Today I am inspired by a post by in The League of Extraordinary Translators, where a colleague asked what to say to qualified people who have never translated who have come to you for advice on how to succeed in translation.

What advice to give

The first part of this question is less problematic; essentially, you give them some general advice and refer them to external resources. We don’t have endless time to spare, and as is commonly observed, many of those with the required acumen to succeed will have already made some headway on their own.

I do think it’s okay to give some initial advice, but I do keep it pretty brief, and have a standard answer that I give which covers most of the basics. This answer primarily provides other sources of advice in the form of groups, blogs, books and associations. I also share some advice on training, specialisation and my idea of the right attitude to achieve success.

The right attitude

A small note regarding attitude, since it is coming up a lot in the translation world these days, and I do mention it in my standard answer.

My opinion on attitude is that we must encourage inexperienced translators to take themselves seriously as a business. When they’ve grasped what this means, that they must work hard on bettering themselves to achieve the success they desire, it’s pretty simple. Everything else will follow from this quick realisation, which in my experience is so instantaneous and innate in good people that I can afford to dispense that advice that will plant the right seeds for free and in a matter of minutes. Then it is time to sit back and enjoy watching those seeds grow (it’s inspiring).

Finding the right attitude, however, is something that even quite experienced translators feel they need some help with. With that in mind, this part is addressed to everyone. You can take it or leave it, but I will say I’m a freelance translator and copywriter who makes an income somewhere in the upper 10% in Germany, and I’m not charging you for my opinion (but there are no refunds!).

I would say the right attitude is knowing you’re a business, and to succeed you have to constantly invest in your skills. It’s thinking and working hard to creatively find ways to improve oneself that suit one’s natural talents, experience and abilities. It is talent, after all, and not attitude, that ensures people can impress and retain good clients who pay premium fees.

The right attitude is not something that can be sold or taught to you in the form of a 12-part fluff collection. Anyone trying to sell you something so drawn out and insubstantial (indeed, ‘invisible’) must be treated with great suspicion. Mutual flattery and a shared belief is very bonding, but is it actually taking anyone any further?

But I digress: the biggest question to ask any coach is what they are earning and, most importantly, how they are earning it. If you’re looking at a course taught by someone who does not themselves make at least 85% of their living working as directly as a freelance translator or interpreter (coaching translators or running an agency does not count, obviously), then they have little to teach freelance translators or interpreters (and perhaps even less – they had to turn to coaching or running an agency to make their living, after all).

The important thing to consider is that we, as professionals, don’t have time to help everyone who requests help – if we have any advice worth giving, the chances are we are rather busy with work. It can be easy to end up unofficially coaching various people if you give away your assistance too willingly. Meanwhile, there may be others around, not asking for help, who could really do with a little tip once in a while but don’t ask for it. Those same people might in fact be closer to your own level, at least in terms of talent if not success. I do still help people out, but it’s more an act of love: it’s mutual (in one way or other), it’s positive, it’s respectful, and always given freely.

Helping the wrong people

If you’re going to give advice, you need to be selective in terms of whom you actually advise, otherwise it can end up blowing up in your face.

Let me start by giving you some background. I used to give advice to anyone who asked for it. I guess originally I was flattered, or I felt terribly guilty for not helping them as much as I could. That won me a lot of grateful people, but also a lot of ungrateful ones, and others whom I simply helped and never heard from again, without so much as a word as to whether they’d acted on what we discussed.

I previously wrote a post in which I detailed some particularly nasty effects of helping people, experienced mostly in the past year. It changed my attitude, as I realised how much people take free advice for granted, and how reliant some people can be on you always being around to help them. You can end up accidentally opening yourself up to plagiarism and emulation, which is a rather large problem within this industry. You can also end up being held responsible for people’s lack of success, or called ‘arrogant’, a ‘liar’ or worse for merely presenting your own experience of the industry with the intent to inspire and assist.

Alternatively, you can simply end up being befriended and betrayed by people who only ever wanted to use you.

Be selective

This is a profession full of interesting and inspiring people. It includes world-class entrepreneurs, highly qualified experts, and people who make it their life’s mission to change and improve our world in whatever way they can. Independent, worldly minds.

On the other hand, this profession also lends itself to the type of person who cannot commit, who has run away from the people who know them, and may have been unable to hold down a normal job. Harsh, but true.

Based on what I have learned, I am now far more selective regarding whom I will actually assist and when I am available for them. Only those who double as friends and who also assist me are able to occasionally distract me from my work with a specific request for advice – just as I do them.

I ‘dumped’ the people who kept coming to me for advice on simple matters they could simply google or ask about in The League. I became fed up with people asking advice on things I clearly have no idea about (such as very different markets, languages, clients, specialisations or service offerings). This is also part of why I deactivated my Facebook profile for a while (and am still not sure I will keep it active), because I had had enough of people bugging me multiple times a day. Real friends and trusted colleagues can find me elsewhere when they need me.

That said, I will repeat that I do find it rewarding to help people. I did find it rewarding to help those people I didn’t know who approached me for advice. Just these days, I’m simply too busy to help everyone, and so I’m much more careful with my time and who I dedicate it to.

Look for the right signs

Next time you are considering helping anyone beyond a standardised answer similar to the one I linked to above, try to spot certain red and green flags, as follows:

  • Red flags
    • Asking very basic questions they could find the answer to online
    • Not listening to advice
    • Signs of envy and jealousy both towards you and as a character trait
      • Be SO careful with these ones!
    • Generally not being a very nice person
      • i.e. the way they talk about others, particularly how they treat and talk about service staff, colleagues, family, other friends and strangers.
    • A ‘dark’, disturbed, unpredictable or irrational personality
    • Excessive self-belief
      • The people I am currently advising on things now and again are all accurate or overly humble in their assessments of themselves and their own abilities.
    • Unrealistic expectations and ambitions
      • A certain amount of ambition is needed, but generally I am concerned if someone new wants to go straight for direct clients while still establishing a specialisation, or expects to skip certain steps in self-improvement.
    •  Inappropriate requests for help
      • i.e. things they have to do for themselves, such as their work, finding clients, and communications and marketing in their mother tongue. Help like that can be offered, but not requested/demanded.
    • No respect for your time
      • Emails that take forever to get to the point, messages on Facebook/Skype/Google at any time of day, not getting the hint when you need to work.
    • Scary desire to go into business/approach clients/work together, despite not knowing each other
      • Run. Just run. This is a very desperate person who might also be a bit unstable.
    • Direct requests for referrals, recommendations and work, despite not knowing each other
      • See above. Not quite so scary, but still inappropriate and desperate.
    • Lack of commitment to improving their skills
    • Lack of interest in collaborating with or having their work assessed by you or others
      • Assuming the others are actually relatively competent.
    • Plain lack of talent
      • There – I said it – not everyone can succeed, and I don’t see the point in prolonging their misery or helping them to effectively screw over their clients.
    • Lack of commitment to their specialisations
      • Not the same as not having decided specialisations for certain – that’s common among newbies, but they should ‘get it’ soon and realise what they want to do and be prepared to put in the work to improve and remain on top form.
    • Trend-following in terms of specialisations, markets, and service offerings
      • Seriously, don’t think that copywriting is just putting nice words on a page *groan*, don’t do medical just because your medical translator friend is doing well, and don’t become an agency just because you had a busy week or want to earn more money.
  • Green flags
    • TALENT
      • There is nothing more fulfilling on this Earth than helping someone talented achieve the success and income they deserve. You get to be happy not just about your own successes, but theirs, too! On top of this, you may even find you have a potential collaboration partner, someone to refer work to, or someone to consult when tackling a tricky sentence or client email. There is a friend (notice the choice of word?) I’ve helped in Berlin who translates in the other direction with practically the same specialisations. We help and refer each other and will be attending a trade show together later this year. Seeing him succeed has really made me so happy. He really deserves it. I just nudged him in the right direction, planted a few seeds, and *poof*: there’s a lush forest! :D
    • The acknowledgement that success requires self-improvement
      • My friend Marta runs a great course for newbie translators, and those people tend to do well. But then, those people with the introspection to know where they need to improve to succeed and seek out professional help are probably the type to succeed anyway.
    • Willingness to seek professional help
      • I’m always impressed when a relative newbie decides to hire a professional web designer, graphic designer or copywriter when they lack these skills themselves. It took me an embarrassingly long time on the graphic design front (I do my websites and copy myself).
    • Willingness to listen
      • Give up with those people who keep arguing when you’ve told them what you would do, because they will (give up).
    • Willingness to try what you suggest
      • It’s discouraging when people don’t follow-through.
    • Gratitude
      • Not saying they should lick your arse, but “Please”, “Thank you!”, “If you have time,” and “Have a nice day!” go a long way…
    • A clear USP
      • Be it exceptional insight, specialisation, qualifications, experience or other skills.
    • Specialisation
    • Qualifications
    • Experience
      • In the real world, in 9-5 business, in translation and in their specialist fields.
    • A nice personality…
      • Observe how they interact with other people whom they do not want anything from.
    • …and also a healthy amount of cynicism
      • To succeed in business, we have to be able to accept that the world is not all sweetness and light, and that if you keep throwing around rainbows, one will eventually come back like a boomerang and smack you in the face.

Did that help?

Hope it did. If you feel I missed something, please add it below in the comments. With your permission, I can also add it to the main list.