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

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?

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