When I started out in translation, I didn’t have a mentor. There was no-one to tell me how to go about things, which clients to choose and which to avoid or how to market my services. No-one, apart from the occasional client, to give me feedback on my work. I was doing it all wrong, of course: self-taught and entering the profession with a thoroughly amateur approach. It took me a while to learn that though, and in the meantime, I still attracted clients and started to make a better living than I had teaching English, even at what I later discovered to be pitifully low rates.
I often wonder now how much it would have helped me to have a more experienced translator to guide me. My hypothetical mentor would certainly have saved falling into a few traps, encouraged me to get training much earlier on and helped me avoid some of my more unsavoury early clients. But these were the early days of the internet and I knew little or nothing of translator associations. I was effectively working in a bubble, learning as I went along, mostly from my own mistakes. Nowadays, it’s much easier for novice translators to find a mentor. This, however, does not come without its own pitfalls.
Every time I see a new advertisement, usually on LinkedIn, by one of those relentlessly positive and not-as-experienced-as-they’d-like-you-to-believe translators offering paid mentoring services, I turn a little queasy. Now, it’s quite possible that these translators can offer something useful to a beginner. After all, their experience is probably nearer to that of a beginner than, say, mine would be.
But, looking at it from the point of view of a vulnerable newbie, the risks are also huge. To begin with, the investment is disproportionately high. Money is in short supply for beginner translators, as they struggle to find clients while at the same time paying for the technology they need to set up their business and trying to improve the quality of their work. It would be so easy to exploit them by promising to show them the answers to all their problems – at a price!
But what guarantees do they have, beyond a bit of marketing gloss and references that could come from the would-be mentor’s best translator friends, that this person can actually deliver anything at all? The answer is, of course, none at all. And then there is the question of why if someone is a successful translator – which anyone interested in being a mentor probably is, or certainly ought to be – feels the need to make money out of colleagues in this way.
So what’s the solution? I’ve put together a few tips if you’re tempted by the idea of a private mentoring arrangement.
- Join a translators’ association. Yes, I know I’m encouraging you to spend money you may not have, but honestly, you’re likely to get a lot more out of it than a private mentor you don’t know very much about. And associations run mentoring schemes. Ask about this possibility before you join.
- Join translator groups and connect with translators on social media. Here, you’re likely to get all sorts of freely given help and advice from more experienced colleagues. Sometimes professional relationships here can even develop into informal mentoring, which can be useful and enjoyable.
- Join or form a Revision Club. I’ve written about these before and they’re becoming increasingly popular. The idea is for small groups of translators to get together online and review each other’s work. They often naturally develop into mutual support groups.
- Go to translator conferences. Once again, this isn’t a cheap option, but again, you’re going to get a lot out of it at the beginning of your career. You’ll learn from colleagues and make lots of useful and interesting contacts.
- If you really feel you need a mentor, my first tip would be to use an association-backed scheme. Many translators’ organisations organise mentoring schemes either centrally or via their branches. The big advantage of these is that there is someone to go to if the arrangement doesn’t work in the way you expect. There should also be a pool of mentors to choose from, which means you have a better chance of finding a mentor who does the type of translations you’re interested in.
- If you must choose a private mentor, get personal recommendations from trusted colleagues. Don’t just go with whoever has the shiniest website or most upbeat LinkedIn post.
- Make sure you ask your mentor about their experience and specialist translation areas. Do they seem as if they’re going to be able to teach you things you want to know?
- Make sure you state what you want out of the arrangement at the beginning and that it matches what’s on offer. It’s best to know before you start exactly what you’re getting and whether it meets your expectations. Also, if everything’s clear at the start it’s going to be much easier to complain if things don’t go as you’ve agreed.
- Make sure the price you’re paying is fair. Even translators’ association mentoring schemes will charge you, usually a token fee to make sure that you value the effort being put in to help you. But if you’re paying commercial prices consider the value for money you’re getting. Just because it’s expensive, it isn’t necessarily great.
- Watch out for exploitation. Some commercial mentors use their mentees as unpaid labour passing them dull jobs from their own translation business and justifying it as experience. It’s fine for you to work on real texts and for your mentor to correct your work, but it really should be in the form of exercises, not “live” translations.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying paid mentoring can never be any good or that those offering it are all cheats and charlatans. What I am saying is that there is nothing to stop the less scrupulous offering it and charging a great deal of money for it. So anyone feeling compelled to seek paid-for, commercial mentoring services would be well advised to ask lots of questions and take the greatest possible care. As the saying goes, a fool and their money are soon parted.