Community Lives: Mentoring initiatives

The idea of an experienced, older individual counseling a younger charge is an ancient one reaching back to classical Greek mythology. Mentoring has been practiced through the ages and has now found vogue in corporate culture as a means of growing and refining the skills that modern business requires.

The word mentoring derives from the character Mentor, a friend of the Greek hero Odysseus. Mentor was given the task of educating Telemachus, son of Odysseus, at the time of the Trojan War. The relationship between teacher and student developed further in ancient Athens resulting in the Socratic method of educational inquiry focusing on teacher-student discussion. One of Socrates’ pupils, Xenophon, went on to write the Cyropaedia, which translates as The Education of Cyrus. This document, describing the training of an ideal ruler and written around 370 BCE, exerted an influence far beyond its time — into the medieval and Renaissance eras when Machiavelli famously authored The Prince.

The arts, science and academia have also profited from such nurturing arrangements. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci honed his genius in the workshop of the Florentine master Verrocchio. Mathematician Bernhard Riemann was advised by Carl Friedrich Gauss and went on to profoundly influence the development of a number of important branches of science and technology. More complicated but still-productive relationships were formed between, for example, philosophers Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, as well as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, who wrote theories on computers and programming in the mid-1800s.

Such mentoring ventures were, however, not confined to Europe. Teacher/disciple relationships are common to many disciplines, religions and philosophies in which the transmission of wisdom is involved. Instances are found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, and are still in use to this day.

In the present era, from the 1960s onward, corporate business has made extensive use of mentoring programs to a variety of ends, from nurturing raw talent to developing potential to knowledge transfer. Whatever the application, mentoring has been an integral part of creating effective leaders in all manner of pursuits.

It is no surprise that the scope of these programs has extended to other business areas and, in this instance, to translation and localization. Young professional linguists wishing to join this exciting venture will unquestionably benefit from being mentored by experienced individuals, allowing for more effective multilingual communication and increased monetization.

There are many mentoring initiatives in our industry, mainly spearheaded by associations for translators and interpreters and usually are language or country specific.


The ATA mentoring program

Perhaps the best known such mentoring program is designed as a member benefit of the American Translators Association (ATA). Any ATA member can apply to become a mentee and there are numerous talented translators and interpreters who are experts in a wide variety of fields, including literature and opera. The ATA Mentoring Committee matches mentors and mentees with the main objective of conveying the business side of the translation and interpreting profession to the mentees. The pairing is not according to language or location and mentor and mentee will decide jointly on the modus operandi of the mentoring year, which begins and ends in April. It is the mentee’s responsibility to drive the mentoring relationship — to set goals, stay in touch with their mentor, and establish milestones for themselves. It is the mentor’s responsibility to be there with advice and encouragement. 

Caitilin Walsh, the ATA president for 2013-2015, stated that “our program is structured to provide mentees a chance to delve into the business aspects of our language enterprise. And because it’s predicated on the learner articulating his or her goals and driving the learning, it reinforces these same skills, which are vital to success.” 

The ATA mentoring program existed in a less structured form for a number of years and in 2010, Susanne van Eyl, an ATA-certified translator from English into German, was invited to become its new chair. “I was given complete freedom to make any changes I wanted, and together with my newly-formed committee we recreated the program in a different format and changed the focus to what it is today,” van Eyl shared. “We initially interviewed previous mentors and found that all of them felt overwhelmed. We unanimously concluded that the agreed-upon time commitment of one hour per month could hardly meet the language-specific enquiries from the mentees. Taking their experience into consideration, we decided that in order to make a volunteer program like this sustainable, we needed to make sure that all parties, especially the mentors, had a positive experience.”

This meant focusing on the business side of things and matching people not by language but by fields of expertise, mentee goals or even, in some cases, particular interests. However, the committee did work to match mentees in languages of lesser diffusion with mentors who work under similar conditions, such as Albanian with Czech, and Hebrew with Finnish, as they deal with similar issues. Mentors and mentees now spend about two hours per month communicating, and the goals mentees set are generally being reached.

The revised ATA program has been active for four years with over 200 mentor-mentee pairs. The success of the program is further validated by the many former mentees who are now active and successful mentors and by managing to attract volunteer conference interpreters from the growing number of mentors.

The issue of sustainability has also been resolved. The ATA has over 70 mentors in its database, and as mentees come in with very specific goals, new mentors who can help with those goals are invited to join the program each year. “This way, not every mentor is needed each year,” said van Eyl. “While we handpicked each one in the beginning and still do when an uncommon goal is listed, we now have quite a few volunteers each year who bring wonderful skills to the table. With that, we feel that the program is sustainable.” mentoring program

Another nonprofit mentoring initiative is the mentoring program, which is language and specialization specific. The program was first conceived by site staff in 2007, but didn’t fully take off until May of 2011. Since then, there have been over 160 pairings of mentors and apprentices, with about 65 experienced language professionals currently acting as site mentors.

Some typical discussion topics within a mentoring pairing include ways to get established in the industry, specializing, marketing tips, business issues and software use, to name a few. Mentors are also encouraged to provide commercial work to their apprentices at an agreed rate, as well as check, edit and provide feedback on any projects delivered by their apprentices. Both parties agree on the amount of time and commitment involved in the pairing and report to the support team to provide feedback on their experiences.

The program’s mission statement is to provide “less-experienced members of the profession with the opportunity to meet and work one-on-one with an established professional translator or interpreter.”

Positive feedback on the program has been received from both mentors and apprentices. Samuel Sebastian Holden Bramah, one of the site’s most active mentors, said he thought it was “an excellent initiative, helping budding translators dive into the complex, rich and exciting world of being a self-employed linguist.”


The ADT initiative

Translator and interpreting programs are designed toward newcomers in our industry, but there are many more aspects to mentoring that we need to address. During the planning of the Bangkok LocWorld Conference in 2014, Rain Lau, language services manager at Google and a member of the program committee, suggested that the problem with professional development was derived from the lack of incoming talent in the industry. Lau, a ten-plus-year veteran in localization, is passionate about localization quality and is involved in Google’s roll out of “readability” as a quality category. She is also an active member of Women at Google, a group that aims to support women within and outside Google, and a key mentor in one of the group’s mentoring programs in Taiwan addressed to female university students. It was only natural that she wanted to extend her activities to include aspects that are not traditionally handled by mentoring programs, such as evangelizing and attracting new, talented professionals.

During the LocWorld conference and thanks to the extensive connections of Ulrich Henes of The Localization Institute, an initial advisory committee was gradually formed.

The basic ideas and concepts discussed during the initial brainstorming sessions of the advisory committee were whether our industry is adequately known and whether people know what translation and localization are. Most importantly, the biggest question is whether our industry is attractive enough to pull in new, high-quality people.

Thus, Attracting and Developing Talent (ADT) was formed. Its main functions are better defining what talent we need; bridging the gap between industry and education; creating an ecosystem allowing better career development; and evangelizing. The ADT Initiative, led by Ulrich Henes, is working on putting together a new advisory board for 2016. Current activities include planning an internship summit to be held at LocWorld Silicon Valley in October, and looking at creating a portal for all matters relating to attracting and developing talent for the localization industry.


The Translation Commons
   Mentoring Think Tank

Translation Commons is a newly formed nonprofit online language community, formed in 2015. Its objective is to allow members to collaborate through an open-source platform of translation and localization tools and engage in language-related activities stemming from within the community. While creating the platform, a LinkedIn group was formed and it has already attracted over 1,600 members. Throughout the various discussions that have taken place in LinkedIn, the important concept of mentoring inspired a small team to create a subgroup, the Mentoring Think Tank, with the purpose of creating a standardized framework for mentoring internships of students, graduates or new language professionals with freelance translators and interpreters. The group is currently working on a questionnaire to be released over the summer of 2015 and is gathering information from as large a section of our industry as possible. The ultimate objective of the group is to create a standard or guideline with a list of all competencies that the mentee needs to have before the onset of mentoring, a list of objectives for the period of mentoring and a list of tools to help document them. Following the same principle, the team is creating guidelines for the mentors so both parties can track themselves. The generation of these guidelines is stemming from the experience of the members of the Think Tank. Here are some of the members’ descriptions of their motivation for volunteering.

Nancy Matis has been involved in the translation business for around 20 years, working as a translator, reviser, technical specialist, project manager and teacher, among other roles. She currently manages her own company based in Belgium and also teaches translation project management at Université Lille 3 (France), KU Leuven (Belgium), Hogeschool Gent (Belgium) as well as at Haute Ecole de Bruxelles ISTI (Belgium) and is the author of the ebook How to manage your translation projects

As a result of the work she performs through her agency, Matis collaborates with a variety of freelance professionals on a daily basis. These range from translators and revisers to desktop publishers and other technical experts, and include translation project managers. Although several of them welcome interns every year, mentoring by freelancers is still far from becoming a common practice in the industry. “I believe that a standard would help inspire trust and confidence,” said Matis. “Not only would freelancers feel more secure about their ability to mentor translation students, or even colleagues wishing to improve their skills or develop new ones, but translation schools and universities would also feel more at ease entrusting freelancers with this task.”

Another member, Birgit Böttner, has been a sworn translator for over 20 years. Originally from Germany, she lives in South Africa with her family and writes novels under the pen name Evadeen Brickwood. “The translation industry in South Africa is not as regulated as perhaps in other countries,” said Böttner. “Not every translator is skilled or qualified. When I lectured at WITS University in Johannesburg, I was, on occasion, asked to informally mentor translation students. I was mentored during my studies in Germany. However, the realities and pressures of being a freelance translator in the economic hub of Africa do not allow for the time and expense of mentoring. A possible loss of reputation if the student doesn’t live up to expectations is also a concern. Our mutual cross-continent effort through the Translation Commons will go a long way toward making standards for prerequisites and follow-ups of the mentoring process more accessible everywhere.”

Barbara Werderitsch, a German freelance translator and interpreter living in Madrid, believes that for the translation industry to excel “it must regulate itself, with initiatives and best practices as well as new talent growing from within. To do this, it depends on its independent professionals.” She also believes in “helping all the young professionals learn from us so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time… they are the backbone of our industry, yet there is no standard in place to rely on.” The idea is that standards will be tools “for democratization, in helping to place the freelance translators back at the center of the translation workflow processes, open source initiatives,” and so on.

Diana Nisterenková-Chester, another member-volunteer of the Mentoring Think Tank, is questioning the essential concepts of our profession and the lack of a uniform global approach to qualifications, evaluation and regard of our profession. The lack of general understanding of the linguistic process is at the core of her desire to elevate the profession and therefore mentor newcomers in an effective manner. “Everybody seems to be an expert and have an opinion and advice — even the audacity to masquerade as an interpreter or translator! There is so much talk about interpretation and translation but there is still an unprofessional approach toward the interpreters and translators,” due to the misconception surrounding these “ambiguous but nevertheless very important” social roles.

The Translation Commons Mentoring Think Tank is open to contributions to ensure that everyone in the community is included.


The way forward

The benefits of the structured education and guidance provided by mentoring programs are indisputable. Sir Isaac Newton, appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University in 1669 at the age of 27, famously remarked “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” This generous acknowledgement of his debt to those who nurtured him does, however, contain yet another tacit nugget of wisdom. Newton struck out on his myriad scientific and intellectual investigations by harnessing his own talents.

We can’t all be geniuses like Newton but the same lesson applies across the board. Instead of simply remaining under the shadow of the mentoring they have received and acting like a mere copyist, mentees who strike out on their own and build upon what they have learned from their mentor will be achievers. Innovation and originality have been prized qualities throughout the modern era. If mentoring can stimulate their spread, we will all be much better off.