How and who to helpToday 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 who 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 who 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/or been unable to hold down a normal job. Harsh, but true.

Based on what I have learned, I am now far more selective regarding who 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! 😀
    • 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 who 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.

About the Author:

Rose Newell is a British-born, Berlin-based copywriter and translator specialising in high end and high tech. Rose works exclusively with direct clients, mostly located in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. This blog is a labour of love for colleagues, not a sales funnel for paid membership groups, webinars, seminars, courses or coaching services. As one of those who has consistently spoken out against instagurus, readers can trust this blog will never be monetised. Truly successful translators have no need for the pittance generated by such activities.

13 Comments

  1. Pili 23/06/2016 at 8:40 pm - Reply

    Hi Rose

    I only wanted to say that, as someone who is trying to get back into translation/interpreting, I am finding your blog very useful. Thanks for writing! Had there been people like you sharing their experiences when I graduated (BA Translation, 2000), I wouln’t have wasted a 4-year degree to go into teaching. On the plus side, teaching has been and continues to be rewarding too! Currently looking into MA Translation to brush up. Hopefully not too late for me!

  2. Skrivanek Group 20/07/2015 at 1:24 am - Reply

    Dear Rose,

    We enjoyed reading your article, as well as the comments. Sure, there’s a ton of so-called “professional translators” out there in the market. Not only in translation, it goes for all markets. Rose, you’re absolutely right in your response, the internet has opened up networking, marketing, new clientele. Despite all the freelance help and others that carry the label “translation agency,” I have found that hood quality work wins most of the time. When you have a lot on the line or you’ve been in business long enough to know so, you want professional services. You want the job done right, and people respect that, businesses respect that. Looking at translation alone, there’s hundreds of freelance websites offering translation services, that’s just the websites I know of. As a professional translation company, this is the market you compete in. I don’t think it makes it right or wrong either way, but it’s the clients responsibility to research before hiring. I think most that are on a budget will seek freelance translation while established companies tend to go with professional translation services. I know it can be different at times, but that’s what we’ve seen over the years.

    Just wanted to add my opinion Rose, sorry. Excellent points all the way through. The more you help some people, the more they want. Funny how that works out. I always respect the time of others. I never expected anything for free. Translation is a whole new ballgame, some expect everything for free. We hope you don’t mind a few new fans Rose, we enjoyed the article very much.

    • Rose Newell 23/07/2015 at 7:14 am - Reply

      “I think most that are on a budget will seek freelance translation while established companies tend to go with professional translation services. I know it can be different at times, but that’s what we’ve seen over the years.”

      I think this depends very much on your market, and how the freelance translator presents themselves. Many clients have a distimct preference for one model or the other – they may perceive freelance translators to be ‘less professional’ than an agency, or they may prefer the direct communication you can only get when the client is working directly with the translator.

      In my market, with my positioning, and with my specialisations, I am doing very well. I’ve worked with some very big name clients, as well as smaller, quality-focused clients who need their work doing well. I am (much) more expensive than most agencies, so believe me when I say they are not coming to me because I’m cheaper. Rather, one of my sales arguments is that you simply cannot get my services, or the services of certain freelance translators I would recommend, through agencies.

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  4. Raluca-Ioana Cojocaru 10/07/2015 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Hi, Rose. Great article! It reminds me of a post on a Romanian group. The translator was translating the registration certificate of a car (which was only one page long) and needed the meaning of a term. She got an answer with a link to Wikipedia and a highlighted note that Wikipedia is not reliable, but just a starting point for research. The point is: the answer was on the first website of the first page of Google. I think she hadn’t event searched for it because she would have found it. Three hours later she needed another term (for a one page text!!). Sometimes I want to answer their questions but I realize it’s not worth. Ask for my help when you have researched to exhaustion not without even opening your browser! I receive messages from newbies now and then (in Romanian) and I only reply if their grammar is OK. This is a sign that they have a starting point.

  5. Jack Slep 09/07/2015 at 9:31 pm - Reply

    Dear Rose,
    An excellent article with many good points and many of my own feelings and “disgust” of “wannabe” and “think-I-am” translators. After 65 years as a Russian linguist(USAF trained[interpreter, translator, interrogator],industry [civilian translator for major publisher under USAF contract; computational linguist for another company] and full-time, at-home freelancer since 1966, translating on a daily basis 70 different scientific/technical journals, I’m finally retiring after completing my journal translations obligations at the end of the year at age 85. At the beginning there were very few of us thoroughly trained “Russianized” Americans and were in great demand by industry and publishers of Russian journals. We were paid very fairly, given sufficient time for research (there were no “Googles,Wikipedias, etc.” or R>E, E>R, RE disctionaries, glossaries, encyclopedias, or other source materials. I (we) just had to scrounge, research, research, research. Now we have “spoiled brat” translators, not all of course, but still too many, who want answers on a platter, e.g., via ProZ, where most selected Replies to Askers are erroneous, no research, just a roll of the dice and the most “Agrees” win–utter stupidity. I used to Reply but rarely do now, when I really get PO’ed by stupid Replies from “experienced” translators. I reply to Asker’s questions in fields that I know, e.g., periglacial geomorphology, magnetohydrodynamics, molecular genetics, etc., but not to legal, financial, contracts, poetry, marketing, or anything literary because there is no set lexicon as there is in evolving scientific literature which is more or less universal (besides, the aforementioned fields are boring). At first (in 1999 when I first signed up free with ProZ) there were honest questions from professional translators needing help in fields which they were not completely familiar with and competent professional translators would reply. Now most want answers because they are ignorant of the language pair and no or little knowledge of the subject matter. Many “translation agencies” work out of a phone booth, so to speak, pay nothing, and want the translation back before you get the work. I’ll cut this short, though I could go on forever about the devolution of professional translation–enuff said…

    • Rose Newell 10/07/2015 at 8:00 am - Reply

      Dear Jack,
      Wow, your experience is quite humbling. 65 years of experience, with clear specialisations. You must have observed so many changes and trends, and developed some sort of sixth sense about who is going to succeed and struggle. Fascinating!
      I have a friend who believes there is a total paradigm shift in the industry roughly every seven years. I started in 2006, and I can say that already in that time things have changed massively.
      I think some of what we are seeing is an effect of globalisation and the ‘Internet Era’. There are fewer (if any) barriers to entry to the profession, and yet demand for translators has probably increased, albeit also from sectors with lower standards than the examples you gave.
      I agree regarding the state of most translation agencies being quite appalling. Good ones still exist, but my definition varies somewhat to the definition commonly used by my colleagues. It takes a bit more than paying promptly within 30 days to impress me…
      One agency owner once revealed to me that most agency owners are not earning more than 55k EUR. This includes successful ones with government contracts. This shocked me, since I know many translators – including ones who work solely with agencies – who make an income in excess of that. I find that concerning, since naturally such people will be more prone to perpetuating the poverty mindset and pushing prices down, since they are not doing that great themselves but will expect translators to be doing worse. Not good…
      …One thing that is interesting (and positive) in the face of all this is the high demand good translators can see, the second they manage to break through the mass of competitors and win repeat direct clients. Once I sorted my marketing out a few years ago I was quickly able to get out that agency hole, and I hope others will do the same.
      Congratulations on your upcoming retirement, by the way. I hope you have some great plans for what to do next. I imagine that, too, will take some adjusting.
      All the best, and thanks for commenting!
      Rose

  6. amanda Hunter 06/07/2015 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Thank you Rose for taking the time to write and share this. I am not in your league and so don’t get approached (or pestered!) for help from newbie translators (and if I’m honest, yes I am a tad jealous!!) …however, from my own experience in other fields (teaching, especially) I am familiar with the parasitic type who just take, take, take, never give, seldom thank you and, when the time comes, forget you ever existed!! In some cases, they may even attempt to steal your clients…

    You give a lot to the translation community, Rose, and I don’t need to say: “keep up the good work” because people as dedicated as you are to their profession and professional growth rarely need any encouragement!!

    • Rose Newell 10/07/2015 at 8:14 am - Reply

      Hi Amanda,

      It’s always lovely to receive comments like that from colleagues I don’t directly know. 🙂

      And yes, parasites… exactly. Then there are those who will plagiarise your website while selling themselves as creative. Because you know, that’s how you market yourself… Since when did creative mean so unoriginal you have to resort to plagiarism? Dear me…

      Thank you so much for the high praise. It’s really appreciated! 🙂

  7. Ellen 06/07/2015 at 11:11 am - Reply

    I have been blessed by the generosity of so many colleagues as I set up shop as a translator. I’m glad there are so many willing to answer questions and advice, including you!

    • Rose Newell 10/07/2015 at 8:15 am - Reply

      Thanks, Ellen! You’re one of those with a fair few visible green flags and no red ones, so I’m not surprised so many colleagues were happy to help you. 🙂 I hope it’s all going well!

  8. Allison Wright 05/07/2015 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    A good summary for those who try to help new entrants to the profession, and for new entrants themselves, Rose.
    Your point about the positive impact experienced translators can make in private did not go unnoticed either.
    I also encourage younger translators to read reputable translation blogs (or blogs by reputable translators) on a regular basis. There is a wealth of material online; selective reading and judicious choices of material will help new translators form their own opinions, and – obviously – provide fresh insight to those who have been around the block a couple of times.

    • Rose Newell 10/07/2015 at 8:19 am - Reply

      Thanks, Allison.
      Yes, I agree. It helps to share our thoughts with others and learn from people, wherever they are, since people can have surprising new insights based on their own very different experiences starting out in today’s market. It’s also very rewarding.
      Thanks for the comment!

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