Received wisdom says that if you want to make your living as a freelance translator, then you most definitely need to specialise.
But training or extensive experience in an area other than translation is not the only means of specialisation. It’s a shame that all too often, translators themselves underestimate the value of their skills. We forget that the very fact of being an experienced or highly trained translator can in itself be a form of specialisation. Welcome to the world of the multi-talented freelancer.
It’s not that it’s not worth considering a niche or USP, of course. But it’s even more important not to lose sight of what your Ideal Client is really looking for in a freelancer.
Now, my Ideal Client is looking for someone who can take the job in hand and get it done. What’s more, they’re prepared to pay (at the very least) a fair price for this. (Forget about quality – quality is a given for my Ideal Client). And once you move away from the bargain basement shoppers, this client does exist. For example, just think how many buyers of translation need to hire a translator, web designer, copywriter, proofreader and project manager. If, as a multi-talented translator, you can offer them all these skills then you represent good value for money and are offering a worthwhile service. Why not use this as a form of specialisation in itself, and hey, maybe even charge premium rates too. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that a recent survey of translators’ earnings found that those who generated the highest salaries called themselves “language professionals”, while all other categories of earners called themselves “translators” (I’ll try find the source for this another time).
This is all stuff we know, really, but seem to forget when we plan our own careers. The real question is how can we ensure we keep up our skill levels on all fronts when we decide to add to our skill sets? This blog [ed Feb 2011: blog no longer exists, link removed] offers an excellent solution to this problem by emphasising the importance of concentrating on complementary skills. As Rico puts it:
Skills that aren’t on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but right next to each other. It’s easier to focus your energies this way, because complementary skills share some common expertise.
Pick up more languages that are related to each other. Look at your interests and background and research closely related areas. Of course, you won’t be able to call yourself an expert on everything either, but then you’re not trying to be. You’re a language professional with your own unique set of skills and experience.