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The Rewards of Volunteering

by Ben Tompkins

Taro and Hanako majored in English at a prestigious university in Kyoto. They studied abroad together for a year at a university in the eastern United States. When it came time to graduate, the two decided to become freelance translators and went their separate ways.

Three years after graduating, they bumped into each other at PROJECT Tokyo, a translation conference sponsored by the Japan Association of Translators (JAT). Let’s listen in on their conversation to see how they fared in their first three years as translators:

Hanako: Taro! I haven’t seen you in three years. How’s it going?

Taro: I’m doing all right, but business is slow. I’m only doing 10 to 15 hours of paid work a week. I came to PROJECT Tokyo to see if I could learn something and meet some people. How’s business for you?

Hanako: Couldn’t be better. I get 40 to 50 hours of paid work a week, and I am on great terms with my clients.

Taro: You’re doing that well after just three years? What’s your secret?

Hanako: It all started two years ago. I joined the Japan Association of Translators, or JAT, and attended one of their meetings in Osaka. I really learned a lot. I stayed after the meeting to help clean up. I bumped into Lisa Jones, who organized the meeting and is on the JAT board. She introduced herself and said she needed a native Japanese speaker to translate meeting announcements. I told her I’d love to help but warned her I was still a beginner. She smiled and told me not to worry. We exchanged business cards. I must have read every word on her card 10 times on the train ride back home. And I was surprised how friendly she was. I thought the people who run organizations were unapproachable. Lisa was just the opposite.

Taro: So then what happened?

Hanako: The next morning Lisa sent me an email with an announcement to be translated. Since I didn’t have very much work back then, I began right away and sent my translation to her that evening.

Taro: That’s good, but you didn’t get any money for it, did you?

Hanako: Of course not, but that’s when my career took off. The next morning, Lisa complimented me on the quality of my translation and my quick turnaround. I told her I returned it so quickly because I didn’t have any other work. Sounding a little worried for me, she gave me the contact information of some project managers she knows at three translation agencies and told me to expect plenty of work from them if I kept up my quality and promptness. She even put in a good word for me so that by the time I called them, they were eager to work with me. The timing was great. One of the companies had a huge project from an important client. The project manager told me that he normally couldn’t trust a new translator with an important project like this but that he was sure I’d do a good job because of the good word Lisa put in for me.

Taro: Lucky you. I only seem to get small jobs.

Hanako: It wasn’t only luck that got me the job. But anyway, the job went on for a month. And I got other work from the other companies while I was working on the project. I called Lisa to thank her for the introductions and decided to take the initiative this time. I told her that I might be able to arrange for Professor Weiss, you know, our old professor, to give a presentation. After I told her more, she decided to take me up on my offer. We decided on a November presentation. She told me November was her busiest month and asked if I could take charge of arranging the meeting. “Me, organize a meeting?” I thought to myself. She sensed my reluctance and agreed to help me when I needed it. So I agreed.

Taro: How did it go?

Hanako: Well I first contacted Professor Weiss. He agreed to present. Then I sent out announcements, called friends and colleagues, and worked out the details with the venue. Lisa gave me some advice, but I was amazed how much I accomplished on my own. I was really busy with work, and I pulled an all-nighter the night before the presentation finishing off work and then making the final arrangements for the presentation. Professor Weiss gave his presentation, which went great, but I was exhausted. Professor Weiss concluded by thanking me for arranging everything. Everyone in attendance applauded Professor Weiss and then turned to me and gave me a big hand. I’ll never forget that moment. It made all the long hours I put into planning the event worth it. But it got even better. After I said good-bye to Professor Weiss and was gathering my things, two lawyers in attendance asked for my business card and told me about some translation work they needed help with. I’m sure they wouldn’t have bothered to even look at me if I hadn’t gotten the extra publicity by organizing the event. They have turned out to be my best clients yet and send me lots of good-paying work.

Taro: Good for you.

Hanako: But that’s not all I got out of volunteering. Other than the satisfaction I get from helping people out, I have made contacts with many veterans in the translation industry, I get noticed at events, and I am competent as a meeting organizer, planner, and publicist because of the volunteer work I have done. And when I have a question about a translation project or need advice about my work, all my volunteer buddies are more than happy to lend me a hand. I feel like I’m part of the translation community.

Taro: I’m glad to hear things are going so well. I would…

Hanako: Hey, Taro. Here comes Lisa now.

Lisa Jones: Hi, Hanako. As program chair for PROJECT Tokyo, you really put together a spectacular program. Great job!

Hanako: Thanks. I’ve really enjoyed helping and met some great people in the process. Oh, Lisa, allow me to introduce Taro. We graduated together.

Hanako: Hi, Taro.

Taro: Hi, Lisa. But wait, Hanako. You mean to tell me you organized the program for PROJECT Tokyo?

Lisa: She sure did. I’ve never seen a new translator work as hard as Hanako. Taro, Hanako, I’m sorry I have to cut it short, but I have to go find someone to assist our webmaster. Jeff won’t be able to help anymore because he’s got a new baby.

Taro: What about me? I’m a serious computer geek and would be happy to help.

As you reflect on this story, remember that there’s a translators’ organization somewhere that needs your help. Organizations, no matter how well funded, can do little without the support of energized volunteers. And your volunteer efforts just might bring career-advancing rewards.

Next entry: Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,  by David Bellos

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