Generalist vs. Specialist: How Should You Start as a Freelance Translator?

You’ve seen the blog posts.

You’ve read the articles.

You’ve pored over the books.

Find a niche or specialty or you just won’t make money as a freelancer.

At one point, I was in the specialist camp.

I didn’t start out that way. I really wanted to be a generalist and translate, well, anything!

But after much brainwashing and scaredy cat reactions, I dove into hard-core medical translations. I thought that specializing was the big ticket.

Now, after being in both camps, I know that “specialist” and “generalist” is a false distinction.

And one that actually isn’t very helpful for freelance translators.

So what’s a better approach for your career as a freelance translator?

The problem with being a specialist

As a freelance translator, you are not going to be a specialist. (Breathe free!)

That is, unless you have only one client who pays for your education and lets you come to their work meetings.

(But that kind of sounds like an employee, doesn’t it?)

In-house translators need to be specialists. They work on specific types of texts for specific clients.

Ergo, they specialize.

But a freelance translator? You have to work with all sorts of companies and sectors.

You don’t have the luxury of delving too deeply into one area.

“Hey, I’ll only translate manuals for elevators. That’s a good specialty.” Until the elevator business dries up because we’ve all gone to transporter beams.

Freelance specialization is a way to make it very hard on yourself to start as a translator and also to keep enough variety in your business to keep yourself afloat.

The problem with being a generalist

When people have a problem with generalists, what they really have a problem with are:

  • A lack of research skills
  • A lack of independence
  • A lack of reflexes to check translations that are wrong
  • A lack of questions when they don’t understand
  • A lack of finding multiple options for the same problem

Personally, I have found these problems in specialist translators too, but they do tend to crop up more among generalists.

The problem with being a generalist isn’t that you are trying to be everything to everyone; it’s that you haven’t taken the time to hone your translation skills enough to please people.

What to do instead

To be a successful freelance translator, you want to harness the best of both worlds.

  • Gain in-depth skills like a specialist
  • Diversify your sectors so that you aren’t dependent on your specialty

In other words, you want to focus on a few sectors so that you know them very well and can produce good translations — but without going so deeply that you can’t take your business in a different direction if the worst happens, i.e., an economic downturn, Zombie apocalypse (i.e., the usual).

The stages of freelance translation

My first piece of advice is to not worry about the whole generalist-specialist thing.

Your translation business is going to be a lot more fluid than that, so there’s no reason to put unhelpful labels on these things.

However, to get you started, here is a more effective way to think about your business:

Stage 1: Super-generalist

In this phase, you leverage all of your passion, skills and education to translate in areas that make sense to you.

Did you have a part-time summer job at a factory? Then you might have enough knowledge to translate manufacturing texts.

Did you work at a payroll company for a couple of years? Then tell everyone you know that you are interested in translating human resources texts.

Do you have every single issue of Scientific American? Then take any science text that comes your way that makes sense to you.

At this point, you may want to decide that you are not doing legal or financial texts because the bore you to tears.

Stage 2: Focused generalist

Once you have that first series of contracts under your belt, you’ll start to get a feel for the texts you have a passion and skill for.

You can start developing terminology databases for specific areas and get to know the jargon in those fields more intimately.

You’ll start to keep track of your best-work portfolio for the areas that you love so that you can attract companies in those sectors later on.

The goal in this stage is to lean towards some sectors and not others.

You do business, but not legal.

You do environmental science, but not environmental activism.

You do technical communications, but not technical specifications.

At this point, some people feel comfortable calling themselves a “legal translator” or a “medical translator,” but note that this is a “focus” and “not a specialty.”

Stage 3: Super-focused generalist

In this stage, you have a body of work in a few core sectors that you call your own.

I tend to call myself a “communications translator,” as I work pretty much only for communications teams for the public sector, non-profits and marketing teams.

But this isn’t something I set out to become. It was something I became from the experience and expertise that I developed over the course of many years.

A new way to specialize

Freelance translators are almost by definition generalists–at least compared to our in-house counterparts.

We can focus, but it is so rare to focus so much that you only work on a specific type of text for a small number of companies.

The freelance translation market just doesn’t have enough supply for that.

Instead, you’ll be a generalist who slowly gains a narrower focus over time, with experience.

You don’t have to worry about specializing. You can just worry about becoming the best translator you possibly can be.