This text has been inspired by a recent discussion on the ProZ.com Polish forum which concerned being a mentor to people new in the translation business.
The word mentor comes from Latin. In Greek mythology Mentor (with a capital m) was a friend of Odysseus responsible for educating Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Dictionary definition of the word reads “a trusted counsellor or guide” and “tutor, coach” (Webster on-line). In translation, a mentor is a person who gives you guidance, answers translation-related questions and, most importantly, gives you tips on how to start out as a translator. Those who have or had a mentor are probably very appreciative of all guidance they have received, as there is nothing more valuable then reliable advice when lost or in doubt.
What your mentor is and isn’t?
The feel for translation is something you just have to have, as your mentor will not teach you how to translate. What he/she can do, however, is guide you in the process of developing a good style of writing, so that your translations conform to the standards of the target language. Also, if your mentor has some more free time, you can also hope that he/she will help you solve some of your genuine translation problems, provided you have some real work coming. If you are lucky, your mentor can also act as a proof-reader of short excerpts of translations you do. It should not be a problem if you ask what specific online resources or dictionaries he/she uses, as tools are one thing and craftsmanship another.
As far as it goes for the business side of the translation industry, your mentor can also give you advice on how to look for work, how to market your skills, how to improve your CV and how to write a dynamic and interesting cover letter. Another thing you can hope to find out are names of unreliable agencies or direct customers you should avoid- something really worth knowing!
What you cannot and should not hope your mentor to give you is 24/7 linguistic or marketing support. He/she is busy enough without you adding to the list so be selective in what you ask or how you ask it. Remember, translators spend hours staring at our computer screens so format your emails properly so that your specific questions are easy to spot. Never ask your mentor for suggestions of names of clients, or worse for his/her client database! It took them some time to compile what they have and there is no reason why you should not follow the same route they did. Another thing that shall never be mentioned are their personal glossaries, TMs or self-compiled mini-dictionaries. Again this is something they have worked hard for, first translating all the complex and complicated texts and then laboriously putting all the terms in the right format.
How to find a mentor?
It is never easy to find a person who is willing to help you in their free time and, more importantly, totally for free. Difficult, however, does not mean it is impossible! Probably the easiest way is to ask your university tutor after you complete the course whether he/she would agree to support you for a defined period of time. In my case, my mentor has also been my university lecturer and I cannot tell you how many times her advice has proved to be absolutely invaluable.
It can be more difficult if you do know any academics nor experienced translators personally, but where there is a will, there is a way. Possibly, the easiest way is to look on the Internet. Visit translation websites (easily found via google) and select a few experienced translators of your language pair. In the e-mail you send to them, write about your education, so far experience and skills. Remember that no one will take on a student who does not sound promising or is unable to demonstrate that they are worth the time. Also, by participating in powwows organized by members of the ProZ.com website, you can actually get to know some of the translator in real life.
One other option is to enquire with associations such as IoL or ITI whether they offer support programmes. I know that the latter – ITI – runs a programme called Peer Support Group, which I am about to test myself. It is a three-month on-line course, but I do not know any more details as yet.
To sum up, having a mentor can definitely help you start out as a translator; it builds your confidence and develops your overall skills, however, if you do not commit yourself fully, even the greatest of all mentors will not be able to help you establish your career in this ever competitive industry.