already had a client and aer in good contact with him/her, you might ask him/her for a reference on these sites.
    Best of luck

    • That’s a good suggestion – listening in on exchanges taking place in specialized groups or fora (LinkedIn, Futura Sciences, etc.) and then participating in them with confidence once she’s gotten support/help from her prospect network. As to platforms like P or TC, euh, well, hmmm… that depends which end of the market and what type of positioning/projects/clients Catherine is aiming for.

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