When do you really need a specialist translator?

Choosing a translator is a big decision. You’re selecting the person (or perhaps the team) that will bring the voice of your organisation to an entirely new audience – to share your product with a foreign market or your ideas with a wider crowd. Taking the plunge and choosing a translator requires real trust, especially if you don’t personally speak the language into which your text is being translated.

All of this means that once you’ve found a translator you can rely on, you’ll probably want to stick with them for the foreseeable future. Not only will you have the peace of mind that comes with working with someone you trust, a translator who knows you and your organisation well will be able to work more efficiently and effectively.

And with this in mind, one important criterion when selecting a translator for a given job is their specialist subject knowledge. Ideally, you’ll always want to work with someone who knows each individual text’s subject matter inside and out. Most of the time, the need for an expert won’t conflict with the desire to work with the same translator on a regular basis – especially if your organisation tends to produce documents focusing on a fairly narrow field. Inevitably, though, a multinational business will eventually produce at least one text that requires knowledge and experience that goes above and beyond what the average person can offer – and that’s where specialist translators come in.

Send in the specialists

These days, most translators have at least one specialist subject in which they market their expertise, but when language service providers talk about “specialist translators”, they often mean something a little more specific. Specialist translators make their living from focusing on one or two very demanding fields. They may be highly-trained current or former practitioners of a profession, who also happen to have excellent translation skills, or they may have acquired their knowledge and expertise through some other route. But however they came to the job, the very best specialist translators tend to be very highly educated, with many years of practical experience in their field. So when might you need to hire one?

Contracts that count

The first case, and one that most if not all international companies will encounter at some point, is the legal translation field. You don’t need us to tell you that it takes an expert to draft a legally-binding document like a contract or a terms sheet; well, the same applies to translating those same documents. Naturally, you want to be absolutely certain that the text is comprehensible and unambiguous in the target language, but the reasons for hiring a specialist translator go deeper than that. Don’t forget that two different countries can have very different legal systems, with corresponding differences in standards, protections and terminology. You need a translator who can take all of this into account in order to produce a text that will hold up in court, and that means finding someone who knows the law of two different countries inside and out. Legal specialist translators are a rare and valuable resource, and sometimes they’re exactly the person you need.

Doctor, doctor!

Another example where specialist translators are needed might be the medical field. This is a demanding and tightly-regulated sector, and with good reason: nothing is more important than a patient’s safety and wellbeing. If you work for a pharmaceutical company, for example, or a biomedical engineering firm, then it’s fairly obvious that your company will have a regular need for a specialist medical translator who fully understands how your products work – but demand for these experts comes from a broader range of customers than you might expect. It’s not just the medical firms themselves, but their suppliers and customers who might also need a specialist. It’s the insurance firms who evaluate claims, the governments that regulate and provide medical services – and sometimes it’s even your everyday employer, who gets a doctor’s note in a language they don’t speak from an employee who injured themselves while on holiday. Medical translators do all kinds of work, in other words, and you might well need one someday even if your organisation isn’t directly associated with the medical sector.

Technical expertise

Then there’s the case of the technical translator. This is an exceptionally broad term, as we’ve discussed before in the article Top tips for readable technical translations, so bear in mind that a request to an agency for a “technical” translator might be a little too vague unless you give additional information. One translator might be a real whizz with computers, for example, but know nothing about automotive design. Broadly, though, specialist technical translators tend to know a great deal about subjects like technology, engineering, applied sciences or heavy industry. One rule of thumb might be this: if it involves a hard hat, a screwdriver or a computer programmer, you might well need a specialist technical translator. The reasons why are a little clearer if we look at a concrete example: let’s imagine a furniture factory looking to put together a new automated production line. They’re looking to source some of the equipment from an overseas distributor, which means hiring a couple of translators to act as intermediaries, both to smooth out the business process and to ensure everyone understands the product specifications and capabilities. Industrial equipment can be very expensive, to say nothing of the costs of delays and breakdowns. The figures involved can be absolutely astronomical, especially if legal staff get involved at some point, so it’s essential to get everything right first time. A specialist translator (perhaps someone who’s worked for a similar business before) will know the ins and outs of the type of equipment needed, allowing them to communicate your needs accurately and helpfully to the supplier.

Academic interests

One final interesting example where a specialist translator might be needed is in academia and research – specifically, in the publication of scientific papers. At the cutting edge of any discipline, only an expert will be able to communicate a team’s latest findings to a broad international audience. And while it’s true that English is the unofficial lingua franca of the scientific community, and many researchers are competent English speakers even when it’s not their first language, many readers still complain about unclear or awkwardly-written publications that make it more difficult to understand what’s being discussed. It’s a variant on the old “global English” problem again – and there’s still no substitute for a professional translator. A specialist will be able to explain your latest research in another language without compromising on accuracy or readability.

So, now that we’ve laid out these case studies, what general conclusions can we draw? These are by no means the only occasions when you might need a specialist translator, just a sampling of some of the most common ones. There are some shared threads running through examples like these, though: in all cases, specialist translators deal with unusually complex subject matter and address a specific audience with a particular need for precision and accuracy. Their translations are often high-profile and in some cases, they can even risk exposing someone to legal action if the translation is misleading or inaccurate. Businesses can sink or soar based on jobs like these, which means – even more so than usual – that it’s all about working with someone you can trust and rely on. And specialist translators are the ones you can count on when nothing but the best will do.

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