This was one of the biggest things I struggled with when I started out as a freelance translator:
What is my niche?
This was something I struggled with because what I wanted to do and what was available to me did not always line up. I wanted to translate websites and business documents, but luck had it that most of the work I received was anime and manga translation. (Which in a way was also good because I love anime and manga!) Specifically, fantasy, comedy, slice-of-life, romance. After a few years that became my niche.
I know a French translator who had no idea what she wanted to specialise in, but her first job was working in-house for a legal translation firm. Which means that became her niche.
Finding your niche depends on drive and how you market yourself, but also on luck.
However, you can make your own luck! Or rather, you can identify your own niches and improve them!
This article specifically covers identifying and polishing your knowledge and experience to hone your niche.
This five-part series is designed for all levels; from amateur to professionals, looking to hone their skills.
- Understanding Source Texts
- Improving English Writing
- Learning from Others
- Improving Self-Editing
- Working on Your Niche
(The above will be updated with the relevant web page links once each article has been released.)
What is a Niche?
“A place, employment, status, or activity for which a person or thing is best fitted”
I realised while writing this article that niche for translators can refer to two things:
- Subject expertise
- Writing style expertise
Although these two may overlap improving them will involve different approaches. One where you focus more on knowledge acquisition, and the other on consciousness of writing.
“What Is My Niche?”
Or in other words: “What do I have experience and knowledge in?”
This isn’t just a matter of “my niche is manga/website/novel translation”, but what kind of manga/website/novel translation?
This isn’t just a matter of “my niche is fantasy”, but what kind of fantasy writing?
It’s not even a matter of “my niche is history”, but what specific parts and regions of history?
You might have an interest and deep knowledge in history; or classical language; isekai fantasy; giant robot science fiction; narratives based in video game worlds; a specific religion; a specific region; search engine optimization, etc.
These interests and knowledge shouldn’t only be in English, but also in your second language. This is because a niche means knowing how people in different cultures interpret that subject matter, and the language used. (Or even the different cultural expectations of writing styles for certain subject matters.)
For example, I have a lot of knowledge about the sub-culture of cosplay in both Japan and the West (there are a lot of differences between the two!) I know (based on my knowledge and experience) that the Japanese レイヤー (reiyaa) is the term for “cosplayer” in English.
In Japan “layers” tend to be quite private and use fake names and attend professional photo shoots, while in the west cosplayers are more open and social, and meet at anime conventions.
This is information you might be able to look up through research, or from asking someone else who is knowledgeable in the subject, but being able to identify your areas of expertise can be great for telling clients whether you are suitable for a job.
Write down as many things as possible that you think you have experience and knowledge in. This doesn’t have to only be professional experience, but academic and general interest experience which has deepened your knowledge on that subject.
You can now use this list to market yourself, as well as identify any areas that you want to improve.
Improving Your Niche and Learning New Ones
Improving a niche or learning a new one means looking up courses, lectures, videos, articles, and books. These don’t have to be specifically for translation, just about the subject in general. Look these up in both your source and target languages!
Studying for your area of expertise is also a matter of understanding how you learn. It’s all well and good buying a mountain of textbooks on a subject you want to improve on, but there’s no point if you’re never going to read them!
I know I don’t learn well from textbooks. So, I try to find other resources like webinars and seminars on YouTube, or even podcasts on the subjects I’m interested in.
For example, I want to improve my Japanese to English high fantasy translation. So I figured I should improve my understanding of classical Japanese (also know as kobun). I know I don’t learn well from textbooks, so what should I do?
Well, there are a few websites online that seem to have some summaries of kobun, or there are easy to understand videos. But knowing me, the best way to practice understanding classical Japanese is through video games. Specifically
Next I need some information on high fantasy English. Specifically, the type of language used in novels and games. Which means re-reading Lord of the Rings and re-playing Final Fantasy XII. (Once I make some time to do that.)
But playing games and reading are all well and good, but how do I learn how to better translate this high fantasy text? Well, they do say the best way to learn is to teach. Or in this case write about the niche.
Write About Your Niche(s)
You’ve done a lot of research into your niche (or niches) that you want to improve, now what?
Well, similar to schools, we write essays. And by “essays” I mean “articles” (because we’re adults).
These articles are a way to articulate what you’ve learned in a way so that other people can easily digest the information. This is not only great for solidifying the information in your brain, but for showing off your expertise in that subject.
These articles could be posted on a personal or community blog, a post on LinkedIn, or even a Twitter thread! Or if you’d rather not be public about it, don’t post them anywhere!
Practice Your Niche
Now it’s time to practice! You can try either:
- Write original text in English in the style of your niche (see the exercises in Improving English Writing)
- Translate a piece of text from your niche.
- Or try something a little different…shadow writing styles.
Shadowing Writing Styles
This isn’t exactly shadowing (which is saying exactly what someone else says just after they say it.) This is just my name for an exercise writers do to get their brain juices into a particular style of writing.
Professional writers re-write a text that’s written in the style they want to emulate. (This is an exercise to nudge their brains into that style.)
For example, one author said they re-type out, word-for-word, the first few pages of The Lord of the Rings in order to emulate that writing style. Even artists use tracing as an exercise to learn a particular style of art. (They never re-post this – it’s just an exercise.)
This was a long one, but I hope it gave you some ideas on how to identify, improve, learn, and practice specific areas of knowledge.
Identify your niches and decide if you want to improve your knowledge on the subject or explore writing style(s). This can help when coming up with ideas for materials to use for your studies. (If you’re stuck for ideas, then ask other people!)
Write articles about what you’ve been doing, or the subject matter in general. Make it informative, useful, and engaging!
Practice improving your writing by using some of the exercises discussed in Improve Your English Writing or by copying and/or mimicking a specific writing style.
Honestly, there’s so much you can do to improve your niche! However, it’s not a simple exercise you can do once. Improving your knowledge and writing style for a particular field takes years of work.
I think most translators tend to do this naturally by exploring particular fields that interest them. But I think it helps to consciously improve them too.