25 October 2013

When is the right time to become a full-time freelance translator, and how do you know it is?

Experts say that having a job to pay the bills is a great asset for a beginning freelance translator, and it is easy enough to know why they would be right. And yet you surely need to take the leap at some point, to set aside the certainty a paycheck provides and seek growth in the freelance world, where apparently there is such growth to be found.

Many questions emerge. Do you really need to take that leap? Can you not be a part-time freelance translator forever? Of course you can. I, however, do not want to: I like translating enough to want to make it my official career, and I think I am good enough at it to make it work out as my official career. I am not there yet, but if the ATA says the average freelance translator makes more than 40,000 dollars per year, I feel I should be able to make that kind of money, and thus pay the bills, just translating.

I am 37, but I approached my start in the freelancing world as humbly as I did the beginning of my career in journalism almost 20 years ago. I know that few things happen overnight, and I am happy to let things flow and find their course. Experience in other walks of life tells me that things generally do find their course, and I am sure that translation is no exception. I also know enough about the real world by now not to expect any miracles, however, and I am convinced that whatever I reap as a translator will be largely the result of my own efforts. 

If I want to grow as a freelance translator, I need to put in a lot of effort into improving both my ability to translate and my presence and availability as a freelancer. I am working hard, translating quite a bit and taking both NYU's Certificate in Translation and the DipTrans exam to convince anyone who needs it that I am qualified, so they give me the chance to prove that I am also good. 

And yet I feel that my formal job, the one that pays my bills (and currently allows me to keep my translation money for bigger and better things!), is more and more of a burden for my freelancing career.

As I said earlier, I am a 37-year-old mother-of-two: I can hardly afford to experiment as I did in my early twenties. However, I still wonder whether a fair dose of "hunger" might actually be good to grow professionally. I understand that not being able to make ends meet would get me far more stress than I want at this stage in my life. However, I also ask myself, quite often in fact, whether needing to support myself as a freelance translator might actually drive my career as a freelancer far beyond anywhere where the mere wish to translate in my spare time can ever take it, and make things happen a lot faster.

I do not work at McDonald's: I actually like my job as a journalist quite a bit, particularly when it is busy and I have lots of work to do. I spent three weeks in Brazil to cover the Confederations Cup in June and I loved the assignment... but it meant that I did virtually no translation work for three weeks. If I make it to the World Cup in June, the same will happen again, and last about a month-and-a-half. 

I do not want to whine about pleasant things, of course: I could say no to these assignments but would not want to say no in my current circumstances. If I am a journalist at all, it is clearly for things like these. The point is, however, that I feel such events, and having a full-time job more generally, affect my commitment and my results as a freelance translator.

I monitor ProZ.com and TranslatorsCafé.com for jobs quite closely and regularly bid on the ones that I think might suit me, I take almost any translation jobs that come my way from agencies I have worked for in the past and I feel I can do well, and I always push myself a bit beyond what might be reasonable: if you look at my translation figures, I am almost a full-time translator despite having a full-time job as a journalist and a family. 

Marketing to direct clients is what I never find time to do, and I feel that that would be essential for me to take things a step further: can you become a full-time freelance translator, with no jobs on the side, and earn a decent living without devoting 2-3 hours per day to looking for new, better-paying clients, for a few months at least?

The truth is that it is a mouthful to handle a full-time job, freelance translation on the side and the marketing tasks that are essential to any freelance effort, along with the family life and other daily tasks that make life really special and enjoyable for some of us. 

When I started out as a freelancer, I thought the move away from moonlighting would be natural enough: a day would come when I could make more money from the translation jobs I actually do and those I have to turn down because... well, because I have a job that pays the bills. At that point, I would be better off without a day job and could walk away from it comfortably enough. Now, I am not so sure that that day will come on its own. 

A friend once told me that moonlighting is in fact addictive. According to her, one gets hooked on the rush, and the money, that come from working two jobs, and it is hard to go back to having just one. I definitely see my friend's point and to some extent I am enjoying that position at the moment.

However, I am also quite certain that the major leap in my freelancing career will come only when I finally dare to drop my regular job. 

At the risk of sounding too much like a teenager wondering what love is and how can you ever know when you have found it, I hope the day will come when I muster the courage, or the will, or the drive, or whatever combination of factors it takes, to take the leap and become "just" a freelance translator. I am not there yet. But I hope to be sometime, sooner rather than later.


  1. Hola Veronica,
    I am discovering your blog and I like your writing. As a fellow freelance translator but slightly more experienced in that field, I can only wish you the best :)

    1. Thanks, Annelise, it's always very nice to hear that people like to read me! And it is also great to know that other professionals have got a lot further down the path I hope to tread in the coming years. Yes, we can! ;)