The Flexibility Debate

Post date: Sep 19, 2016 9:39:54 AM

I have had this argument with translators (and, to a lesser extent, with interpreters) in the past: should translators be able to cope with a text in any subject field, given the opportunities for research that are available now? Sticking to what you know is a pretty sensible rule of thumb, but making the most of new opportunities is also important for any business. I tend towards the "flexibility" side of the argument (I think that translators should be a bit like journalists in this respect), with the pretty obvious caveat that you shouldn't translate anything that is genuinely beyond your capabilities. I have been lambasted for this view in public by prominent individuals in the past. But I'm recovering quite nicely, thanks for asking.

Interpreters tend to take a slightly different view. Given the structure of the interpreting market, in which few interpreters have a sufficiently large quantity of work to be able to stick to one specialist sector (I, and some of my colleagues, are an exception to this rule, but that's another story), they often have no choice but to take assignments in a huge variety of fields, and then spend a big chunk of time on preparation (reading technical documentation, compiling glossaries, etc.). In fact, this need for flexibility and adaptability is viewed as an attractive component of the profession by many interpreters, and the ability to prepare effectively so that you can cope with more or less any subject is certainly a key skill in the eyes of employers.

Given that flexibility is clearly not an issue for most interpreters, where should the balance lie for translators in terms of flexibility? I believe that it's mainly a commercial issue: research takes time, and time is money (even if you are quoting prices based on word count), so the more familiar you are with the text type and content, the less research you have to do, and the more money you will make. However, if branching out into a new field is likely to bring commercial opportunities, then it's certainly worth thinking about. And remember that the time required for research will fall as you become more familiar with your new field.

I'm bracing myself for another public shouting-down, because I know this is not a particularly popular view. But I'll try not to bend to other people's opinions, however personally flexible I may (or may not) be...