Regardless of the level of experience, freelancers can benefit from participating in a mentoring program, either as a mentee or mentor.
Starting a career in any industry is far from easy. There are skills to hone and expectations to identify and meet. The good news is that there’s usually a manager or some other superior to tell you what to do. Those who choose a freelance path, however, often don’t have this guiding hand.
A Rude Awakening
When I began my in-house translation position at a large commercial law firm in Germany back in 2002, an experienced translator taught me about house style and what was expected of me. This colleague proofread my work for six months before letting me loose on the many partners and associates for whom we translated.
With five years of experience under my belt I felt well-equipped, from a specialist and linguistic point of view, to step out into the world of freelancing. But I didn’t have much of an idea about running a business or marketing myself effectively, so I faced a steep learning curve. I’m sure many professionals moving from industry to self-employment have found themselves in a very similar situation.
In business, being good at what you do is only half the battle; you also need to have business skills. These skills are not something traditionally taught in courses like translation, interpreting, design, and writing. Today, since in-house translation jobs are hard to come by, more translation graduates are choosing to begin their careers in a freelance capacity. This means that they are starting out with even more to learn, many questions, and insecurities, not the least of which is the fact that the language services industry is complex and difficult to navigate.
Unfortunately, academic programs in translation and interpreting have been slow to offer courses in business skills to address the fact that a high percentage of graduates will go straight into freelancing. In the meantime, some of my colleagues and many translator and interpreter associations are offering short courses and workshops on topics related to running a successful business (e.g., how to start a freelance practice). Such training has proven to be extremely popular.
However, even when translators and interpreters are equipped with some basic knowledge of the market, this is often not enough. Lack of experience coupled with an understandable lack of confidence means that many new freelancers feel that they have no option but to accept low prices to get their hands on those first assignments. And once they have positioned themselves at this bottom level of the market, earning fees that do not make their businesses sustainable, they can quickly end up in a vicious circle of having to work long and unfeasible hours to earn the money they need to survive—much to the detriment of their quality of life.
Rise of Mentoring Programs
It is hardly surprising and very welcoming that mentoring programs are becoming so popular. For example, in the U.S., ATA has had a successful mentoring program for many years (see sidebar on page 20). In Europe, the German Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators (BDÜ) has also been introducing more mentoring programs at the regional level. (I’ve volunteered as a mentor in the BDÜ LV Baden-Württemberg program since it began in 2012.)
The mentoring programs with which I am familiar presume that the mentee’s language skills are already up to scratch. As such, the mentoring relationship focuses very much on business skills rather than on language and translation competence itself. This is essential in my view, since a volunteer mentor cannot be expected to be a language teacher and proofreader.
The Mentoring Relationship
A mentoring relationship traditionally involves a collaboration between two translators, typically an experienced translator and a newcomer. However, mentoring programs are also equally sought after by experienced translators who are looking to take their businesses to another level or in a new direction. This is particularly true of translators looking to move into the direct client market.
Depending on the program, a mentoring relationship typically lasts between 12 and 24 months. However, in my experience, successful mentoring tends to continue beyond the official end date. This is because a mentoring relationship, by its very nature, is a personal one, so it’s understandable that both the mentor and mentee would want to continue learning from one another.
The areas covered during this time will vary from one mentoring pair to the next. The mentee will typically provide the direction and pace by asking questions and setting objectives. Topics often include how to get started, getting the business plan off the ground, securing clients, and moving from an in-house position to freelancing (or from another industry to freelance translation). To facilitate the process and ensure a good match, many programs often have prospective mentees fill out a questionnaire concerning their goals and what they are looking for from a mentor. (The questionnaire ATA uses appears below.)
Benefits for Mentees
Mentees can benefit greatly from a mentoring program, but keep in mind that the principle of “what you put in is what you get out” applies here. Signing up with a mentor and then not participating actively won’t bring results.
Aside from having the opportunity to receive guidance concerning things the mentor has already achieved (e.g., setting up a website, getting clients, and organization), there are other benefits that may not be as apparent.
For example, translators working from a home office (as many translators do, particularly in the early years of freelancing) will discover quickly that translation can be a very isolated profession. It can also be very daunting. Having a mentor with whom you can talk, to accompany you to networking events, and introduce you to other colleagues can be very beneficial.
Freelancers are only accountable to themselves. Even for the most determined and motivated of freelance translators, it’s easy to lose steam occasionally and wonder whether the efforts they are putting in really are paying off. A mentor is someone to be accountable to, someone who will check up on progress regularly, who provides encouragement when needed, who helps shift the focus when things are not going as planned, and who can share in your achievements. No mentoring relationship is the same, but with an open mind and a willingness to consider matters from a different perspective, the wins can be enormous.
Mentors: Do I Have What It Takes?
Until they start mentoring, many experienced freelance translators are unaware of the wealth of skills and knowledge they have to offer from which the mentee can benefit. This is often a pleasant surprise for the mentor. There’s no need for the mentor to list all of his or her skills and achievements in advance before entering into a mentoring relationship. In my experience, it is the mentee who brings all of those skills and knowledge to the forefront. This discovery process in itself is rewarding for mentors. It’s often the first time mentors actually see how much progress they themselves have made and start to really appreciate their own value to the translation industry and to their clients.
Benefits for Mentors
Mentors will be challenged when they are questioned by mentees about things that they have always done in a certain way. Mentors should be open to other ways of doing things, enjoy sharing their knowledge, and want to give their mentees the opportunity to learn from their own experiences. This openness will help mentees make the transition into the freelance world faster and easier than might happen otherwise.
This relationship presents an opportunity for mentors to consider their businesses from another perspective. Another benefit is the satisfaction gained from helping and seeing others improve. A mentor can also learn from the mentee’s own wealth of skills.
Benefits for Mentors and Mentees
Not to be underestimated are the benefits for both the mentor and mentee that result from taking advantage of networking opportunities. Such opportunities should definitely be encouraged. For example, in my experience, a mentoring program is an excellent way to find your place in a translator association that may feel very large and unfamiliar to anyone without a role within it. Participating in a mentoring program, whether as a mentor or mentee, gives you a purpose, a focus, and a topic of conversation within the association. This makes networking with colleagues much easier and more effective.
Self-Development as the Backbone for Business Development
What often seems to be completely ignored in discussions about business development are the emotional aspects involved. Running a successful business requires translators to move out of their comfort zones, to engage in marketing, client acquisition, and price negotiation. They must adopt a certain mindset and learn to deal with feedback and sometimes criticism. I cannot imagine that there is a freelance translator out there who has not struggled with at least one of these things at some point in their career. In order to engage in successful business development, self-development is absolutely essential to manage the emotional responses that naturally arise. A mentor can provide emotional support up to a point, but mentees should be aware that further support or coaching may be necessary when mentoring is not enough.
Outside of the formal framework of a mentoring program, mentors very often have their own (perhaps unofficial) mentors, accountability partners, or coaches. Regardless of where a freelance translator is in his or her career, business is all about growth, optimization, determination, and focus. Even the most determined of businesspeople lose focus occasionally and need someone to help them stay accountable to themselves and stay on track. It’s not unusual for mentoring to lead to a desire for more structured coaching to overcome specific personal issues or to build on skills like marketing or customer acquisition. However, it’s often the positive experiences that happen during a mentoring relationship that give the mentee, or indeed the mentor, the confidence to seek the additional assistance he or she needs.
Improving the Value of Language Services
Mentoring is an absolutely essential element in making the language services industry as stable as possible. Experienced freelance translators can have a significant impact when they offer to share their knowledge with those who want to start their own business. For example, setting mentees on the right path to successful business planning will do much to ensure that they do not undervalue their translation services in their desperate, naïve, and uninformed attempts to win and retain their first clients. But mentoring is not just beneficial to newcomers. One of the most important things we need to remember as freelancers, regardless of experience, is that there is no shame in asking for help and getting the extra support and encouragement we sometimes need to take the necessary steps to get us where we know we want to go.
A Note from ATA’s Mentoring Committee
Need to move your business forward? Have questions about technology, management, or clients? ATA’s Mentoring Program may be just what you need.
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Karen Rückert is a German>English legal translator specializing in commercial law. She has 12 years of experience in the translation industry, initially working in-house for a large commercial law firm in Germany before embarking on her freelance career in 2007. She has an MA in legal translation and is a publicly appointed and sworn translator for the English language for Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Since 2012, she has served as a mentor in the mentoring program for the Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer. She writes the Translator Mentoring Blog, and her work has been featured in The ATA Chronicle. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.