Paying it forward
At the end of the previous post in this series it was 1999 and I’d moved from England to live near Barcelona with the love of my life. I was learning not one but two new languages (Spanish and Catalan) and using them every day. My new life was going well. There was just one problem: I needed a job. In England, I’d been a journalist and my first thought was that I could try some freelance journalism from Spain, working for British newspapers. But it soon became clear that there wasn’t a huge demand for what I had to offer, and what potential customers did want (basically stories reflecting very negatively on the people of my new home) I wasn’t keen to provide. Perhaps if I’d been prepared to give it longer and been more adaptable I might have succeeded, but, truth be told, my heart wasn’t in it and when I was offered some hours teaching English I was happy to take them. The money wasn’t good, but it was regular work, and combinations of English classes for various language schools kept me busy for several years.
I wasn’t actually a very good teacher. Or, if even if I was, I didn’t really enjoy it, especially the hard slog of trying to interest reluctant children in learning a language they were studying after school just because their parents said they had to. I preferred the occasional work I also picked up writing educational materials. It also brought in more money to supplement the teaching income which was never going to get me very far. And it was while working on one of those projects that I had what was probably the biggest professional break of my life. One of my fellow writers at a meeting in Barcelona was a Texan called Patrick Bones, who, chatting during a break, revealed that “This isn’t what I normally do”. I’d assumed he was a teacher like me, but he turned out to be a translator and interpreter (he still is, you can find him here).
I confessed that I’d started thinking about becoming a translator but that I had no idea how to get into it. I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe a little encouragement and a word or two of advice, but I got a lot more. By the end of our conversation I had a list of contacts and the confidence to make a real start as a translator. I won’t say it’s been easy ever since, but I can certainly say that I’ve never looked back. Within a couple of years I was earning enough from translation to go full time, give up my classes and forget all about trying to return to journalism. I had my new profession, my second career.
The chance meeting with Pat was my first and most important experience of the sheer generosity that pervades the translation world. He didn’t have to behave like that. He could have been forgiven for seeing me as potential competition and putting me off or playing his cards close to his chest. Instead, he was completely straightforward, open and encouraging. It’s an attitude I’ve found time and time again among translators. There’s so much disinterested good advice and help available to translators starting off, and that’s true now more than ever.
It’s also something I’ve tried to practice in my relations with other translators, helping out when I can with advice, contacts, encouragement and anything else I can provide. One thing is having a businesslike attitude to the way I organise myself and work; but that doesn’t have to extend to seeing others as competitors or enemies. It’s just one example of something which will be the subject of a future blog post: the way that corrosive, damaging big business attitudes, as far as I’m concerned, have no place in the freelance world. And I for one am much happier working in an environment where colleagues consider and help one another. I can never repay Pat Bones the favour he did me when he pointed me towards exactly the new career I needed. But I can, as the Americans would say, pay it forward.