14 April 2013

The nature of freelance translation

When I first set out to become a freelance translator, I knew I was good at languages AND I was good at translation. I was already one step ahead from many wannabes, who think knowing enough of a foreign language to order pizza and a beer in some touristy place abroad will take you where you want to go as a translator.

Translation takes really knowing a foreign language and your own or any other target language, really knowing a foreign culture and your own, and above all really knowing the mechanics and the dynamics of translation in itself - actually caring about the puzzle of how to turn words in one language into words in a different language that convey the same message and sound as if they had been written like that originally.

Experience shows that languages are certainly a prerequisite to becoming a translator, but the all-important thing, what really separates the men from the boys in this trade, is being aware of that puzzle, and being passionate about it. You know you are a born translator when, whatever the text at hand, you actually care how it could be said in another language!

What I didn't know, or at least had really thought of, when I first decided to become a freelance translator was that there is a major third leg to this particular stool, which refers to business. And, just for the record, please don't get carried away when I say business. I am sure someone would! Business in this case has little to do with Microsoft or Richard Branson. You would do better to think about the corner store down the street and the tiny stall where you occasionally buy a sandwich.

Had I thought about the corner store and the sandwich stall in advance, I would have expected the kind of hard work that initially surprised me. I had always been someone else's employee. I knew self-employed people were supposed to work very hard, but I did not naturally apply that logic to being a translator. I somehow assumed that the hard work came with manual labour, with replenishing store shelves and standing all day making sandwiches while people wait in line.

As an aspiring freelance translator, a professional with a Masters degree, I expected hard work to mean, well, lots of translation. And it does not quite work like that.

As a freelance translator, particularly at the start, you will spend a massive amount of your time looking for clients, which amounts to bidding on jobs you will mostly not get. You will need to think about alien things like marketing (just don't lose sight of the corner store though, you are not about to enlist Cristiano Ronaldo to sell your products!) and how far you want to or can take your investment when potential clients request things you are not selling, which in this case may take the form of documents in CAT and other programmes you do not own. And if you ever forget to send out an invoice you will simply not get paid on time, no one else will remember for you!

The good news for me was that when I did discover the third leg to the stool - which happened the second I actually became a freelance translator - I quickly took to it.

The relatively bad news was that I knew languages and was a great translator, a born translator in fact, but I knew nothing about running a business. So suddenly I had a massive amount of work cut out for me: some of it was actually translation, but most of it was not. I needed to become a businesswoman of sorts, from scratch and on the go, when all I originally wanted was to be a freelance translator.


  1. Hi Veronica

    Thank you for the article reminding us about the hard work :)
    It is also important to be passionate ant to actually stay passionate about translation.
    I love the way you use the word "puzzle" here! :)

    1. Thanks, Lena! I like that second part of your sentence: "to actually stay passionate about translation." It's a lot of work, and you have to enjoy it to some extent. I mean, it is work and most people prefer play, and sometimes it is a lonely profession too. But precisely for those reasons it really helps to feel that there is nothing else you would rather do for a living.