Monday, 31 January 2011

Tinker, tailor, translator?

Tinker, tailor,
Soldier, sailor,
Gentleman, apothecary,
Ploughboy, thief

This old children's rhyme gives us a short list of possible careers or walks in life. If we transpose this to the world of translation, we could say that it gives us a list of special subjects. I may be an expert in the language of the “tinker”, who once roamed the streets collecting old iron and repairing household appliances. But I may be clueless when faced with the language of the soldier or sailor. And the language of the “apothecary” (pharmacist) or “ploughboy” require completely different sets of specialist knowledge.

This short list of just eight (8) specialist areas is extremely modest. By comparison, the list of subjects in the directory search offered by the German Association of Interpreters and Translators (BDÜ) at has over 200 entries, and the list of specific fields in the KudoZ terminology search function at the website offers about 170.

Should a translator try to cover all of these subject areas? Should we flit like butterflies from insurance to philosophy to hydraulics to social studies to beekeeping? Should we offer translations in metalworking, politics, psychology, accounting, horticulture, contracts, marketing, building, veterinary medicine, geology, automotive engineering, dentistry, labour relations, genetics, visual arts, business management, computer gaming, terms of business, geriatrics, job applications, software programming, electronics, tourism, recycling, poetry, nuclear physics, gambling, design, mathematics, brain surgery, journalism, geography, advertising, renewable energy, astronomy, agriculture, aviation, marine biology, geothermal energy, land law, taxation, education and sanitary engineering?

It is a rhetorical question, and the answer is naturally a quick and easy “No”. Of course we need to specialise in just a small number of areas. But perhaps that is easier said than done.

The ideal specialist is a person who has full training and years of experience in both languages. For example, a lawyer with legal qualifications in both England and Germany who has worked in law firms in both countries, a geologist, accountant, doctor, engineer etc. with bilingual qualifications and experience. Such people do exist. Some of them even decide to become translators (and a couple of them may actually read this blog).

But most translators need to adopt alternative strategies to specialise. Translation is a classic profession for the concepts of “lifelong learning” and “learning on the job”. This is not necessarily a disadvantage.

So how do we develop special subjects as translators? I will add a few ideas in the days and weeks to come. And feel free to add your own comments on this subject.