Specialize or Diversify? Building a Career as an Interpreter/Translator

Unsplash photo by Brendan Church
I have had an opportunity to learn from Daniel Tamayo on multiple occasions. Those of you who have had the same opportunity know that he advocates for enhancing both our interpreting and translation skills as they are complimentary of each other. He recently spoke at the OCDE 2020 Interpreters and Translators Conference about how instrumental developing both skills has been in weathering the current pandemic. He also elaborated on his career path and how diverse his areas of expertise are, which inspired this entry. Should interpreters and translators specialize or diversify to build a successful career?

Daniel Tamayo says that:

"We should be generalist before we are specialist." 

When discussing specialization, most practitioners in our profession see specialization in a couple of different ways: 1. skill based specialization (Are you a community interpreter, a conference interpreter, a video-remote interpreter, a translator, a translation editor, a proof-reader, a post editor?); OR 2. subject matter specialization (Do you specialize in economics? politics? life-sciences? law? education?). While at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, our translation and interpreting professors instilled in us the importance of diversifying our skills. Although specializing in any particular subject matter requires time and vocabulary development, and at times additional schooling or study, once we have developed strong and diversified skills, we have the flexibility to change our subject matter specialization as the market or economic climate changes.

The importance of having well-developed, diverse skills has never been as evident as it has since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. This is as true for interpreting and translation as it is for most other professions. Even for those who choose to translate or interprete exclusively, having the flexibility to incorporate technology into your practice requires flexibility and diverse skills to adapt your practice. 

Take for instance the rise in demand for remote interpreting for both community and conference interpreting settings due to the pandemic. Although many interpreters prefer the in-person/onsite modality, having the skills,  flexibility, and ability to provide professional interpreting services over a number of remote platforms has been instrumental in their ability to continue to work while complying with local social distancing protocols. In translation, a similar need to accept and incorporate technology is well underway with the rise in demand for low cost, quick turn-around translations that incorporate technology—such as Machine Translation (MT) or Translation Memory (TM). I will be the first to admit that this has not been as rapid of a transition and there is still room in many markets for translators who do not use MT or TM.

Specialize or diversify?

What I have applied to my own career is to diversify my skills and specialize in areas that relate to one another. I started my career as a Cryptologic Linguist in the U.S. Army. In this role, I was primarily translating and summarizing (gisting) written and oral communication about general topics. After completing my contractual obligation to the military, my first civilian employment was as a staff "translator" for a large school district. There, I was not only introduced to full and complete translations but had an opportunity to provide both simultaneous and consecutive interpreting with and without equipment. Definitely a great introduction to our profession as it provided me with an opportunity to try it all, including dubbing, subtitling, and transcription.

Although I discovered that I enjoyed interpreting more than translation, I also noticed how translation helped improve the quality of my interpreting. Resolving vocabulary and meaning while translating documents pertaining to a particular topic prepared me for related interpreting assignments. Later while studying at MIIS, professor Holly Mikkelson encouraged us to draft our translations by using speech-to-text to capture a sight translation of a text.  Not only do strong translation skills help you interpret, but strong interpreting skills can help you translate as well. 

Before and after pursuing a graduate degree, I had an opportunity to widen my knowledge by diversifying into other related subject matters. Today, I primarily focus on interpreting (and to a lesser degree translating) for medical, social, education, and quasi-legal settings (all of which is commonly known in our profession as "Community Interpreting"). I also dable in conference interpreting in very specialized areas that I am personally interested in and regularly research: military, education, and health.  

Are you in favor of specialization or diversification? What path have you chosen for yourself? Please share in the comment section below.