For the past few months, I have been working on a draft of my first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence. It has been an amazing and sometimes nerve-wracking process that has taught me far more than just writing. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that I learned as much from the process of writing the book as I did from researching the content. Here are my top five lessons.
#1 Never Stop Learning
This might not be a welcome lesson for those who can still smell the fear of their final exams. Still, the single most important message of the book is that we can never afford to stop developing. If we want great clients, we need to be great translators and interpreters. The only path to greatness is through finding mentors, researching resources and doing courses. In short, no one gets better without the same kinds of hard work and discipline that it took to get your degree, only now the only person in charge of your development is you.
One of the most fascinating and yet scary realisations that I had when writing the book was that, despite the recent growth in translators and interpreters looking for CPD, we can often fall into the trap of learning in a haphazard, almost random way. We see a nice MOOC or a cool looking online course and sign up without ever asking if that is the best use of our time and money right now. Or maybe that’s just me.
In her recent article in the ITI Bulletin, Anne de Freyman pointed out something similar. She noted that we are all ready to throw ourselves into classes and day courses on business, marketing, writing, and the like but often fall behind when it comes to sharpening our key, unique skills of translation and interpreting. After writing an entire chapter on the need for CPD that is targeted and strategic, I now know I need to get the balance right.
#2 Expertise is Everywhere
If I told you there were experts in nutrition for interpreters, marketing in the language industries, and interpreting in business negotiations, would you be surprised? What if I said there was an interpreter who is also a comedian or a drummer who teaches interpreters how to train their brains to make fewer mistakes?
These are just a small selection of some of my colleagues who appear in the book in one shape or form. The truth is, whatever you need to improve about your business or work, there is at least one, if not several experts ready to give you a hand. It is simply a case of finding them.
#3 Never Stop Asking Questions, Especially Tough Ones
Just sometimes, I get accused of being slightly cheeky. It’s a habit I picked up growing up as the youngest of four children in a family where we could jump from deep and meaningful theological and political discussions to groan-worthy pun fests within seconds. One of the wonderful habits I was encouraged to pick up was to ensure that I didn’t take things at face value but asked questions. It’s a habit that sometimes gets me into trouble, but life wouldn’t be the same without it.
We all need to ask good questions. If we don’t ask the question “am I getting any better as a translator or interpreter?”, the answer will almost certainly be “no.” If we don’t ask “is there a better way to do this?”, we will almost certainly get stuck doing things ineffectively. If we never ask “is that perspective or idea actually sound?”, we will get taken in by all manner of charlatans and well-meaning but wrong advice-givers.
In every chapter of the book, I go out of the way to question our basic assumptions about interpreting. I ask if neutrality is workable. I ask if doing the job is enough to make you improve. I ask if our current expectations of professional associations are realistic and helpful and more besides. As uncomfortable as it was at times to be confronted with points of view and analyses that disrupted my comfortable ways of doing my job, I realised quickly that the discomfort of being shown to be wrong would be less painful than the shock of thinking I was right, only for real-life to say otherwise in the form of tumbling rates and strained cash-flow.
#4 If You’ve Never Cried, You’ve Never Tried
Of the five lessons, this was the harshest, but most crucial to learn. While I haven’t received anything near the 1000 rejections one writer claims to have had, I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of difficult feedback. From the translation agency who claimed I single-handedly lost them a client to the editor who rearranged an article I wrote so it would read better, none of them have been easy. On one or two occasions, I have found myself so emotionally spent afterwards that tears have been the only response I was capable of. But that has never been the end.
Early on in my career, I used to let rejections put me off trying for days or even weeks at a time. Once, I allowed myself to nearly give up because I had three potential clients, with whom I desperately wanted to work, decline my services in a week. But the bills still needed to be paid and my time still needed to be filled.
The truth is that we simply won’t get to the point of being a published author or a successful translator or interpreter without experiencing the pain of rejection or negative feedback. What makes the difference is how we deal with those negatives. Sometimes it is okay to cry, but there will always be a tomorrow. We will always need to come to the point where we decide whether this one rejection means game over or whether it will just be another step towards where we want to go.
#5 Don’t Ignore Your “Pointless Hobby”
This is the point where I have to confess to a bad habit. In my first four years as a freelancer, I wasn’t very fond of marketing. In fact, it was such a bore to me (I was doing it wrong!) that I often let it drift. So, instead of sending my CV to another raft of agencies or cold calling interesting multinationals, I would sit on the couch and read interpreting research.
While it wasn’t exactly the most financially rewarding use of my time, it did lead to starting a PhD, a practical PhD at that. The process of doing the PhD while still working led me to the idea of linking research to practice, which, to cut a very convoluted story short, led to me becoming a columnist for two industry magazines and then to the book. To date, my “pointless hobby” has seen me speak in six countries, sign a contract with a large publisher and create several webinars.
You probably have a “pointless hobby” too. It’s that thing you do when you have lots of time and not enough work. It’s what you procrastinate with or what you end up doing when you are stressed. It helps you relax, but you might not openly mention it at parties. Yet, with a bit of creativity, it could be an incredibly rewarding and useful source of income and fun. Sure, there might not be lots of clients offering translation work in clog dancing or snail farming, but you never know how you might combine your esoteric hobby with your existing language skills to do something incredible.
As with most of freelancing, it always is up to you. We have never had to follow the paths set by others and we don’t need thousands of clients, just enough for us to maintain a business with the income we want. By learning, asking questions, growing and trying new things, we just might find a way of working that is as unique as we are and as brilliant as we want to be.
Jonathan Downie is a French to English and English to French conference interpreter, based in Edinburgh, UK, where he lives with his wife and two children. He recently submitted a PhD on expectations of interpreters in churches. His first book, Being a Successful Interpreter: Adding Value and Delivering Excellence was published by Routledge in the Spring of 2016.
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