Every morning, somewhere in the world, a translator wakes up knowing that s/he will have to explain somebody that s/he doesn’t spend his whole day baking cookies and watching TV shows on Netflix, knowing that that somebody will nod dubiously and will just keep asking the same “did you find a real job yet?” question over and over again.
Before taking the plunge into freelancing, I must admit that I had a very optimistic and naïve idea of the translation business. I would picture myself in my small Canadian apartment surrounded by squirrels and racoons, with my Linus blanket and my cup of tea, drowning in translation jobs that would reach magically my inbox with the precision and the persistency of a letter from Hogwarts. Unfortunately, the reality is very different and behind the simplistic definition of “freelance translator” there are at least ten other professions that I’ll try to briefly explain here.
- Entrepreneur/CEO: Freelance translators are business owners. As such, they must have a clear vision for their company, define the objectives that need to be achieved, create an effective business model, analyze the market and try to find the niche most suitable for them, they have to be “the face” of the company, seize all the possible opportunities coming their way or create them, allocate a budget to invest in various activities, innovate and constantly be a volcano of new ideas.
ADVANTAGES: Freedom, flexibility. If we want, we can take a week off in the middle of February for a trip to Hawaii, without asking for permission to (almost) anyone
DISADVANTAGES: Responsibility. Being solopreneurs, we are accountable for both the successes and the failures of the company and being up to our own expectations is often more difficult than meeting other people’s ones
- Manager: As managers, freelance translators have to write down and organize coherently all the ideas the CEO had, they have to come up with strategies, create a business plan, organize, divide the long-term goals into smaller steps and define deadlines for each of them. In order to do so, managers are equipped with paper and electronic calendars on multiple devices, a board with pins and post-its everywhere, agendas, colors, pencils, crayons and excel spreadsheets to keep everything in order.
ADVANTAGES: Being able to use crayons, highlighters and colors to organize serious stuff
DISADVANTAGES: Planning requires time and energies despite colorful post-its
- Marketing specialist: Freelance translators can be the most qualified and talented individuals on the planet, but if they play hide and seek with the world from under an invisibility cloak, no one will ever know they exist, no matter how many degrees they have or how many languages they speak. Therefore, our heroes have no choice but to show themselves, making the best out of that tentacular monster called “marketing”. Marketing is a sort of multi-headed hydra, you cut one off and three more pop up, there’s not a single day in our lives in which we’re not bombarded by marketing campaigns trying to sell us something. If they want to make business, translators need to market themselves as everyone else, either online or offline.
3a. Offline Marketing
Social butterfly: In order to get noticed offline, there is no choice but to participate in events. They can be casual or more formal events in the local community, conferences pertaining to our field of specialization or designed just for translators, the essential elements don’t change: dazzling smile, loads of business cards hidden in our bags and ready to be casually handed out when needed, a few ice breakers to get the conversation started. All of this, for the pathologically introverted freelance translator, means hours of training in front of the mirror, trying to get rid of that fake Christmas-poem-learnt-by-heart rhythm.
ADVANTAGES: Great excuse to travel and to make an effort to get out of our comfort zone, socialize, know new people
DISADVANTAGES: Necessity of overcoming the fear of dealing with the outer world
3b. Online Marketing
Social media expert: This is no big news: in order to promote one’s services, the best online channels are undoubtedly the renowned social media. If managing a profile on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest and so forth can seem a fun thing to do, think again. Every social media requires a specific number of posts per day, at different and specific times of the day, not to mention the time needed to find good articles to share and to analyze the degree of reach and engagement these posts obtained, in order to identify the most efficient strategies to obtain new clients or to acquire more visibility and popularity among colleagues.
Blogger: Despite not being a must, many translators decide to have their own blogs. Google “vacuum cleaner” loves to be constantly fed with new contents, therefore the more we write, possibly using the right keywords, the better this nice search engine will rank our website. Managing a blog, however, means that we have to write a post or two every week, think about what to write, add pictures, take care of the layout… Especially if you are a slow writer and a hopeless indecisive person, just like me, the amount of time that flies away in this blissful activity becomes ginormous.
Website maintenance manager: Even though, as it should be, many freelance translators ask for the assistance of professional website/graphic designers when it comes to creating their website, logo, business cards and so forth, they have nonetheless to make sure that the website is always up to date, properly optimized for SEO, etc…
ADVANTAGES: Having fun creating infographics, images, reading interesting articles to share, writing and interacting with colleagues
DISADVANTAGES: Fear of being pushy and annoying, difficulty in finding the right balance between generic content share and self-promotion, writer’s block right before starting to write a new blog post
- Copywriter: Copywriters, who have nothing to do with copyright, are those who create marketing content (ads, slogans, commercials, brochures promoting a company) and freelance translators are not exempt from this role. In fact, they have to write all their website contents, brochures promoting their own services, newsletters, catchy profiles for several translation directories, different versions of their CV depending on their clients or specializations.
ADVANTAGES: Good writing and creativity exercise
DISADVANTAGES: Re-writing a CV in a thousand different ways can be fairly boring, need of a proof-reader whenever writing in our source languages.
- Accountant: Freelance translators don’t receive their well deserved and longed for cheque at the end of the month like everyone else. They have to issue an invoice after each completed project and make sure they get paid within the agreed terms, they have to calculate and file their taxes and a whole series of unpleasant tasks involving numbers. As an accountant, the translator has also, when needed, to recur to threatening mafia-style emails, if the client is being insolvent with the excuse of his cat having eaten all the cash hidden under the mattress.
ADVANTAGES: Being forced to monitor personal and business finances
DISADVANTAGES: Everything else
- Customer service/Communications Manager: Needless to say, in order to survive, freelance translators need clients to work for. Be it by email, phone, smoke signals or carrier pigeon, communication with clients is crucial and translators need to be helpful, professional, obliging, clear and thorough in their explanations, patient, flexible, reactive, impeccable, deliver high quality products, able to negotiate politely and have to make sure that the client is 100% satisfied with the service received.
ADVANTAGES: Providing an excellent customer service allows to keep existing clients and, more often than not, to get new ones by referral
DISADVANTAGES: negotiating can be stressful, feeling of panic when a new potential client contacts us, performance anxiety
- Personal Assistant: Despite their secret desire of giving someone orders like “bring me a coffee, double milk and no sugar NOW”, or “I want 10 copies of this brochure on my desk within an hour” or “book me a flight to NY for January 30th, business class please”, freelance translators are their own personal assistants. Therefore, unless they manage to enslave partners/children/siblings (as I used to do with my sister before she reached the age of reason), they have to do all the aforementioned things by themselves.
ADVANTAGES: Having to prepare our own tea can turn out to be an excellent excuse to move away from our desks for a few seconds
DISADVANTAGES: No choice but doing everything by ourselves all the time, no matter how busy or tired we are
- Student: The sentence “In life you never stop learning” couldn’t be more true when it comes to freelance translators. In our profession, understanding all the nuances of a source text is crucial for its correct transposition in the target language. Since, as far as I know, we are not omniscient yet, in order to do our job well we need to specialize in particular fields or text typologies. For example, a medical translator will have to attend medicine courses, a legal translator will have to read articles and codes and so forth. Moreover, it’s very important to keep our linguistic skills at an excellent level, which implies reading, writing and practicing constantly all our source and target languages. Curious individuals by nature, translators usually love this status of eternal students and perceive it more as a joy than as a burden.
ADVANTAGES: The beauty of dealing with languages, excellent training for the mind, great feeling of accomplishment due to learning something new every day
DISADVANTAGES: Hand muscles cramping after taking notes for hours (even though I am not in school anymore, I can’t help but taking notes all the time)
- Glossaries and TMs Compiler: Freelance translators, other than their brain, often work with the so called CAT tools, computer assisted translation tools, that help speeding up the translation process and keeping it terminologically consistent. All this, however, implies learning how to use several different software solutions, not often super user-friendly, and compiling glossaries and translation memories for this or that client.
ADVANTAGES: Better quality and consistency of the translation, it speeds up the translation process
DISADVANTAGES: Necessity to buy costly software as different agencies or clients often ask for specific ones
- Translator: Finally, our real job, what we love doing the most and the ultimate reason why we accept to do all the rest without complaining (too much): translation.
ADVANTAGES: interesting, fun, exciting, challenging, gratifying
DISADVANTAGES: Tight deadlines, stressful, performance anxiety, that sneaky spelling mistake always ready to betray us