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Monthly Archives: November 2010

Starting Out: part 5

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 30, 2010

Who is Teaching You?

If you have read the series so far, you will realise that I have spent the past two weeks stressing the importance of good teamwork and intentional learning. This week, I want to bring the two together. You see, no matter how reflective we get, no matter how much time we give to self-improvement, we will always learn much more from other than we possibly could learn on our own.

We all have our blind spots. For me, one of my biggest blindspots for a long time was in my time management. While I always completed jobs on time, my time between jobs was almost always wasted. It was as if I needed the urgency of a deadline to get me in gear. This meant that I often missed good opportunities to grow my business, learn new skills and benefit from time off.

The problem was that, since this was a blindspot for me, there wasn’t a lot I could do to fix it on my own. After all, if I had been able to fix it, I already would have done so! If I was ever going to change, I needed help from someone who was strong in this area so that their strength could help to sort out my weakness.

Outside of immediate business concerns, a little while ago, I also realised, or more correctly, those close to me helped me realise, that I tended to spend too much time talking about myself. This was robbing me of valuable learning opportunities and worse, it was making me come across as a bit self-centred. If I was ever really going to engage with people, this needed to change. While I am still not an expert at this, as you might have guessed from the number of times the words “I” and “me” has come up in the past couple of weeks (!), I do think I am much better than I used to be.

The challenge for us all is to find some way of figuring out what our blindspots are. Sometimes, like for my time management issues, reflection and honesty might make them painfully obvious. For other issues, like my tendency to be me-deep in conversation, it might take the gentle correction of those close to us to point them out.

The important thing is not to reject this correction, in fact, we would all be much better off if we opened ourselves up to this kind of learning. While it might be all too tempting to find excuses or simply ignore our failings, we are ultimately the ones who will be worse off for it.

You simply cannot really learn without changing something and teaching can only come alongside correction. If we don’t actively seek out people we can learn from, we run the risk of stagnating, with only ourselves to blame. If we do seek out people to learn from, while we run the risk of being hurt, we also give ourselves the tools we need to improve.

This week, perhaps it might be time for you to honestly ask yourself whether you have any “teachers” in your life: people you trust enough to correct you and guide you in an area of your life or work. If you don’t, try picking one area where you know you need help and locating someone whom you know is strong in that area. You might want to pick a fairly “low-risk” area that you don’t mind someone having access to. As I mentioned months ago, we often have to take small risks first, before we go for big changes.

If you do have teachers, maybe you could spend some time evaluating how much progress you are making in those areas. Ask those trusted people to honestly give you their feedback on how you are doing. Most of all, you will probably want to thank them for helping you.

If you have just left university, try to remember that your learning isn’t finished; you simply have built the foundation for it to move to another level. Keep learning to keep growing your potential.

Starting Out pt. 4

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 25, 2010

How Are You Improving?

I am not one for regrets but one of the things I wish I had known looking back over the early days of my translation career is the importance of intentionally improving myself. What do I mean?

Well, my first job was a translation of a commercial lease, I took two days longer than I would for the same length of job today but it went well. The client paid on time and I was happy. The next job was another legal document and I did it, got paid and went on with life. After I finished each job, I would dutifully send it off to the client, create my invoice and never think about it again.

Not once did it enter my mind that it might be useful to spend a few seconds on reflecting on what I learned. Even later on, when I had my first unhappy client, I tended to blame the client for being unreasonable rather than thinking about what I might have done to cause the problem. Worst of all, aside from learning the hard way that translating tired is not a good idea, it was some time before I really learned anything concrete that I could apply to future work.

Funnily enough, a great way of learning was under my nose all that time. Since I left uni, I had maintained a casual interest in translation and interpreting research, especially work in conference interpreting. However, in my efforts to get the best out of my time, I deliberately choose to severely limit how long I spent reading articles and found other things to do instead.

That was not a good idea. While I sooned gained the revelation that it was a good idea to nurture this interest rather than starving it, the big turning point was when I attended the Nida School this summer. Not every presentation was on the more practical aspects of interpreting and translation but they did all open me up to a greater appreciation of seeing the documents I worked on as complicated, intentional texts that someone was going to use once I was finished with them!

Suddenly, I became a lot more thoughtful and careful about how I translated. Rather than seeing each sentence as an independent unit, I began to think about what the author actually meant, how the text fitted together and how the eventual reader might understand it. Yes, I know that this sort of thing is covered by most good translation courses but the truth is that we can easily forget that someone is going to have to read what we type and listen to what we say.

For me, research and summer school gave me a vital opportunity to reflect on my own work and how I could improve it. Nowadays, much of my reflection ends up being done as part of my part-time PhD, in discussions with other professionals and service users or, you’ve guessed it, while writing blog articles. It actually doesn’t matter how I turn over these issues and reexamine what I do, what matters is that I make space and time to do it.

In our busy lives we can often forget that, as John Maxwell points out in Leadership Gold, experience isn’t the best teacher; evaluated experience is! Each of us will have a different way of evaluating our experience and learning from it. For some, it could come in the useful discipline of compiling, tagging and sorting terminology. For others, writing a diary entry on your work at the end of each week might be more useful. For still others, you might find that you learn best in discussion with others or in some form of writing.

For brand new translators and interpreters, the idea of intentionally learning might seem a bit strange. After all, how much can you learn before you start getting regular work? And what good was your degree if you still need to learn? Trust me, if you take the time, even a few minutes a month, to find a way of intentionally recording your experiences and what you have learned from them, it won’t be long until you see a difference.

Starting Out pt. 3

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 16, 2010

We’re all in this together

I want to start this article by admitting to a secret vice: I actually like the High School Musical films. And yes, I really am 26 and not 6. While the school in those films is nothing like the high school I attended (I never did see anyone dancing in the corridors) there are a few times when the writers hit the nail on the head. And there is one song which sums up perfectly the content of this post: “we’re all in this together.”

Now, those of you fortunate enough to have gained a business-based education will know that everyone starting a business should have a business plan. Part of this plan is an analysis of your competition and, hopefully, how you will get more work than them. In free-market, capitalist economics, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive and you have to hustle others out of the way so that you end up on top.

Thankfully, in the world of translation and interpreting, you don’t need to eat dogs. Oddly enough, in this industry, despite what you might have been told, it’s your ability to collaborate, network and relate to others that will get you on top, not your ability to kick them out of the way.

Take conference interpreting, not only do you do all your work in teams but, to join AIIC, the association for the best in the industry, you need to know people who are already members and who are happy to back your application. To get full, qualified membership of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK, not only do you need to have worked like a crazy thing but you need referees who are happy to say what a lovely, capable person you are.

What about gaining new clients, surely that’s all about standing out from the crowd. Well, yes and no. In many cases, you will still be stuck in the crowd unless you know someone who is happy to put in a good word for you and recommend your services. Sometimes to keep clients, you might have to turn the tables and know someone trustworthy to help them out when you are unavailable.

What’s the common denominator? You need to know people. It’s kind of obvious when you think about it. The business world has been trying to tell us this for years with the insistence on networking and relationship management. The problem is that we language professionals have often been too busy polishing our CVs and agonising over terminology to pay attention.

Now’s the time to change that. For those of you who are new to the profession, learning the lesson now and practising it by going to industry events, frequenting online fora and commenting on translator and interpreter blogs (hint) will pay dividends later on. For those of you who are a little further on, carving out some time to build new relationships might not only stave off the dreaded translator’s loneliness but might also provide a useful source of help and work.

It’s simple really. We are professionals dealing in communication. If we can learn to communicate effectively and readily with those around us, we can only benefit.

Starting Out pt. 2

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 9, 2010

What else can you do?

It’s one of the longest running debates in the industry: to specialise or not to specialise, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageously specific texts on an everyday basis, or to take arms against a sea of terminology and by opposing it, end it, or at least hardly ever see it again.

Okay, okay, it’s not quite that tragic. Mind you, it is an interesting question for new freelancers. In this short article, I want to suggest that, unless you already have a sea of clients waiting for your expertise or an absolutely fail-safe strategy for gaining them quickly, you might want to consider the option of flexibility, at least in the beginning.

I won’t bore you with a long, involved argument. I am sure most of you have heard it all before. About the only thing I can add is this: while I have found that clients like to know a few areas you are more experienced in, they will never stop asking the question “what else can you do?” You can crow about your experience in analytical chemistry all you like but they might still offer you website work. Even more shocking, you might only have been trained as a translator but if you have other skills, like handling complex spreadsheets or editing for style, you will get a lot more work.

Why is that? Are clients inherently lazy? I don’t think so. The real answer is that they are looking for “go to” people, collaborators who can help them out when they are in a pinch, add that extra something to their work to wow clients or simply people who will roll up their sleeves and help out when needed.

Now, what I am not saying is that you should take on work that you are not able to do. If, like me, your medical expertise extends to just about managing to open a child-proof cap on a paracetamol bottle, you should not be touching medical records. Similarly, if the last time you were in church was when flairs were fashionable, Christian translation is not where you should be working.

But, there is a huge variety of more general texts that need work. There is also a veritable mountain of language related tasks that clients might need help with. If you can prove that you are happy to proofread someone else’s work, sort out formatting, compile terminology from translation memories or even help someone on a research project, you will gain favour with your clients. To use the buzz-phrase that has been going about, you are looking to become a Language Services Provider. You want your clients to say “we can rely on x. We know that s/he will always do a good job for us.”

Given time, you might find that you have the financial space to really target a smaller set of clients and become more specialist in the projects you take on. Until that time, a little bit of flexibility, within the confines of your abilities, will go a long way.

Believe it or not, it will also help when it does come time to say “no.” Even the most multi-skilled translator or interpreter will sometimes come across texts and tasks that they cannot do. If you have proven yourself reliable before, your “no” is far more likely to be read as an honest and sincere account of your abilities and care for the client’s welfare than rank laziness and unhelpfulness.

You can make it even better by recommending someone who just might be able to do the job. In fact, if you do that, you have just proven that you have another skill and your client is likely to come back to you again. I don’t have space to list the amazing people who have been all to happy to help out when needed and who have won my loyalty by doing so. The one thing they all have in common though is simply their desire to be helpful, it’s something we all need!

Starting Out pt. 1

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 2, 2010

When All Else Fails, Keep Trying

Over the next few weeks, I am going to post a number of articles to try to help people who are either new to the translation and interpreting industry or those who are considering joining us. Since I have only been in the industry for around three years myself, the pains, pleasures, trials and achievements of starting out are still fresh enough, sometimes painfully fresh!

This week, I am going to cover an area which might be the most uncomfortable for some of you to read: good old tenacity. You see, what we all wish was that we could start by winning every translation or interpreting job, keeping every client happy and turning out perfect work every time. Sadly, that’s not how it goes. The shocking, annoying truth is that, at least to begin with, your greatest asset is not your shiny CV or your fancy degree but your sheer inability to give up.

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s how it all started for me. I left uni and, being an optimist, I thought work would pick up quickly. Being a realist, I knew that, at least to begin with, I could do with a part-time job. So, due to some prior experience in the “thrilling” world of call centres, I managed to land a part-time job taking calls from utility sales people. My plan was simple, in the meantime, I would email loads of agencies, join proz and put in as many quotes as I could. By the time my degree certificate arrived in the post (I graduated in absentia) I would have a stable client base and could leave the part-time job.

Needless to say, it didn’t work like that. It was nearly six months after I left uni and three months after I graduated that I gained my first piece of paid translation work. It was almost two years until I landed my first interpreting assignment. In the meantime, I had lost the part-time job, sent out too many quotes to count and been extremely grateful for a wife who was working full-time.

It’s not even as if that first job spelled consistent work. History would record that I never did work for that particular client again, despite them being happy with the job. For the past three years, I have seen months without work and months where there didn’t seem to be enough hours to get all the work done. I have seen days where all I could find to do was to faff about on the internet and others where meals felt like a distraction.

At any point in that journey, and especially during the lean months, I could easily have packed it all in, torn up my professional CV and found a more stable job. I am sure that other translators reading this could tell similar stories of how many times they have been sorely tempted to do the same thing.

So what keeps us here? How come we all lasted? Well, I believe that at least one of the reasons is that few of us would want to do any other job. We actually enjoy our work (at least most of the time) and we have managed to grow a healthy realism about its ups and downs. Freelance translation and interpreting is not an inherently stable career and it says something about the character of its most experienced characters that they managed to last through their share of economic peaks and troughs.

Yes, there will be a time when you will have clients queueing up and enough work on a consistent basis to pay your bills and live comfortably. But that time will not come overnight. You just might have to wait a few years, put up with a few knocks and write a few hundred quotes before that time comes. The question is, can you afford, both mentally and financially, to pay the price to get there? If you say yes to that, you have another question to answer: are you happy to keep paying the price, even when you don’t see an immediate pay-off? Answer those two questions in the affirmative and you are on your way.