Wednesday 7 September 2016

The Life of Riley?

When I took my first tentative steps in the industry over 25 years ago, I never dreamed I would carve out a long and rewarding career in freelance translation. But neither did I imagine it was going to be so difficult to explain what that livelihood involved, especially to those with no affinity with the profession. Some people are more receptive however: a certain meeting of minds exists with other communication-based self-employed professionals, for example, graphic designers, journalists and photographers. They operate in similar circles and face similar business-related problems. But in terms of understanding the specific skills we need for working in translation, amongst people outside our realm of work there is a marked disconnect between perception and reality. Many visualise translation as being the simple conversion of text from one language into another. In other words, if you've done languages at school, pretty much anyone can do it.

So what is the big deal about translation?
In a recent blog I attempted to put to bed some of the myths surrounding freelance translation, focusing on the range of skills we need. This time, three more bubbles are burst, all of which, I dare say, freelancers in other professions will be able to identify with. 

It’s such an easy way to earn money 
If you’re happy having less job security than someone on a zero-hours contract, you don’t mind working long and unsocial hours, and you can cope with the stress of not knowing where the next job’s coming from, being a self-employed translator is the kind of job for you. Whilst businesses, say, in the manufacturing sector can plan ahead on the basis of reasonably stable supply and demand forecasts, no such continuity exists in a service industry at the end of the supply chain like translation. We place complete trust in our customers – direct clients, agencies and colleagues – for giving us a regular supply of work and hope that the gleanings from this will be enough to finance our regular outgoings: hardware and software, office equipment and stationery, telephony, gas, water and electricity, transport, accountant’s fees, mortgage/rent, income tax, social insurance, professional liability insurance, property insurance, sickness and disability insurance and car insurance, professional training and conferences, etc. That has to be accounted for even before we have any money to put in our own pockets.
If you’d rather not work until you drop dead, it’s wise to set aside some savings too, so that you can enjoy a few years’ retirement. Even then, savings plans available to the self-employed compare miserably to the type of ring-fenced pension schemes common in the public or private sector.
And unlike salaried employees, you can forget about fringe benefits like paid leave, never mind a ‘thirteenth month’. Holidays don’t come cheap. Effectively, if you take a fortnight’s break, you’re potentially missing out on two weeks’ earnings.
Believe me, the list of fixed and variable overheads is daunting! It’s not unusual for an experienced freelance translator to have to stump up, on average, fixed monthly costs of between €2,000 and 3,000 even before the work, of which there’s no certainty, comes in. In essence, it’s a business philosophy based on blind faith.
Things can be a lot trickier for those starting out in the industry. Beginners will need to quickly develop a broad client base to avoid being dependent on just one or two customers. Losing one might mean kissing goodbye to a sizable chunk of earnings at the end of the month.
Not all of us are adept at staving off panic when we hit the doldrums, nor for that matter, at dealing with sudden deluges of work, but it’s a talent a seasoned translator will have to learn. Not veering off course and keeping on an even keel, however heavy the weather, is what’s required. 

Freelancing means you can work whenever you want 
Even some of my closest friends seem to think I went into semi-retirement when I gave up paid employment and that was well over 20 years ago. Evidently, having given up a nine-to-five job I had so much more time on my hands, so I guess it was hard for them to imagine what I was doing all day. Indeed, the life of a freelance translator is solitary and follows no fixed regime. For many, this lack of routine is unnerving. To them, the notion of not being accountable to a boss, not having to commute, not being tied to office hours and not needing to observe any particular dress code amounts to pretty much the same thing as not having to work at all. True, there’s no one to tell me when I have to turn up to work every day. My journey to work only involves negotiating a flight of stairs. And if I really wanted to, I could sit at the computer in pyjamas and slippers all day.
Without question, being a self-employed translator means having flexibility, but it comes at a price. Since there’s no one to boss me around, I have to do this myself (and believe me, I’m not naturally gifted at that). Not everyone has the iron discipline to cope with the irregular ebb and flow of work or the ability to adapt to the pace of work when bound by tight schedules. Old-timers like me will have learned intuitively how to judge the time needed for a specific volume of work, taking into account the subject matter and the format. Nevertheless, some evenings and weekends, I can find myself slogging away at the computer playing catch-up after having badly underestimated a project’s time frame. Good forward planning is recommended, but it’s not always an option when several direct clients all arrive with work at the same time. Those same friends who were under the impression you were loafing around all day, will shake their heads with incredulity when you tell them you’ve had to cancel your plans for meeting up with some measly excuse about having to finish a translation.
But its not only during busy spells when discipline and perseverance are needed. During slack periods too, when you emerge from enforced confinement, it’s important to get all the other essential jobs done, such as invoicing, payments, procurement, marketing and all those other things us jack-of-all-trades translators have to do. 

I suppose you take your laptop out into the garden and work there in the summer 
Whenever self-styled digital nomads post pictures of themselves or their laptops on social media against the backdrop of a palm-shaded beach or a sweeping mountain vista with a long, cool drink at arm’s length, boldly claiming they are ‘at the office’, I can’t help thinking, who are they trying to kid? Are they seriously trying to tell us that they can work AND relax at the same time?
Now don’t get the idea that I’ve never succumbed to an overwhelming desire for idleness. I sometimes think ‘Lethargy’ is my middle name. In fact, I subscribed to the work/relaxation theory for a while when I moved into my present house about 15 years ago. At the time, I was still in the habit of printing out my translations and proofreading the hard copy. The long, hot summer and the lure of a lounger on a shady veranda proved irresistible. But no sooner had I finished my first page of annotations when another irrepressible urge would come over me and half an hour later I’d find myself slumped on the lounger woken by the rhythm of my own snoring. So, I learned my lesson.
Let’s face it, the work/relaxation thing isn‘t going to succeed in many lines of business. A train driver, a production-line operator or even a professional footballer needs absolute concentration if they are to please their employer/customer and deliver a top-class performance. That’s no less true in the freelance translation business: the last thing I need when I’m trying to drum up motivation is the distraction of a swimming pool or cocktail bar. Shirking on the job is simply counter-productive.
There might be much to complain about in the translation world, but undeniably the laptop, smartphone and Wi-Fi have helped revolutionise and emancipate our profession. Without too much trouble, it’s now possible to work away from the office at a location on the other side of the globe. In an airport lounge, on a train, at a hotel and, yes, even from a holiday home - as long as we can maintain access to our resources and remain in contact with customers, we can choose to work anywhere. But we should never lose sight of the fact that concentration is what we need most of all to deliver quality work. That necessitates closing ourselves off from the disruptive influences around us. Working on a train, for example, isn’t going to happen if there’s a constant stream of announcements within earshot.
My first experience of working ‘away’ from the office was when my late father was suddenly taken into hospital with a life-threatening illness about ten years ago. It meant dashing back to England and spending weeks near his side. In the years that followed I would spend weeks at a time in my parental home combining care with work. Having a laptop and access to Wi-Fi were lifesavers, much more for my dad, but also for me. It was convenient, but hardly ideal.
Wi-Fi, mobile telephony and laptops have allowed us to cut the umbilical cord we once had with our offices and, perhaps more than most, I have taken advantage of location-independent working in recent years. Nevertheless, to feel happy about producing work which is up to scratch, I still need a place which allows me the space for total immersion (work, not the swimming pool, you understand).
When all is said and done, I tend to perform best when I’m shut off in my own private space, seated in a comfortable, ergonomically designed office chair surrounded by my things - peripherals, books and other resources (including essential tea and coffee-making facilities) - where I have maximum control over potential distractions. In short, my own office.