Freelance Linguists: Should You Specialize, or Generalize?

Last Updated January 7, 2021

Should freelance linguists specialize or generalize? There’s no right or wrong answer – what matters is finding your path in this field.

Let’s get something straight right off the top with the “…is it better to…” part of the freelance linguist’s question. What follows has nothing to do with “it’s better to do this or that.”

Let’s rephrase the question to a more open one: “As a freelancer, should you specialize, generalize, or is there another way?”

That’s a much more interesting question. That said, let’s first look more closely at these two options.

First Option for Freelance Linguists: The “Specialist” Path

The specialist option helps develop “vertical” knowledge of a field. There’s depth there that covers the spectrum of a particular topic, but only that one.

Pros of Translation Specialization

The benefits of having specialized knowledge are numerous. This is true not only salary-wise, where a lack of competition elevates your value, but also increased productivity, higher efficiency, and a more complete and distinct set of skills which reduces time learning new concepts.

Cons of Translation Specialization

If your area of linguistic expertise is too specialized, though, you might find yourself quite alone on your translation field one day. On top of that, what happens if for some reason that field disintegrates?

Picture a sudden drop in demand in your field of specialization due to a company reengineering or bad economic conditions in the sector related to that field, for example. What options are your left with then? Migration to a new field?

Migration could be a good idea but pulling that off (especially unexpectedly and quickly) is easier said than done. When you’ve been roaming in the same lone field for so long, you’ve been developing the same reasoning, wording, terminology, phraseologies, and so on. It’s difficult to break into a new field without investing some time into training.

Specializing in one field is like building up your arm muscles and forgetting about the rest of your body. Chances are high you’ll end up with big arms and might get known for them, but you might be in some trouble if you’re suddenly asked to use your legs.

Maybe that’s a sign to stay flexible.

Second Option for Freelance Linguists: The “Generalist” Path

Pros of Translation Generalization

A generalist could be compared to travelling across and exploring different translation fields. This helps you understand nuances that would be impossible for you to notice through specialization.

It allows a translator to develop a subtlety and a sensitivity that could not be acquired otherwise, mainly because diversification allows you to see the big picture.

In fact, becoming a generalist is like building up muscles in many parts of your body at the same time, which will benefit any translator – especially if you’re good at what you do in your various subfields of specialization.

Professionally, the big advantage here is an economic one, as the possibilities of being offered translation projects on a more regular basis would be higher. Conversely, the recurrence of off-peak or slack periods would be minimized, whether you are working on a freelance basis or in a translation agency’s office.

Cons of Translation Generalization

Some types of translation require massive amounts of expertise which could lead to missing out on certain jobs. You may also be slower to do certain jobs as you have to catch up with new rules and regulations.

On a practical basis, being a generalist requires more work, not because they are less skilled, but because they have less knowledge of a field. That means you have to spend more energy to perform your work and more time on terminology research.

If you’re not careful, “diversification” often becomes “dissipation.” That’s the equivalent of going everywhere without ever getting somewhere.

There are limits to what someone can do as a generalist – the number of subfields you can handle at the same time, for example. And becoming a good generalist takes a lot of time, basically as much time as it does to specialize.

There are no shortcuts in the translation kingdom. Each subfield must be added one by one and studied for a while before we can make something useful out of it.

In a world where we’re asked to believe that everything is a rush job due yesterday, it’s worth noting the negative impact that such spreading ourselves too thin as generalists might have on the quality of translations, on the profession globally, and on ourselves professionally, personally, and socially.

What Now for Freelance Linguists?

Bottom line: There’s no need for freelance linguists to wrestle too much with this question. Considering the world we live in and the furious pace at which it keeps changing, it doesn’t really make sense to force ourselves to choose between these two paths.

Both are essential and complementary. One can’t be complete without the other. A translator can’t even dream of becoming a great specialist without being a good generalist, nor can a translator become a great generalist without having at least one true field of specialization.

Which path to choose first, then? Our answer to that is a third option – yours.

Food For Thought for Freelance Linguists

The specialization path helps us to develop the rational, technical, and methodological aspects of translation. The diversification path helps us to develop the art of translation and the ability to read between the lines to become better translators.

Summa Linguae Technologies is passionate about language and technology. We provide data solutions, translation, localization, and managed services to many of the world’s biggest companies.

If you’re looking for a highly autonomous role with the opportunity for fast career progression and want to work on innovative language and technology projects, consider joining our diverse and fast-growing global team.

Visit our careers page today.

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