How I Found My Specialization

I started freelance translation as a pure generalist, as I think many do. I would take basically any work that was not legal or medical (I wanted no lawsuits or medical accidents on my hands), and in practice that resulted in some wildly varied work, including industrial informational videos, TV commercial storyboards, bicycle rule pamphlets, garbage separation guides, and many many more.

I was also very aware of the general professional consensus that specializing was the only real way to continue improving rates. As a freelancer, rates are the real key to improving earning–at a certain level, efficiency and speed of translation level off, and the only way to increase earning potential is to increase rates.

Generalists, who often are limited to working through translation agencies, have a much lower ceiling than those who focus on one professional field and work directly with corporate clients. Specialists can do that because they have established a professional reputation for skill and in-depth knowledge through their specialization, while the sales work of agencies often ignores individual translator skill in favor of gaining sales through lower rates.

I thus found myself looking for a reasonable specialization. Most specialized translators come into translation from another field, and their specialization is natural: people who worked in finance specialize in finance, people who worked in chemistry specialize in chemistry, etc. In terms of work experience, I could conceivably offer specialization in academics, particularly linguistics and second language acquisition, but one of the real draws for me to be a freelancer was the ability to choose work I found interesting, and that work did not at all sound interesting. Then, in spring of 2018 or so, I stumbled on the idea: sake.

I had been a sake drinker for some years, of course, but never really got too seriously interested in it as a topic of study. I had taken a brewery tour, and was of course aware of Yamaguchi’s premium sake products through Dassai and Toyobijin. Then, as I was thinking about what I could do that was both interesting and potentially career worthy, I saw a news story about local sake brewers pushing to expand their markets abroad, and I had it. This was a perfect storm: an industry that needed skills I had, that I was interested in, and was located right outside my front door. All I needed to do was actually specialize.

I asked around about ideas on how to capitalize on my location and my idea, but what it all came down to was three things:

  • Acquire professional skills (i.e. study)
  • Find a way to visibly demonstrate those skills (i.e. get certifications)
  • Let potential clients know about me and those skills (i.e. network)

For the first, I just started reading. I studied books in Japanese and in English about sake, including its history and production. I also began subscribing to magazines and online newsletters about the industry, and actually studying the way they used English in discussing sake.

For the second step, I turned first the Sake Service Institute. They offer education at varying levels, and I was able to take advantage of both live and correspondence courses to earn some visible credentials to demonstrate my knowledge. Naturally, one can argue about the meaning of any kind of pro-profit credentials. I have my doubts about the educational value of the Sake Navigator courses, for example. But one undeniable benefit is that they demonstrate to potential clients that I am serious enough about this topic to spend the time and money to study. That is exactly what I needed for the second point. I have also since completed John Gauntner’s Sake Professional Course, and a Shochu Advisor course.

So, with some courses completed and research under by belt, I then had to go about the third point: letting clients know about me. This proved to be the most enjoyable part, as I was able to network at public sake events all over Yamaguchi. These not only let me meet and greet important people in the industry, but also helped me demonstrate my interests and understanding.

I also talk about sake on social media (which is only natural, as this is a genuine interest) and that is a way to let others in my general professional field know about my interests and skills. And yes, that also leads to work. It is important to remember, though, that simply using social media to create a “brand” is an empty thing that people see right through. My social media usage is always honest, because this work I do is something I genuinely enjoy and like to talk about.

I take advantage of brewery tours and tourist events to make contact, and never missed a chance to spread around my business card. I also kept my eyes and ears open for opportunities to directly sell my skills. For example, I saw a news feature about local sake brewery Shintani Shuzo where the toji mentioned she was working on a pamphlet to sell her latest premium sake abroad, and immediately emailed to offer my services. Since I had met the toji’s husband at a sake event already, it was fast to convince the couple of my sincerity, and we were able to work together.

I have since worked for Yaoshin Shuzo, Nagayama Honke Shuzojo, Chiyonosono Shuzo, Ninki Shuzo, and a variety of sake related organizations like Sake Business Laboratory, Sake On Air, the Sakenomy app, and more. I am currently negotiating future projects with three other sake breweries right now, as well.

I have achieved what I had hoped for. Local sake brewers think of me first when they start to consider English branding, websites, or catalogs. I am able to work directly with clients in the industry and negotiate my own terms, including rates, as a professional with standing in the field. I still work in other fields, as time allows and finances demand, but I am increasingly focusing particularly on this one field. As of right now, I only actively seek out new clients in the sake field.

It is not as lucrative a specialization as, say, international finance, but it is enjoyable, challenging, and has created personal connections that I value deeply.

I present this as a description of how people can search for successes in translation that don’t necessarily come from past work experience, or require much compromise in interest. Everyone has their own path, and maybe seeing mine can help others find theirs.

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