Translation Categories: What Kind of Translator are You?

  • Time to read: 6 min.

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Most translators, especially those just starting out, never think about the different types of translation categories.

But in fact, this is a great question that you should ask yourself.

The reason is because by defining what kind of translator you are, you can better focus your energy on becoming that kind of translator, as opposed to trying to be a translator that you’re not.

And when you’re starting out as a freelance translator, the more focus you have, the faster that success will come your way in the form of new clients and bigger paychecks.

Translation Categories

So, how do you decide what kind of translator you are?

For most of you, that is going to be a very personal decision that only comes after looking your own life and experiences.

Some of the questions you should ask yourself to help you decide include the following:

  • Which interests do you have?
  • Name some things you like to do in your spare time.
  • What kinds of websites do you like to visit?
  • Which type of books are most common in your ebook library?
  • What topics are covered by your favorite podcast?

Once you start answering these questions truthfully, you’ll start to see a pattern of those things that interest you.

And once you start seeing that pattern, you’ll be able to figure out what kind of translator you want to be (and the kind of translation you’ll be best at).

Three Different Translation Categories

In general, most translators and language professionals divide up the translation industry into three different translation categories:

  • commercial translation
  • technical translation
  • literary translation

Translators work in all of these areas and usually stick with one, based on their particular specialization.

Now sure, some translators cross over into two, or even all, of these areas, but rare is the translator that can pull this off successfully.

However, even if you only work in one area, if you want to become a successful freelance translator, it’s vital to understand the difference between each of these subcategories, especially as you plan out how you are going to specialize.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that as I just mentioned, these categories are by no means strictly defined. There’s a lot of room for crossover into different categories (or even areas where these three areas converge).

Again, it’s just a way to break the translation field down into meaningful chunks to better understand it and talk about it more efficiently.

That being said, let’s look at the different types of translation categories.

Commercial Translation

The first of the different translation categories I’m going to mention here is commercial translation.

Commercial translation encompasses a lot of different areas and translation specializations.

In fact, most professional freelance translators touch on at least some aspect of commercial translation. The reason is because commercial translation is where most of the translation money is located.

Commercial translation clients needs translations in order to make money. If a company or organization isn’t going to make any money with a translation, there’s almost no incentive for them to do the translation in the first place.

Now, what kinds of translation clients are there in the commercial translation category?

  • accountants
  • doctors
  • lawyers
  • trucking companies
  • schools
  • businesses
  • manufacturers

These occupations are always going to be in need of translated documents.

Even law enforcement offices constantly find themselves with a shortage of documents in other languages and need translators to perform commercial translations.

Commercial translators deal with all sorts of different types of documents as well, including:

  • contracts
  • memos
  • emails
  • letters
  • grade reports
  • marketing materials

Keep in mind that these documents can either be hard copies or digital copies. A company might want their websites translated or even brand new language translation sites created.

Most of my translation work over the years has been in this category, and that’s likely the case for most freelance translators out there working today.

Technical Translation

The second type of the three translation categories is technical translation.

Remember up above where I said that commercial translation can include any type of document a business produces?

Well, I overstated it just a little bit.

Businesses often produce documents that go beyond a strictly commercial nature.

These documents might describe in depth the way a product works; they might outline how a product is put together; maybe the company has a white paper on how the product can be integrated with other products.

These types of documents no longer are considered commercial translations; they’ve now become technical translations. In order to provide technical language translation services, translators have to keep up-to-date on what’s happening in the field.

This is another major reason why specialization is so important for translators.

Technology companies tend to have more technical papers than other types of companies, and the documents can be digital as well as hard copy (a great use for computer-aided translation).

A software company, for example, might want to localize their product to a Spanish market and would subsequently need the software translated (online helps, menu bars, pop-up windows) as well as any physical user manuals that come with the product. Or, they might want a completely new language translation website created.

While the marketing materials for the software company would be considered as belonging to the commercial translation category, the translation of the software itself would be considered as a technical translation.

As a specialized technical translator in a particular field or subject, you are uniquely qualified to offer translation services to these types of clients, who are often willing to pay a higher price for technical translations over commercial or literary translations.

Literary Translation

OK, so if you want to have more work as a translator, you’d probably be better off specializing in either commercial or technical translations, rather than literary translation, the third of the different translation categories.

Literary translators are not as common as commercial or technical translators.

However, it is not necessarily because of the money.

There are a lot of difficulties in translating literary works such as poems, novels, or short stories (translating names is just one of the issues that pops up).

Even song translations can be pretty difficult.

Books are published every year, to be sure.

However, it’s more difficult to break into the literary field because there are less publishing houses than technology firms or commercial businesses which need translation work.

The money can be good if you can find a gig, but it might take some time for you to find the right connections.

If you would like to break into this field, find someone that’s self-publishing a book and see if they’ll let you translate it and maybe give you a commission of the sales of the translated copy.


Short side note: More non-fiction books are sold every year than fiction books. If you’d like to translate books, maybe first try the non-fiction market. (But then you’d probably be doing commercial or technical translation?! I told you it wasn’t strictly defined!)

Don’t less this discourage you from doing literary translations, though, if that’s what you’re really interested.

Before you get started, though, be sure to read my article on the subject:

Everything You Wanted to Know About How to Become a Literary Translator


So, in conclusoion, remember that there are three general translation categories:

  • commercial
  • technical
  • literary

However, often there is crossover between two or even all three of the categories.

Deciding where you fit (which category) can help you define yourself as a translator, not only for yourself, but more importantly for your clients. which will lead to more work and bigger paychecks.

FAQ – Translation Categories

How many different types of translations are there?

There are three major types of translation categories: commercial, technical, and literary. However, there is often overlap between these categories.

What is the difference between commercial and technical translation?

Commercial translation generally refers to marketing or sales materials, while technical translation covers instructions, manuals, and other more specific documentation.

What is literary translation?

Literary translation generally refers to works of fiction, such as novels, short stories, or poems. However, it can also refer to non-fiction works.