Freelance Linguists: Should You Specialize, or Generalize?

Last Updated April 8, 2014

For freelance linguists, is it better to specialize or to be a generalist?

There is no black and white answer to that question, nor is there only one answer to it.

But before I start expressing what is only a point of view among many, please let me get something straight with that “…is it better to…” part of the question. What follows has nothing to do with “it’s better to do this or that”. Honestly, how could I ever tell anyone what’s best to do or not when there are so many interesting roads leading to Rome? So, if you don’t mind, let’s rephrase the question to a more open one: “As a freelancer, to specialize, to be a generalist, or…? THAT is the question.”

Again, it might be advisable to make some room for humility here, as words like “specialist” or “expert” have become trivialized through overuse. These often are more about ego inflation than the truth. Why? Well, for one thing, it takes a great deal of time to get deep enough into one particular field before one can even think of using words like “specialized” or “specialist or expert in…” So we are kind of bound to use the verb “specialize” with the “-ING” ending for a while, whether we like it or not. Besides, in some fields these days, by the time we finally reach that deep level of knowledge which could make us an expert, well… chances are that what we’ve been studying might have become partly (or even totally) obsolete. Surprise!

The same could be said for the word “generalist”, but there’s no point in getting into the details here. That said, let’s look more closely at these two options.

First Option for Freelance Linguists: The “Specialist” Path

This option helps us to develop what could be called a “vertical” (and therefore very deep) knowledge of a field.

The benefits of having such knowledge are obvious and numerous, not only salary-wise, e.g. increasing productivity due to higher efficiency, having a more complete and distinct set of skills which reduces time learning new concepts, etc. Though, if too specialized (having only one field of specialization) we might find ourselves quite alone on our translation planet one day, due to what could be called a pigeonhole effect – not to say bored to death after a while with working in only one field. Obviously I’m dramatizing a bit here, but this is to raise the following questions: what happens if for some reason that translation planet we live on disintegrates – e.g. a sudden drop in demand in our field of specialization due to a company reengineering; or bad economic conditions in the sector related to that field; etc.?  What options are we left with then? Migration to some new planet (field), right? Provided we want to pursue our translator career of course.

Good idea, but performing such a migration (especially unexpectedly and quickly) is more easily said than done – especially when we’ve been roaming in the same field for so long, developing habits – the same reasoning, wording, terminology, phraseologies, and so on; the same small client-base, almost the same everything. Also, such migration takes time, patience and practice, while reality might sorely reminds us that we must quickly move on and adapt. It is an understatement to say that we might find the learning curve quite steep, even if we have years of experience as a linguist.

So, as for specializing, I guess one thing to keep in mind here is not to put all our eggs in one basket, and that choosing our field(s) of specialization carefully and strategically is a must – especially in this increasingly ephemeral planetary world we all live in where nothing lasts forever. As I pointed out in the previous post I wrote [LINK], having an entrepreneurial mind is essential to a successful freelance career in translation – as it is for any other freelance career actually.

In other words, specializing in one field, without having a peripheral vision of what we want to do and where we want to go, is like building up only our arm muscles and forgetting about the rest of our body for a while. Chances are high that we would end up with big steel arms and might get known for them. But chances are even higher that we might find ourselves in some trouble if suddenly asked to use our legs.

Second Option: The “Generalist” Path

This option helps us to build what could be called “horizontal” knowledge, and therefore a comprehensive vision, of things. This is the type of knowledge which helps us to make links between various related fields and understand how they interact.

To be a generalist could be compared to travelling across and exploring the satellites of our translation planet or field, which helps us to understand the intricacies of that planet – subtleties that would be impossible for us to even notice through specialization. It allows a translator to develop a finesse and a sensitivity that could not be acquired otherwise, mainly because diversification allows us to see the big picture.

In fact, becoming a generalist is like building up muscles in many parts of our body at the same time, which will definitely benefit any translator – especially if you’re really 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, and as the recurrence of off-peak or slack periods would therefore be minimized – whether you are working on a freelance basis or in a translation agency’s office.

Still, the catch-22 of being a generalist is that it can become synonymous with “jack-of-all-trades but master of none” without much warning – especially when we don’t know or haven’t learned to set our own limits, professionally or otherwise.  Dealing with truly different fields of specialization, where no close or logical links can be established, though possible, is extremely difficult and demanding, if not exhausting – not only memory-wise and even for people who have a memory like an elephant.

On a practical basis, being a generalist requires more work, not because we are less skilled, but due to the fact that we have less knowledge of a field, which means we have to spend more energy to perform our work and more time on terminology research, for example. It’s worth mentioning that without working with the proper software tools and without building appropriate and efficient termbases, it’s almost sheer utopianism to believe that one could make it professionally as a generalist and deliver quality translations.

If we’re not careful, more often than not, “diversification” becomes “dissipation”, which is the equivalent of going everywhere without ever getting somewhere really – due to a lack of depth (specialization), among other things.

So there are limits to what we can do as a generalist, as to the number of subfields we can handle at the same time. And becoming a really good generalist takes a lot of time, as much time actually as it does to specialize. There are no shortcuts in the translation kingdom, which will never be a land of ease. Each subfield must be added one by one and studied for a while before we can make something useful out of it.

Although the following is an aside, in a world where we’re are asked to believe that everything is rush and due for yesterday, it’s worth noting the negative impact that such “artificial speed” might have on the quality of translations, on our profession globally, and on ourselves professionally, personally and socially – and it’s worth taking some time to take full account of that fact.

However that may be, let’s just remember that “dissipation” is the kind of banana peel we might slip on at the beginning of our freelance translation career. For example, if we have a mind too keen to learn or if we feel insecure about having enough work as a freelancer with just one field of specialization, then we might feel the need to extend our practice to other fields and we might not know when or where to stop. The problem here is not so much the addition of some new fields to our translation portfolio, but what motivated us to extend our practice in the first place. Why is it so important? Firstly, because chances are that choices based on poor reasoning will give poor results. Secondly, if not done strategically and carefully, chances are as high that the whole move will be a complete waste of time – as both previous reasons have nothing to do with strategy.

So What Now?

Bottom line: good news! There’s no need to quarrel over the 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, as they both are so deeply intertwined. Both are essential and complementary. One can’t be complete without the other. Therefore, a translator cannot 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.

A question that comes to mind is: which path to choose first, then?

My answer to that is: Maybe the third one! YOURS!

Food For Thought

At first, I had the idea to write more specifically about the pros and cons – you know, with a nice two-column table full of relevant bullet points. But I changed my mind as I was hit by the sudden realization that it would then deprive you of the benefits of doing that exercise yourself – which I strongly encourage, as a means to learn more about the profession, and about yourself on a professional and personal basis.

Lastly, if only one comparison was to be made between these two paths, let it be this one: the specialization path helps us to develop the rational, technical and methodological aspects of translation, among others. The diversification path helps us to develop the art of translation, which requires finesse and sensitivity, and the ability to read between the lines (by learning to see the relationships between fields), notably in order to become a better translator.

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