The importance of specialisation…and generalisation



Sometimes in my talks for translators I give the audience a simple test with a surprising result. I ask for a show of hands to see who knows what a word such as “isomer” means. Usually fewer than 5% raise their hands. I say this is surprising because nearly all of you reading these lines probably knew what an isomer is when you were a schoolchild, yet the modern world’s need for specialisation then led you to forget about such general knowledge as you went on to study another subject such as translation at university.

Such scientific illiteracy is more than a little worrying in these times of climate change denial and rejection of expert opinions, but it is also worrying simply because we seem to be forgetting the importance of good general knowledge. While there can be no doubting the need for specialisation in translation so as to reach certain markets and clients, we should not forget that basic legal knowledge may at times come in useful when dealing with medical texts and vice versa, for example.

Fortunately, over time I’ve realised that good translators invariably do indeed have such a broad knowledge. They’re usually well aware of current affairs and general culture in their source and target languages’ countries, which can come in handy for unforeseeable comments, particularly for interpreters having lunch with clients talking about the local public transport strike, the latest political scandal or last night’s football match. They tend to win at Trivial Pursuit, gradually gaining all the pieces of the pie (i.e. all the fields of knowledge) while others remain stuck on their favourite colours.

In a profession where we are condemned to be cultivated, where we spend our days reading up on ever-increasing human knowledge, I am glad to see that translators do indeed tend to have varied bookshelves. Furthermore, it is advisable to read books and journals outside our specialisations to build up a broader background understanding of the cultures in which we work.

Translators should have a broader vocabulary than most people anyhow. But true understanding of that vocabulary implies broader knowledge, too.