Small languages and big niches

Read on to find out:

  • Some of the benefits and difficulties in translating a ‘small’ language
  • Tips on strategies for overcoming some of the hurdles accompanying a ‘small’ language specialism

One piece of advice often given to small business owners is to specialise and develop a reputation in one or two small fields. This post focuses on such translation niches. Broadly speaking, it covers what I learnt while doing necessary market research on the job when making enquiries, accepting jobs, and developing a client base.

To give some context, I spend roughly 40% of my working hours on Croatian or German translation projects and 60% on editorial projects. Almost all these projects relate to the social sciences and humanities and related areas (policy and museums). I am currently expanding my editorial work to cover fiction editing for indie authors too.

Everybody’s path is slightly different. The tips here will be most useful for translators working at the publishing end of the spectrum. These fields include academic and literary translation, where there is often a close collaboration with the author. These kinds of translators are more often ‘writers who know languages’ rather than ‘true linguists’, as described in the ‘two translator tribes’ distinction.

What makes something a niche?

First, what counts as a niche depends on the wider environment.

Niches are often highly specialised and hierarchised. For translation between two languages that encompass territories with large economies (e.g. German to English or Spanish to French) an initial niche might be:

  • Legal translation
  • Medical translation
  • Financial services
  • Marketing translation
  • Academic translation

And you could get much more specialised, by being the ‘go to’ person for a particular kind of law, or a single academic discipline.

For the academic researchers among you, note that all these are much bigger niches than standard academic research niches, where you study much more focused topics in depth for several years.

Ultimately, the reasoning behind niching is to partly escape the market. Specialising can help you do a better job (by focusing on one area) and earn higher rates.

Let’s start by comparing a possible translator career path with a ‘big’ and ‘small’ language, by which I simply mean here a language linked to a relatively large or small economy.

Career paths for a ‘big’ language

A translator can simply set up shop and start contacting agencies and possible clients. To train and improve their skills, they may study for a masters in translation or work towards a translation exam.

A common career path would be to study languages at university, complete a translation masters, and then launch a translation business.

For those pursuing translation as a second career, they may skip the masters at first and learn on the job while studying courses in translation practice and taking a translation exam. A possible advantage here is bringing a specialism based on their former career to the table.

After a few years, a good translator can expect to build up a base of direct clients, be able to work for specialist agencies that focus on their area, or both.

Career paths for a ‘small’ language

Things are quite different for small languages. First, there are few options for university-level training from those languages into English. For Croatian into English, translation qualifications are advertised but are often not available (in the UK at least) due to lack of numbers. I do not know of a UK translation masters programme that covers this language. All my language training was in Croatia and Serbia through language schools linked to the universities there.

Translators working with such languages at the ‘publishing’ end of the translation spectrum (e.g. academic and literary translation) often have some kind of link to the academy. They may have completed a study programme in Slavic studies, languages, or linguistics. Some of the most famous literary translators (e.g. Celia Hawkesworth) for Serbian/Croatian followed this path, originally translating in response to requests from colleagues while doing research in the countries.

What challenges can translating from a small language into English bring?

(1) More varied requests

For a small language, your niche may simply be the language combination.

As such, I received wide-ranging requests for translation, both in Croatia (through friends) and through my CIOL directory entry – much more so than for German.

Examples included certificates, asylum-seeker testimonies, business documents, museum materials, academic books, non-fiction books, general legal correspondence, and tourism materials.

In contrast, for German I’ve only ever worked on texts in three small areas – general certificates (in my first year to gain experience, which is a kind of translator ‘rite of passage’), marketing translations, and academic texts.

For small or new languages, this has obvious implications for the quality of the work produced. Why? Because a small number of translators cannot cover a wide range of fields and topics. A testimony requires a translation that is much closer to the original than a marketing translation. Meanwhile, for academic translation, writing skills and knowledge of disciplinary conventions are very important.

However, there are benefits to this situation: when you are starting out, you are offered a greater variety of jobs, and this is great for experimenting and learning what you like.

My solution: In my first year I experimented. Now, I stick to the ‘big language’ approach and will only take on Croatian jobs in a small niche: academic translations (history/anthropology) and related areas (e.g. museum materials/policy). I would not have been able to do this had I not offered other services. Being able to offer more services or another language combination is important.

(2) A lack of opportunities for translation training

While I had the academic background and the translation and language qualifications from Croatia, some structured training in translation practice was necessary. There was little point investing in a translation masters at that point as I already had lots of academic qualifications and a client base. Besides that, they didn’t cover Croatian. Opportunities for training (for translation into English) were few and far between.

My solution: I decided that it was worth leveraging my second-best language (German) to improve my general translation skills. I took a course and found that quite a lot of the insights I gained into translation practice could be applied to other languages. Piggybacking off German was a useful approach and opened up some new opportunities for me too. I made use of the relatively cheap courses in translation practice available for larger languages and great summer schools for translators interested in literary translation.

Finally, networking with other translators and comparing notes with my partner (who does legal translation and localisation from English and other languages into Croatian) was the greatest help here. Having another translator whom I could ask questions was crucial.

(3) The problem of negotiating economic differences

One of the first things I learnt about translation when setting up my business was that rates for a language pair loosely relate to the strength of the ‘weaker’ economy in the pair. This is because the rates depend on the availability of people willing and able to pay them. For instance, German to English often commands slightly higher rates than Spanish to English.

This also explains why rates for Croatian to English translation were generally lower than for German to English. So, while I had unusual language skills that might be a quirk on a CV, they were valued less on the market for translation. Upon leaving academia, this was a lesson in how markets place value on skills.

In my first year I experimented with translation agencies, but I quickly realised they were not a good option for academic translation. Why? Because they do not normally allow a direct collaboration with the (academic) author. A good academic translation is built on rounds of collaboration and editing.

Furthermore, I found that living in the UK meant that my rates were too high for Croatian-based agencies. At the same time, the UK agency requests were haphazard and mostly outside of my niches. I noted that many agencies would often work with translators whose first language is Croatian/Serbian and then improve the translations with a round of line-editing.

My solution: Working with top-end direct clients based in Croatia was still possible, even when based in the UK. I now avoid working with translation agencies as the rates are mostly too low (see below) and my niche does not suit working with specialist agencies.

Agency rates

Ballpark agency rates based on enquiries I made in my first year:
Low-ball UK agencies: £40–£50 per 1000 words
Reasonable UK agencies: £70–£90 per 1000 words
German agencies:  €100 per 1000 words
N.B. Specialist agencies will offer significantly higher rates but these are not appropriate for academic translation nor are they widely available to translators in their first few years of business

I base my rates on comfortably translating 2000 words per day. This means the better agency rates for me work out as middling and not sustainable, while the lower rates are little over minimum wage. All these agency rates work out as considerably less than standard rates for academic copyediting. Translators who choose to work faster (which is more achievable with some kinds of commercial texts, or where writing quality is less important) could do quite well with the higher rates. This is why comparing numbers and making assumptions about income across locations and specialisms can be futile.

Photo by Nicolas Brulois on Unsplash

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