4-3 People Get Paid to Know That:Maximizing and Expanding the Value of Your Expertise


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A successful translator or interpreter never stops learning. Language industry professionals pick up a great deal of specialized knowledge, but not everybody knows how to use this resource well. In his presentation, Derek Wessman used his own experience in the industry to illustrate how to make the best of your specialist knowledge to branch out into other fields of specialization, benefitting both you and your clients. His recommendations can be broken down into eight parts.

1. Take an opportunity.

At the beginning of Wessman’s career, he often found work opportunities that he might not have had back home by virtue of being a bilingual native English speaker in Japan. Audience members who had lived abroad could relate to his experiences of a chance conversation on a train leading to an interpreting job, or of sudden requests to teach English, organize a seminar or perform some other task outside their job descriptions. While we may often have good reasons for turning down these jobs, some of them are challenging opportunities that are well worth taking. There is no knowing where saying “yes” might lead.

2. Work to gain proficiency.

Everybody, no matter how knowledgeable, was an amateur at one point. Becoming an expert may seem a formidable task, but the first goal in learning something new is to master the basic concepts, plus the 50 to 100 key terms needed to discuss it. After that initial hurdle, you can begin to learn about the field in more depth. For example, Wessman first learned about FDA guidelines for marketing medical devices in the US after being asked to interpret at a conference. He knew very little about the field initially but gained expertise over time through study as well as practical work experience.

3. Look for needs, especially bilingual/bicultural ones.

As you become more involved in your chosen field, you should begin observing trends and keep an eye out for any needs that you might be able to fill. In Wessman’s case, he noticed an increase in FDA visits to Japan and found a niche interpreting for audits. Observe the industry and imagine how you can adapt. It may sometimes be necessary to step outside the limited role of an interpreter or translator, which ties into the next step.

4. Shift from a limited mentality.

Interpreters are commonly taught to remain impartial to the best of their ability, but there are times when impartiality can be a hindrance and the client is better served by an interpreter cum consultant. While an interpreter sometimes feels an allegiance to one party (which the other party should be aware of), other situations may require them to take extra roles on both sides. Wessman described audits where he not only provided support to an auditor who felt isolated and bewildered in a new country but also coached the Japanese company’s shy back-office personnel about what kinds of answers the auditor expected and how to interact with him. In a situation where there might otherwise have been a communication breakdown, both parties were able to benefit from Wessman’s flexible mentality.

5. Study the field.

True language professionals will continue learning and studying throughout their lives. In his presentation, Wessman stressed the importance of not only learning the vocabulary and technical information necessary to be proficient in your field but also seeking out peripheral knowledge that will help provide added value to your clients. In the medical device field, for example, he studied about standards and certifications, which comes in handy when he interprets for FDA audits.

6. Find mentors and partners.

It is common knowledge that networking and forming connections helps professionals to find more work. Peers who understand your skillset can recommend you for jobs they are unable to perform. It can also be very beneficial to cultivate this kind of positive relationship with clients, and demonstrate that you consider them partners rather than job sources. You can do this by going above and beyond to fulfill their needs, as in the interpreting example above. There are other ways to make partners as well: for example, Wessman once accepted company stock from a client in lieu of his regular interpreting fees, and they now work together even more cooperatively

Freelancers who want to be taken seriously as a partner might also consider incorporation. Companies tend to place more trust in other companies, feeling that they will have more recourse in the event that something goes wrong. The cost of incorporating is not high, and doing so also allows you to hire out work to contractors if you receive a request you are unable to handle on your own. Although your day-to-day work may not change, the value of being named a 株式会社 cannot be understated.

7. Prove your added value.

If you’ve done good work for a client in the past, he is much more likely to seek you out in the future than to go through the effort of searching for a new, unknown resource – even for different services. After all, a client in need of an interpreter might feel safer asking a translator he already trusts than seeking out a dedicated interpreter who is essentially a stranger. To ensure that you get these requests, do your job well and demonstrate that your services have value beyond what was initially requested. Marketing these services can be as simple as telling a satisfied client, “This isn’t a sales pitch but I also do X, Y, and Z, if you ever need it.” Even if they continue to order the original service only, they may recommend you to others in the industry.

8. Different work types produce synergy.

Clients will soon see the benefits of working with a language professional who can also advise them in other capacities. Many will start to confide in you more, ask you questions, and treat you as a partner in return. Offering more and different services can also keep your regular work from getting stale and challenge you to keep improving yourself. On a financial level, it may also help mitigate risk by diversifying your income sources.

Of course, there are also some dangers in branching out. Wessman points out that the ability to understand boundaries is essential – being discreet when communicating with clients (who may be competing with one another) and being cautious not to cross legal lines when giving advice. It is also vital to advertise yourself and your capabilities accurately and to understand your limitations. It’s too easy to allow new tasks to distract you from your core work, and strict time management is crucial to keep your clients satisfied. But if you keep these stumbling blocks in mind as you grow, you will find that your expertise can make your work not only more profitable but also more stimulating and fulfilling.