Professional translators are intelligent and knowledgeable people but cannot be expected to know everything about the subject matter they have been asked to translate. While some translation tasks are of a general nature and basically only require good bilingual and proofreading skills, many translation skills involve more in-depth subject knowledge. That’s why translators are often expected to be subject matter experts as well as translators.
Think of it like this. Lawyers are all intelligent, well educated people. But if you wanted advice about making a will, it would be unlikely to ask a criminal defence lawyer, or a personal injury lawyer. Lawyers, just like translators of necessity must specialise in different branches of the law if they are to offer a good service to clients.
Take another example. Scientists are all also intelligent well educated people, but would you ask an astrophysicist about the reason why a species of fish uses mimicry? Scientists are even more specialised than lawyers. There is just too much subject matter in science for any one scientist to be an expert at everything.
Now let’s get back to professional translators. There is plenty or work involved in legal translation or scientific research translation, but it would be unreasonable to ask a translator who has developed his or her skills in marketing translation to translate a document about a criminal case or a new discovery in medicine.
A subject matter expert who is also a translator is a valuable resource. Legal, scientific and technical translation all require large specialised vocabularies and it takes time to become familiar with these. Glossaries can be useful when there is repetition of words and phrases that need to be translated, but these are not substitutes for subject matter experts in translation. They only help the translator to maintain consistency and speed up translation, making the end product more reliable and cheaper as it has taken less time to complete.
Some of the best SMEs have turned to translation later in their career for some reason or another. They may have been lawyers themselves and feel that they need a less hectic and pressured workload. By offering a freelance legal document translation service, they not only provide an accurate translation of the task at hand, but they satisfy their own desire to have a more rewarding occupation.