Lesson 113: How to survive in the world where everybody tells you to become an expert translator?

Lesson 113: How to survive in the world where everybody tells you to become an expert translator?

About a year ago, when I first started studying the future patterns of work, I came across many predictions about how employment (in fact, any form of work) is going to look like in the future. One of such potential developments, perhaps supported with strongest evidence and research, is so-called hyperspecialisation (for more read Thomas Malone from MIT) – the future in which every worker will be super specialised in their very narrow part of the process of work.

Stemming from this thought of increasing specialisation, many practitioners, business coaches and consultants started advising business people and owners that specialising is necessary to survive, while hyperspecialisation, or if you like – becoming an expert – is a recipe for success.

My first workshop on becoming an expert took place at the Israeli Translators Association Conference in Tel Aviv in 2013 (check out their 2014 event in Jerusalem), then I talked about it in Budapest and Porto. Looking back at what I said and distancing myself a bit from it, you can sum up my advice to: become an expert in your field and position yourself as one to make the most of your skills.

This, of course, leads to two questions which I never asked myself. First, how does becoming an expert differ from specialising in your field and second, how does one become an expert translator when one is convinced there’s nothing expertly in their profile?

In September, during the expert bootcamp that I run with eCPD Webinars, we had a group of about 30 colleagues working on their expert positioning and restructuring their businesses around the idea of becoming an expert. Some of the most difficult questions to answer during the bootcamp was: how does one become an expert without 20 years of experience in the subject matter industry?

Before I try to answer any of these questions, let me tackle one more issue. Some colleagues I spoke to said that this whole expert thing is a fad, a marketing stunt and you can’t really make yourself an expert; rather, you become one with time and experience. True. I’m not encouraging anybody to claim they’re an expert while they are novices, neither am I suggesting you can become an expert overnight, if you only add a word or two to your website. But I believe that many colleagues have the required knowledge and experience to either put them on the track to become an expert or position themselves as one right now. By not doing it, they may be missing out on some good opportunities.

Yet, the question of becoming an expert when you can’t see anything expertly about your profile persists (unless you come with years of experience in your subject-matter industry). And I think it may be quite damaging to your self-esteem, if you’ve been asking yourself this very question. Surrounded by advice from colleagues and industry leaders, seeing the word “expert” in every other article, meeting with colleagues who say they made it as experts, you may end up thinking you don’t have what it takes yourself.

I’d like to challenge this thought. Let’s try to answer this question: how can I become an expert if I don’t have previous experience in the subject matter industry? I only studied translation (languages/interpreting/communication) after all…

First, it’s extremely important to realise that your core expert profile is already there. You feel like your degree in translation (or similar) didn’t give you anything expertly because you’ve been surrounded with fellow students and colleagues being notoriously good at it for at least 3, 5 years of your life. In a room full of translator, everybody is just another translator. It’s very easy to slip into thinking that everybody knows what you know, that it’s not so difficult or special. Add to this spending time on translator fora, attending translator conferences and hanging out with translators. You, an expert? Impossible. Everybody knows how to do what you’re doing.

Nothing further from the truth. The moment I started going to events where I was the only translator in the room, I discovered that people are genuinely impressed by the work we’re doing. The more time you spend in an environment where your skills are rare, the more you realise that you do, in fact, do something that not everyone can.

Moreover, at certain point you realise that real people, companies, institutions benefit from your work, that it carries certain value that can in fact be calculated in terms of profits or return on investment.

Further, another important step is to realise that your work is to a large extent in-imitable: you write with a certain style, you have specific background knowledge, your translations are not exactly the same as your colleagues’ (unless they are, but that means trouble).

If you agree that what you do is rare, valuable and in-imitable, you’re very close to realising you’re providing an expertly service (or you’re on the right path to do that). Realising the power that comes from your linguistic background in front of your clients is essential. Hey, you may not know everything there is about accounting, finance or IT, but you know the language of it – this narrow hyperspecialisation that researchers are talking about.

But this is just one part of the expert story. As I hinted at in the previous paragraph, your linguistic expertise has to be set in within a particular industry. In other words, you need to be an expert in the language of… finance/business/marketing luxury goods/fashion/technical communication, etc, etc. Now how do you do that?

It all starts with a broader specialisation. Say, you specialise in three fields, work mostly in those, but with time you develop particular expertise in one narrow domain, either through selecting jobs on this topic or through a conscious process of specialising (as in my case). The more narrow the domain, the more expertly your positioning is.

This, of course, requires a lot of work. Just translating texts in this domain will take you so far. Relentless pursuit of knowledge within this field, actively learning about it and becoming “one of them” is essential to say: I’m an expert in the language of marketing luxury goods, for example. Hyperspecialising at its best.

My question to you now is as follows. Do you think any of this is new, or is it just taking specialisation a step further? Or is it all the same just calling it an “expert profile” rather than a specialised translator? Do you think that this approach could work?

If you’re interested in learning more about expert profiles and expert positioning, join me and Ralf Lemster in January. More information here.

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  1. Diana Jankowiak , on Dec 13, 2014 at 11:30 Reply

    Mrta, it’s a great post. It is very much in line with what we have discussed during our talks in Business School for Translators. Since I am working mostly now on the other project, the shop for translators and also at gathering more knowledge in my chosen field, it is a bit early for the workshop in January. But I do believe that becoming an expert in a narrow field is key. The process itsels is slightly different than just specialising, perhaps because it is more conscious and also more business-related.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Dec 28, 2014 at 12:51 Reply

      Thank you, Diana! I’m sure there will be workshops in the future, so you could take part in one when you feel ready. Good luck with your CPD in the meantime.

  2. Oliver Lawrence , on Jan 6, 2015 at 22:29 Reply

    Hi Marta, I’m not quite clear what difference you see between an “expert” and a “specialist”. The terms seem quite similar to me. Perhaps, strictly speaking, “specialises in X” means “does nothing but X”, whereas “expert in X” means “highly competent in X”, but I suspect most people would perceive them as much the same.

    In our specialisms, we need to understand not only the terminology and language but also how the subject actually works. Someone who knows lots about the language of marketing luxury goods but little about luxury goods per se probably isn’t really an expert(?).

    Where I see a distinction is between specialism and niche, where a niche is a narrower, tighter field that you know intimately well and can work in to a superlative standard.

    What do you think?

    PS you must tell us where you get all the time and energy to be such a whirlwind entrepreneuse :).

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 19, 2015 at 07:19 Reply

      Dear Oliver,

      Thank you for your comment. I think the major distinction in here lies in how a freelancer positions himself/herself in potential clients’ eyes. An expert, indeed, is someone who has in-depth knowledge of the topic itself – that’s how I see it.

      Of course, I agree with your reservations, hence my questions by the end of the post.

  3. Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz , on Jan 13, 2015 at 18:23 Reply

    In a world that tries you all sorts of things, you can comply and be swept by the waves, but I’m not sure how much that kind of expert status would be worth. You need a good deal of independence, intellectual but perhaps also emotional, and, in any case, you essentially become an expert by doing well what you do, not by becoming an expert. I don’t think you can qualify as a real expert by ticking off boxes on a to-do list.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 19, 2015 at 07:20 Reply

      No, but what about *positioning* yourself as an expert? Don’t you think that there are many professionals out there who became experts by doing well what they’re doing, but don’t use this to their full advantage?

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