Do you know what bilateral hemothorax is? What about an averment? Torsion? Unless you work in medicine, law, or engineering, you've probably never heard those words, and yet they are part of the English language.
Nearly every field, from neuroscience to history to NASCAR, has a set of vocabulary that needs to be understood before real communication can take place. Sometimes there is a long, steep learning curve and sometimes it's a short, gentle one, but either way, it's important. Just as importantly, different fields sometimes use the same word in different ways. To return to the example above, a doctor and an engineer would understand torsion differently. A doctor would suggest surgery, an engineer a careful analysis of the sheer stress.
What does all of this have to do with translation? If it's important to realize that there is specialized vocabulary within your own language, how much more so do you need to be aware of it when translating from one language to another? When a translator specializes in certain fields, they become aware of the nuances of that field. They understand how to best translate from the source to the target language without being tripped up by jargon, phrasing that might not be employed outside of the field, or words used in unusual ways.
Specialization has been a part of translation for a long time, but in the 21st century it's taking on new importance. There are two key reasons for this. First, there is simply more knowledge than ever before, and in some cases this requires finer gradations of specialization. Optics and dentistry might fall under the broad umbrella of health sciences, but each has its own specialized vocabulary that must be learned and understood in order for proper translation to take place.
Second, competition is fiercer than ever before. Especially for translators who are working in common languages, it's important for them to set themselves apart, and specialization is one key way to do this. Being specialized means more efficient translation, knowing where to go to do the research when it is needed, and a familiarity and comfort with the material that is being translated. Specialization does not mean becoming confined, however. It is possible to specialize in a number of areas.
Specialization doesn't just benefit translators. For consumers of translation services, being aware of the importance of specialization can help them to choose the right translation service for their project.
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