5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Life of a Freelance Translator

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Mark left this on my desk... (Ottawa, June 2019)

Mark left this on my desk… (Ottawa, June 2019)

It’s been a blur since I came back from Chile mid-March. Every day is pretty much the same—work, work out at the gym, mundane chores, more work until bedtime, rinse and repeat seven days a week. This is a recurring chapter in my life. When I’m in Ottawa, I tend to focus on invoiceable tasks, long-term projects and catching up with reality. I’m efficient and productive, not particularly social or creative—that’s in my other life, the one on the road.

I love my job but I hope I’ll never be voluntold for one of these “When I grow up…” career days at school. Kids would die of boredom watching me work. I don’t save people, manage teams or wear a cool uniform. I just type words, check references, email my invisible co-workers, hit enter, read… even the final product may be slightly boring, unless you’re into corporate PowerPoints and press releases. Okay, sometimes, we find or make amusing typos, that’s about it.

Now, what happens behind the scenes is good watercooler material.

For example, did you know that…

My work schedule can be all over the place

First of all, the ebb and flow of freelancing is very real and often unexplainable. But my daily schedule is also pretty weird.

If I’m working on a big project, I make my own schedule. As long as I meet deadlines, clients don’t care whether I translate between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. with a 30 minutes break at noon or use my time wisely and run errands during the day (shorter lines!).

But I usually have to be flexible anyway because clients tend to outsource last-minute or urgent projects that can’t be handled during regular business hours. My mornings are often quiet, then between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., I get a flurry of emails. “Urgent, for tomorrow!” “Any chance you can send it back by Monday?”

You bet I can. Don’t feel sorry for me if I mention I worked all weekend or all evening—it comes with the territory.

I can (and do) fire clients

I’m the boss of my one-person corporation and I can totally fire you as a client if needed.

For instance, this year, I stopped working with a London-based company that repeatedly made me chase invoice payment. Burned bridge? Ah, you’d think so… they still try to send me work once in a while, and I have to remind them they never paid my last invoice. I love my job but getting paid is part of the deal, you see.

I also tend to fire difficult or unrealistic clients. One of the ways to spot them? They often promise “the opportunity of a long-tern relationship with XYZ company”—in “client speak,” it often means “work for free then we’ll try to pay you… eventually. Like, once you complete the 100-page translation ‘test.’”

I have to stand up for myself

It’s amazing how many prospective clients tell me I “shouldn’t worry about money at this stage” when said stage is after the project was explained and when I have to accept or decline the assignment. Would you take a job without knowing your salary?

My second favourite is “not sure about the word count, it doesn’t matter.” I beg to differ—it kind of does as it’s the freaking gist of the job. Do you go to a hairstylist and say “don’t worry about my hair”?

In real life, I’m pretty friendly and flexible. But I learned to be tough in business because I don’t have a HR department to complain to.

I have access to information not available to the general public

I find my job very satisfying for many reasons and one of them is how much I learn about the world in the process. I have access to tons of internal company documents, for instance, and they paint an interesting picture of various work environments. I also learn tons of random info and bits of trivia across industries, discover organizations and government divisions, dive into labour relations and politics. And yes, I keep my mouth shut—it’s part of the job.

I have to explain what I can and cannot do

I completely understand people may not fully understand what translating, editing, adapting or writing entails. I don’t know anything about cars and if I were to bring a vehicle to a mechanic, I wouldn’t know turnaround times or prices.

I usually explain new (or clueless) clients that most translators handle about 1,000 to 2,000 words a day. Look at it this way—how long did it take your office to write this 60-page annual report? Yeah, three months. No, I won’t have it ready by tomorrow if you send it to me tonight.

There are also two fields I avoid—medical (because of possible liabilities) and legal (I don’t speak legalese and it’s fucking boring). Which brings me to this interesting conversation I had with a potential client who called me last week…

“We have a PowerPoint to be translated to French. It’s about 40 slides and we need it for next week.”

“What is it about?”

“It’s for a medical conference.”

“Ah, I see. I usually don’t take medical documents, unless it’s your basic, dumbed down health guidelines, like ‘Tips for a healthy life’ or ‘This season, get the flu shot.’”

“We can provide resources to help you. It’s not that technical!”

“It’s not so much about terminology, it’s because I’m not a healthcare professional and I’m probably not qualified. What’s the topic, exactly?”

“… Nerve-decompression surgery in diabetic peripheral neuropathy.”

Yeah, not taking that one, thank you very much.

Alright guys, back to work.

… and what are your work secrets?


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Martin Penwald on

    Work secret? Not that much.
    Should i talk about the accident that decimated the Humboldt hockey team? The hazard made that it was a full bus of young people that hit that truck. It would have been a car with only one person, it would have been business as usual.
    Basically : training of truck drivers in North America is awful.

    • Yeah, I agree with you. The accident probably wouldn’t have made news (at least not national news) if a bus wasn’t involved.

      I may be naive but I always tend to think that professional drivers are better drivers because 1) they kind of want to stay alive 2) they have the experience 3) their job is at stake. Am I wrong?

      • Martin Penwald on

        Unfortunately, yes.
        First, let’s be clear, the fact that the guy comes from an ethnic minority is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT. I’ve seen “100% Canadian” (note the scare quotes) rookies doing stupid mistakes too. That no one was injured is just luck.

        From what I understood, the driver had barely one year of driving experience, even if he had his driving licence since 2 years. And he drove B-train since only 2 weeks. B-train which was loaded at the time of the accident, implying the gross weight was between 57 and 62 tonnes. Thing is, his previous driving experience would probably involved trucks not heavier than 45 tonnes. Big difference in handling, especially to stop or restart.
        I don’t know exactely what happens, but all possible scenarios lead to the same conclusion:
        1) he didn’t anticipate early enough the stop sign, and wasn’t able to brake before crossing the crossroad.
        2) he didn’t evaluate correctly the speed of the bus and tried to pass in front of it.
        3) he missed a gear when restarting, stalling in the middle of the crossroad.
        4) he didn’t pay attention due to the trees, and restarted without seeing the bus.

        The result, as well as the cause, is the same.
        Since i’m here, i’ve often heard that drivers aren’t well formed in North America : when getting your licence, the truck doesn’t have to be loaded, and you can even in some jurisdiction get it with a truck pulling an 8,55 meters trailer, when the standard van trailer is 16,20 meters long. It has nothing to do with real life trucking opération.

        What pisses me the most about this story is that NOW, and only now, Alberta and Saskatchewan will start to require better training for truck drivers. IT WAS LARGELY OVERDUE, and it’s a shame, for provincial governments and the trucking industry, that 16 young men had to die to learn something that most drivers know since years.

        By the way, I used “hazard” in my previous comment as the French « hasard ».

        • It’s the same as plane crashes. Truck accidents are noteworthy because their impact is potentially bigger and more tragic. Still, I like to believe that truck drivers are good drivers 😆 Seriously, are you better trained in France? Is the lack of training a money issue or is it because companies are desperate for drivers?

          • Martin Penwald on

            Yes, requirement are higher in France. However, in Québec it’s better than in Ontario for example.
            But companies don’t want to spend money on training. Shortage of drivers shouldn’t prevent training.

          • I remember about ten years ago, we took many road trips and there were always leaflets to advertise for jobs in the truck industry in rest stops. Companies sounded completely desperate for bodies behind the wheel (that was in Ontario).

          • Martin Penwald on

            On a related note, yesterday’s accident in Tadoussac (an RV unable to stop before the ramp and jumping on the ferry) was very probably caused by poor driving skills and not by mechanical failure.
            A 7 to 8 tonnes vehicule which brakes pads overheated on the road due to overuse of brakes by the driver before the steep grade.
            I haven’t seen what kind of RV it was (on the 5-6 tonnes range or the 10-12 one) because the only pictures i’ve seen show destruction beyond recognition. But what seems to be the dashboard makes me think of one probably on the 7-10 tonnes range.

            With modern cars, it’s almost impossible to involuntary reach a point where brakes don’t function anymore due to heat. But when factoring that one doesn’t additional training for things without air brakes (so that could legally weight close to 20 tonnes with a trailer), here we go.

          • I didn’t hear about the accident (I’m staying away from the news, there’s only so much Trump I can ingest and he is EVERYWHERE). I wonder if the terrible road conditions in Canada (pot holes, etc.) can be a factor for accidents.

            This is completely anecdotal but I always *feel* there are less road accidents in Canada than in France. Less deadly ones, anyway.

    • I’m lucky in a way because I’m in an email-based industry. I have a hard time negotiating on the phone. It’s easier in writing for me.

  2. Because I’m in a industrial sector, I knew that only time and experience would get more confidence for answering clients’ questions or presenting our company.
    My work secret when I’m entering a new position: I write everything I am told, I see, I deduct. So I have a lot of info I can read and learn when I don’t have much to do (which is often the case when starting).
    Second tip: be interested! For example, when I learned our brass bars had just been ripped of the windows of a luxuous shoe shop on the Champs Elysées by the gilets jaunes, it stuck in my mind. Also, I go to our workshop when we extrude a new product, or I try to get as much info as possible from our clients concerning the next steps our product will live (chromatizing, machining, etc.)!

    • These are great tips! I also tend to write down important info (do you know Evernote? I love it!). The second tip sounds so obvious but really, it’s not. There’s a huge difference between someone who doesn’t know XYZ but really cares about learning and someone who does know but doesn’t give a shit. I feel very lucky because I find most aspects of my job interesting (and most of my clients too!).

      I like the way you bridge something technical (industrial sector info and processes can be dry…) to current events. That’s a cool mindset to have!

      So… did you provide the new bars to replace the ones destroyed during the protest?

  3. One of the many memes I see for musicians, is that we are often told to work “for free” because our work is “so much fun”. When I became an audiobook narrator / producer I thought, surely, it would be a much more respected field of work… But it turns out people want to step on creators’ toes all around the world, in all fields of work. For example, very often I read and prepare auditions with a decent extract, but then the author / publisher sends me the full script full of mistakes (“just correct them” is ok with me as long as I don’t have to rewrite the whole thing!!!), badly translated (we spoke about that), or is only willing to pay for half of my current rate (if that)…

    • Once in a while, I get into an argument with someone who claims that anything STEM related is a “real job” and the rest is BS. Like, people, don’t you value art in your life? Not talking about “ah ah, look at this piece of modern art, my child could draw better!” but books, TV shows, series, movies, music, creative fashion, etc.?

      Also, I do love my job and I find it fun. I mean, it’s a fun mental exercice, to me at least. But fuck you, pay me.

      • Absolutely. It might be fun, but it’s work and we still need to pay bill like anybody else. Now I’m dealing with a Right Holder (might be the author, not sure) who doesn’t even know which book he wants to be produce ! (I asked him if he needed a producer for a French-English book or French-German book, because the audition page was unclear. His answer? Please send me the exact title of the book and I will send you the script… ???? Isn’t HE supposed to know what he wants?) Total BS.

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