So I’ve already mentioned my freelance mentor. For the sake of argument, we’ll call him John. Now, John has something that I don’t have. A magical quality that apparently translation agencies worldwide clamour for. But what could this core value, essential to any translator worth their salt, be? CAT skills? A keen eye for detail? A solid working knowledge of the grammatical quirks of the English language? Why no my friends, what makes John so highly-prized is that John speaks German.
If you detect a note of bitterness here, that may be because I spent three and a half years on a team made up entirely of German speakers. My friends spoke German, my bosses spoke German, heck, even our admin assistants spoke German. For three and a half years I listened to “oh, well there’s no point hiring him. He only speaks French!” or “why can’t this project be in French? We’re never short of French translators!” and “what do you mean you don’t know what a case is? Didn’t you study languages?” Even when I left, the general consensus was that I would be much easier to replace than, God forbid, a German speaker.
In all honesty, I think this may be what has cast a shadow of self-doubt over my striking out alone. I am fighting for work that hundreds of other people could do. I imagine stressed-out translation agency recruiters eagerly scanning my CV for the word “German” before it is slung onto a virtual pile of identical files and never seen again. “Sure, she has in-house experience but she only speaks French? We’ll talk when she can at least offer us a degree in another subject as well. Our list of French-speaking physicists is down to about 7000”. Then, when I try to put that negativity aside, I’ll remember applying to Amazon as a freelance translator when I was at university. My friend and I applied on the same day. We filled in the application forms together. I never heard a word from them, she was recruited within the week. Her secret? You guessed it, she speaks German.
Anyway, back to John. John, who worked in-house for a whole year less than I did, assured me that the work would be coming in steadily within six weeks. Ahem. Been six weeks, John. Not eaten for a while now. Now, another slight problem with John is that he tends to embellish the truth slightly in order to make himself feel better. Basically, John lied to me and I’m narked about it.
Exasperated at not having worked for two weeks straight, I turned to my friend Patience. I had recommended Patience, a French and Spanish speaker, to a company who needed some Spanish translation doing and she had emailed to say thanks and ask how freelancing was going. I was straight with her. Freelancing sucked. I had done three jobs in the entire time I’d been working and one of them was for my mum. Patience, rather than telling me that everything would be fine, told me that it was six months before she’d started working properly. Six months. Six whole months! I could have kissed her.
She told me how she’d sat at the kitchen table and cried – the bills mounting up on the one hand and a complete lack of income on the other. She told me that some of the agencies she’d applied to didn’t get back to her for two *years*. She told me that her own freelancing mentor had had to talk her down from the ledge a couple of times and it was only then that she told me that everything would be fine.
The sudden rush of joy that I felt at not being the only one was overwhelming. This was what I needed – the naked, ugly truth. I didn’t need people to lie to me about how great things were in the beginning. I didn’t need to hear how wonderful life was for anyone fortunate enough not to have dropped German at GCSE (all jokes aside, I really could kick myself). Patience may not have known it but that day she talked me down from the ledge. And now I promise to try and do the same for you – a no-holds-barred account of what it’s really like to start out as a freelancer. Warts and all.
And in the interests of full disclosure – I have had two jobs so far this week. Both legal, both horrendously difficult but both two of the best jobs I’ve ever had.