The devil’s in the detail

The devil’s in the detail

How to find out what you should be specialising in

I’ve always loved history. I did my degree in the subject in the days when it was still possible to study exactly what you liked at university without getting into crippling debt. And, having ended up as a translator, I’m working on making it one of my specialities.

This week really put me to the test, though. I’m translating the catalogue for an exhibition of medieval art and one of the texts referred to knights and, specifically, to armour. Now armour is a very specialist area in which I am no expert and I was keen to get the details right. So when the Spanish text referred to “malla clavada” I wanted to find exactly the right English equivalent. But I couldn’t. The more Internet searching I did, the more blanks I drew. All I could find was a text in Spanish that gave a pretty good explanation of what “malla clavada” was, along with a French version of the term, but nothing at all in English.

In medieval times the English aristocracy spoke French, and I thought it was quite possible that the French term “hauberk clauvier” might provide the key. There was just one problem: the only place it appeared on the Internet was in my Spanish text. I was stumped. In such difficult circumstances I have one ace up my sleeve. I am fortunate enough to have a daughter who is not only a linguist, specialising in French, she is also a medieval expert, studying for a PhD in old French poetry. I decided to call on her for help and, a quick exchange of messages later, I had her working on the problem. Meanwhile, I carried on looking.

My daughter and I both found the answer at about the same time, strangely enough in different articles. It turns out that an English scholar in the 19th century, struggling to match the physical evidence for mail armour with the pictorial evidence in manuscripts, illustrations and tapestries, decided to “invent” certain types of mail, none of which probably ever existed. His theories were convincing because they appered to match the pictures, and they became very popular in France. However, there is only any actual evidence for the type commonly known as “chain mail” and in all probability the difference in the illustrations is probably due to the fact that medieval artists simply weren’t very good at drawing mail as it actually was.


A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. But is what the knights are wearing here the same as the traditional mail pictured on the left?


I’d found the answer, but my problems were not over yet. What we had discovered meant that I had to find a way of telling the author of the text that she was simply wrong. She had even described the type of mail she meant in a way making it clear that she believed in what I now knew to be an invented typology. I couldn’t get away with a simple translation. In the end I decided to go for what is probably the longest translator’s note I’ve ever written. I explained the whole story, setting it out so that my customer could decide whether to accept my argument or not.

It was painstaking, time-consuming work. I’m sure at least half my readers will be thinking “How can you possibly be bothered with all that for some dusty historical fact?” And that’s really the point of this post, because I’m sure not many of you will be as fascinated as I am with the intricate details of medieval history. As we are often told, there are good arguments for becoming a specialist translator rather than a jack of all trades. But one of the questions I most often see being asked by translators starting out is “How do I know which areas to specialise in?” Well, here’s the answer. You should be specialising in the very subjects in which you would be prepared to go through a complicated search and explanation process like the one I’ve just described. Not only that, instead of feeling irritated and frustrated, you’d actively enjoy it.

We all have at least one subject that does this for us. Identify it, investigate its possibilities as a area of translation, develop your knowledge, flag yourself as an expert and find customers who need translations of that kind, and you’ll be on your way to developing your translation business in the way it ought to be going. Good luck!


  1. What an exciting project! The research part of translation is often underestimated. It takes a Sherlock Holmes! You think you found it but you need to dig deeper. Choosing your specialisation areas is more problematic for rarer language combinations where your choices are obviously fewer as it would narrow down your subject-matters and your clients. 🙂


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