The limits of specialisation

The notion that translation neatly falls in to specialist and general has always struck me as pretty dubious. After all, just about every text is about something (and is therefore specialist or even technical to some degree). And on the rare occasions when I have been asked to translate a truly non-specialist text it has usually turned out to be a nightmare – the absence of any identifiable content just forcing me to focus all of my brainpower on ensuring that the right ‘message’ comes across without any tangible hooks to hang it on.

Another problem with the notion of translation as a discipline that divides neatly into specialisms (medical, legal, financial) is that the real world is far messier than that. I often translate investor reports for a pharmaceutical company. Financial or medical? Both.

And this issue was brought home to me with particular force over the weekend when I sat down to translate a commercial contract. Legal, you would have thought. But the contract included a 3-page list of items such as the following:

  • Equipos de sonido
  • Equipos de luces
  • Transporte de equipo de sonido y luces
  • Sound equipment
  • Lighting equipment
  • Transport of sound and lighting equipment

If all texts are about something (and thus specialist) then it is also true that a lot of specialist texts are also about something other than their own field and thus encompass two or more specialisms. Contracts are legal texts (and thus assigned to legal translation specialists) but the contract itself necessarily relates to something else – in this case, the organisation of a series of concerts – with the associated specialist terminology. Financial reports, likewise, report on the activities of specific companies and thus, necessarily, include specialist terminology relating to the company’s field of activity. In practice, this means that you will usually have to handle both the specialist terminology of finance and the specialist terminology of whatever activity the company engages in.

So let’s hear it for all of the ‘general’ translators out there – we are the true specialists!