Starting out in translation? Find a mentor!

I was reading one of Kevin Lossner’s blog posts from 2010, titled “No Monkeys!”. He gives 12 pieces of advice—a twelve-step program, as he calls it—for those getting started in the translation business. All of it is great advice and I think everyone should follow it, newbie or not; however, there is one point on which I’d like to expand to impress upon any new translator coming across this blog how important it is to follow.
  
“Find a mentor. This one is not optional. Most twelve-step programs involve a sponsor, usually one who has struggled with the same issues in the past. In our movement we offer more latitude: you don’t have to seek out a recovering monkey as your mentor. You can also work under the watchful eye of someone who got things right the first or second time.”
  
When I did my traineeship at the European Commission’s Translation Service fourteen years ago I had a mentor. “The Godfather”, they called him (I still laugh at this). All trainees had a godfather. Mine was a walking encyclopedia, a Greek translator from Alexandria, Egypt, who taught me a lot; though it would be fair to say that most Greek translators in the technical/scientific translation unit of the DGT (Directorate-General for Translation) went out of their way to teach me translation methods as applied in the EU. Business practices I learned on my own and from other freelancers later on; it is difficult to learn the tricks of the trade and how to handle your own projects, do your own marketing, and interact with clients from non-freelancers.
  
Finding a mentor “is not optional,” says Kevin Lossner. It really shouldn’t be. Having a mentor will make your life so much easier. It will save you time and mistakes. Sure, after hours of looking for good online FR-EN dictionaries you may come across Termium and proudly celebrate your discovery when you realize what a gem it is; or you can skip to celebrating a FR-EN job well done after your mentor saved you those hours by telling you from the start “Make sure to use Termium, it’s an excellent resource, here’s the link.” Or he can save you the embarrassment (and perhaps the legal trouble) of finding out that Google Translate is not reliable and could not care less about the confidentiality of the document you need to translate by explaining to you how it is being developed and how it works. (I am assuming that all seasoned translators know about the dangers of using Google Translate. If not, please read on this topic, e.g. article Confidentiality and Google Translate.)
  
What should you notexpect to learn from a mentor? How to translate! You should already know how to do that. Comparative stylistics and translation techniques should be well engraved on your brain by now. Expect to learn things you’re not exposed to in your translation studies. Use your traineeship to learn how to run your own business.
  
So what should you learn from a mentor?
  1. Research: how to do research on the topic of the text you’re translating, what resources to use. Resources include paper and/or online dictionaries in your language pair(s) and field(s), online encyclopedias (Wikipedia is the most popular one but please use it with caution—some colleagues and I had a blast with some outrageous errors in several Greek Wikipedia articles, and then didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the Greek entries machine-translated from the English ones. Your mentor will tell you which resources are reliable, which ones should be used with caution, and which ones should be avoided), journals with articles in your field(s), websites on the subject matter of your texts (could be a section of the Airbus website if you’re translating about airplanes, or the online Health Library of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute if you’re translating the medical records of cancer patients and need to know more about cancer).
  2. Proofreading. I wrote previously that you shouldn’t expect to learn how to translate because you should already know that before starting your traineeship. Proofreading, on the other hand, is a different story. How many of us who formally studied translation were taught how to proofread a text? How many learned how to edit a translation? And how many of us learned in our studies the difference between proofreading and editing? Sure, we knew how to use the Track Changes feature in Word, but were we shown what to change and what not to touch, what constitutes an error and what is simply a matter of personal preference and style? Were we taught how to charge for proofreading and editing and how to determine our rate? These are all things that your mentor can help you with.
  3. CAT tools. There are several: MemoQ, OmegaT, Wordfast, SDL Trados, among others. Should you use any of these? Which one is more user-friendly? Would the tool of your choice work on your MAC? Are the more expensive ones better? How do you answer to a client that might ask for a discount due to repeated terms as calculated by the CAT tool? These are questions your mentor can help you answer. See which tool he uses, if any. Watch him use it. Get your hands on it (don’t get nervous if your mentor is standing right over your head while you use it; many of us are very picky about what goes into our translation memories), or perhaps you can just use a trial version. How about voice-recognition software? Perhaps you’ve heard of Dragon Naturally Speaking. Is it available in your language? If your mentor uses it, take a shot at it and see whether it increases your productivity or not.
  4. Project lifecycle. A good mentor will give you exposure to the entire lifecycle of a project, including a translation request, a PO (purchase order), acceptance or rejection of a project in the beginning, and delivery of a project in the end. Look at a request with your mentor: sometimes (quite often, actually) requests are incomplete and make it impossible to judge whether we can take on the project or not. Sometimes a client will ask me if I can translate a text of X thousand words by such and such date, without telling me the subject field and sometimes without even telling me the language pair! Your mentor will tell you what to look for in a request before you jump into accepting it. He will also tell you when to say no. Look at some POs. What information do they contain? Does the client need the translator to sign an NDA? What is an NDA? Should you always sign it?
  5. E-mails. All projects involve some correspondence between the translator and the client. Sometimes communication takes place over the phone but most often it is done by e-mail. The speed and convenience of e-mail communication does not mean that your e-mails can be sloppy. Shadow your mentor when she replies to a client: watch how she addresses the client, how careful she is with punctuation, what register she uses (which of course may vary from one client to the next, but not by much, a client is a client, and even if you’ve worked with him for a while and are on friendly terms, you wouldn’t use the same register as with your nephew), how she re-reads her e-mail before hitting Send to make sure it is linguistically and semantically correct, knowing the bad impression a message with errors written by a language professional would make. I’m stating the obvious, I know, but unfortunately I’ve seen too many e-mails full of spelling and grammar errors, even some e-mails starting with “Hey there,…”, to omit this point.
  6. Invoices.At the end of a project or at the end of the month you’ll have to send an invoice in order to get paid for your work. It is surprising how many posts we see in online forums by new translators asking how to write an invoice. I don’t know why so many university translation programs don’t dedicate a lesson or two to this. Ask your mentor to show you a couple of old invoices. Make a note of the information they include. Ask her to let you write the next invoice. Ask her also to tell you about different payment methods.
  7. Project-management tools. By this I don’t mean any complex software that a full-time PM might use. But whether you like project management or not, you’ll have to manage your own projects, so you’ll have to find a way to organize your work. There is software you can buy or you may opt for an Excel file or plain old paper and pencil. I use a weekly planner—which is always open in front of me—to write project names and deadlines, and an Excel sheet to write all my project details such as client, project number and/or PO number, project name, number of words, rate, total price, assignment date, and delivery date. These details come in very handy when it’s time to write invoices, that way I don’t have to look for this information in POs and e-mails. After I send my invoice for a project I write the date on that sheet, as well as the payment due date. After I receive payment, I mark the date of payment and move that project (that Excel line) to another sheet of the Excel file. You may use one or a combination of these and/or other tools. See what your mentor uses and ask for her advice on how to organize your first projects.
  8. Translation portals. You don’t have to ask your mentor which translation portal/site to join (I wouldn’t recommend them, except for Stridonium if you work with German and qualify to join) but do ask her to tell you everything she knows about them (hopefully she will know about them), including which ones to avoid—or at least which sections of them to avoid. You may have heard of ProZ.com, translatorscafe.com, peopleperhour.com (this last one is not just for translators but for freelancers in general, and I would stay away from it unless you want to work for a month to make enough to buy a sandwich). ProZ.com used to be a great resource for the first few years after it was launched—which happened to coincide with my first years in the business and I cannot deny that it helped me immensely. Unfortunately it has changed focus from serving the interests of translators to serving the interests of big translation companies that seek lower prices and treat translation as a commodity. So this site should be used with caution, if used at all. I would avoid the jobs section like the plague. The forum archives can be very useful, though for any new questions you might want to ask, I would opt for translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Ask your mentor to recommend some translators’ groups; they can be general or language-specific or domain-specific. For example, I am a member of the following groups on LinkedIn: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Applied Linguistics, Polyglot-Multilingual Professionals, Aviation Network, International Aviation Professionals, Aircraft Maintenance and Manufacturing, Boston Interpreters, IMIA – International Medical Interpreters Association, and Translation & Localization Professionals Worldwide, among others; and the following groups/pages on Facebook: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Certified Medical and Healthcare Interpreters UNITE!, The League of Extraordinary Translators, South Florida Business Owners Networking Group, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Interpreting and translation forum, ESA – European Space Agency, Translation Journal, Interpreting the World, etc. Of course some of these may not apply to you (I have aerospace engineering background and translate for aircraft manufacturers, hence the aviation-related groups); your mentor, who is working in the same language pair(s) and probably also in the same field(s) will be the best person to recommend the most helpful groups for you.
  9. Associations. It is a very good idea to join a professional association. Look into local associations (e.g. NETA if you live in New England in the USA, Société française des traducteurs (SFT) if you live in France, etc.) and domain-specific ones (e.g. IMIA if you are a medical interpreter and/or translator). Ask your mentor which associations she is a member of, what she has gained from her membership, what the mission of those associations is and how they are contributing to the profession.
 Where to find a mentor:
There are plenty of translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. I mentioned some above but there are many others. Join some. Actually join many; later on you can unsubscribe from the ones you don’t find interesting or useful. Browse some old discussions, learn from them, start participating, make connections. Introduce yourself, say that you’re a new translator and that you’re looking for a mentor. Try to find a mentor that lives in your area so that you can work at her office (even if it is a home office and even if you do so only once or twice a week) and so that you can practice all the points mentioned above, i.e. shadowing her while she e-mails a client to accept/reject a project, see in person how she uses a CAT tool so you can learn quickly, have her watch you write an invoice, etc. If that is not possible, you can still take advantage of a traineeship by finding a mentor willing to spend some time explaining things to you over the phone, by e-mail, skype, etc., guiding you as you take your first steps as a freelance translator.

10 thoughts on “Starting out in translation? Find a mentor!”

  1. Great article! Thank you for all the information. I finished my Degree in Translation and Interpreting studies in Spain last year and I after a year being a PM in a translation company I've decided to try to start my career s a translator. As it's not as easy as it might look like, the idea of finding a mentor could me really interesting!

    Greetings from Spain!

  2. May I just say what a comfort to discover someone who genuinely understands what they're discussing on the internet.
    You actually know how to bring a problem to light and make it
    important. More people really need to read this and understand this side of your story.

  3. Hello Maria! Useful advice for those who are planning on working in the translation field. Thanks for sharing! I would like to mention a good website http://l10nhub.com/ where those interested in the translation (and localization world) can find out some useful and fresh news. It might be a good resource. Thanks!

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