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Mrs H Translates

The Tale of a Freelance Translator

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The lonelier side of self-employment

Having successfully navigated 18 months of marriage, Mr H and I have, like so many newlyweds before us, tentatively turned our attention to the omnipresent “what shall we do about having children” question. Now, whilst I am aware that there are countless bridges to cross before I find myself responsible for another human being, my Type A personality has got me considering my options.

First up: where would I work once the baby was here?

You may find that, especially if you’re a woman, well-meaning friends and family members assure you that freelancing is the ideal choice for working mums. These people are not translators. As much as I wish translation was a booming industry, I find I need to work more than the length of a two-hour nap to pay the bills. Furthermore, if I’ve had so much as a glass of wine the night before a job about different types of pliers then my mind starts to wander, so I can’t imagine 30 minutes of sleep a night would be great for quality. And if Spotify’s “Music for concentration” playlist tinkling away gently in the background ruins my focus, then I doubt a loop of screaming baby or—worse—Peppa Pig on repeat would be overly helpful.

What’s more, although I’m obviously no expert on the matter, I’m led to believe that babies require a fair amount of attention. Maybe they’re not going to be up for sitting quietly in a bouncy chair while I spend eight hours at my desk. 

Throw in the fact that we only have a two-bedroomed house (one of which is currently my office) and the idea that, working from home, I would have no neutral office setting to return to after having my world turned upside down, and it’s starting to look like I might need to rent some desk space. 

I absolutely love translating. I love that I’m lucky enough to combine two of the things I enjoy the most: languages and writing. I love that I actually get to use the degree that I worked so hard for. For the most part, I feel so lucky that this is what I get to do. The only thing I don’t love is the loneliness.

I miss people. When you work from home, there’s no one to go for a cup of tea with or eat lunch with. There’s no one to act as a sounding board for any issues, professional or otherwise. If my computer randomly restarts mid-job and loses half a day’s work, there’s no co-worker to sigh at or boss to step in and negotiate a deadline extension. Some days, the only person I see is my husband. And as lucky as I know I am to even see him when so many people working from home also live alone, I am beginning to think I’m losing the ability to talk to other people. And to him (I also have a tendency to unload every thought I’ve had that day as soon as he steps through the door, probably hoping for a sit down and a bit of peace).

I’ve weighed up my options:

  1. Work in cafés, spending money I don’t have on fuelling a budding coffee and cake addiction
  2. Work in the library, surrounded by children on school trips and trying to avoid the crazy man who once followed my friend home
  3. Rent desk space

On paper, desk space is the answer. It will give me somewhere to go to better separate my work life and home life; it will provide me with a potential-post-baby sanctuary; it will help me get socialised; it will save our heating bills in the middle of winter and, most importantly, it will save Mr H from two hours of saying “uh-huh” to hundreds of tedious statements.

Yes, desk space is surely the answer, my friends. So I’m setting off to find something suitable. 

I’ll report back.

Mrs H

Freelancing frenzy

Ok, so barring a post that I wrote eight months ago and then posted around ten minutes ago, I have become delinquent with my blog. I have been cheating on creativity with productivity, and focussing all my energy on my—pause for dramatic effect—work.

Before I started freelancing, and in those first few months when I was, at best, scraping by, the old pros assured me that it would take six months to get established. I held on to that number like a beacon of hope. “Sure, things are rubbish now, but I am only three months in. Of course they are! Why would I expect anything else?” Then, “OK, so now I’m five months and 25 days in. But that still isn’t six months. At six months I’ll be turning down work left, right and centre! Maybe I should hire an assistant now…”

Obviously, six months is not a concrete timeframe. As this imaginary deadline approached, I became nervous. I know a lot of translators and, in my experience, we’re a delicate breed. We pore over every carefully crafted sentence for hours and tie ourselves up in knots about the two possible, and near identical, translations of an almost irrelevant word. Add to that a complete lack of external validation and you have, in my case, a disaster theorist. What if I was the exception to the rule? What if it took me 12 months to get established? What if it took 18? What if no one ever contacted me to offer me any work ever again and I never made a penny? Or what if I actually just wasn’t very good at my job?

On Judgement Day (1st July) I received no new work. Fortunately, I was preoccupied with a job I’d started on 28 June and otherwise too distracted to notice that I didn’t actually receive any further new work until *over* six months after my initial freelancing start date.

But then, something wonderful happened. Things actually did start to pick up. OK, I might have been in the slower freelancing group and it might have taken me slightly over this magical six-month mark to get going. But things did get going.

Don’t get me wrong, every time I take a job I fear it will be my last. One day, I only had an hour’s work and immediately took to Monster to search for employment opportunities in the surrounding area. In an attempt to stash away enough money for an unknown quantity of rainy days, I worked all last weekend and have consequently thought every day since then has been Thursday. I haven’t perfected my methods yet, but I feel grateful that at least I have something to work with now.

The new plan is learning to become a more well-rounded, better organised freelancer,  who doesn’t take absolutely everything that’s offered to her and turn into a reclusive crazy person.

So cheers to that and cheers to Friday! Oh wait…

Mrs H

 

 

 

Hello, this is Freelancing

The other day, Mr H said to me, “if freelancing were a relationship, you’d still only be dating”.

I laughed at the comparison, but then realised he actually had a point. Freelancing and I are not quite comfortable with each other yet. We haven’t really got into a routine or found our rhythm. Finances are still a bit of a taboo subject and, quite frankly, I’m not really sure where it’s all going.

Now, don’t get me wrong: this is definitely not a relationship that I plan to give up on anytime soon. Sure, we have our ups and downs and, if we’re being honest, Freelancing can be a little unforthcoming sometimes, but I am willing to work on our issues. After all, Freelancing is being completely true to who it is, it’s me who has the problem.

Over the past few weeks, it has started to dawn on me just how much of my identity is linked to my career. When I worked in house, I would put in nine- or ten-hour days pretty much every day. As a result, I could never make any concrete weekday plans with Mr H, or indeed my friends. My weekends would then be crammed with visits, chores and wedmin. The fact that I had to be booked months in advance became a bit of a running joke and, let’s get something straight here, I am hardly the social butterfly that that comment would suggest. I loved translating, but as I climbed the ranks in my agency, I ended up instead spending most of my time checking the work of more junior staff members or freelancers.

Every time a particularly horrible text landed on my desk that had been rejected by all of our freelancers, I dreamed of freelancing. Every time I was invited out for drinks at 5 but then had to work until 7, I dreamed of freelancing. Every time I missed the post and had to rearrange collection of a parcel from the depot, I dreamed of freelancing. Every time I had to drag myself out in the dark and pouring rain to get to the office, I dreamed of freelancing.

The reality of freelancing has been somewhat different. In less than six months, I have gone from 200 mph to 0. Now, if you asked December Mrs H whether she fancied a few months of only working a few days a week and spending the rest of her time as a lady of leisure, she would almost certainly bite your hand off. Just think how much trashy TV she could get through with Mr H out of the house! She would get her hair cut and her nails done in the middle of the day and go to the supermarket when no one else was there. She could make plans every evening and always be on time.

Of course, with no work coming in, that means no money for beauty treatments or dinner plans. No one else is home during the day, so you can’t even suggest a walk in the park to get you out of the house. And eight hours is actually a really long time to fill with trashy TV shows. Plus, if you spend all your time relaxing but are not actually doing anything to warrant all that relaxation then you start to feel a bit, well, worthless really.

For a few weeks, I was genuinely concerned that I might go full-on crazy. Would I forget how to talk to people? Would I continue my new disturbing habit of talking to myself? Would my brain just start to shrivel up and die as a result of all the “Married by Mum and Dad” it had been subjected to?

The fact is, when I have translation work in, I couldn’t be happier. I am occupied all day and, more often than not, have plans in the evening that I’d made in case I didn’t have any work in and feared doing nothing other than sloping around the house for 24 hours. Those days, I am living the freelancing dream. It’s the days without any work that are taking some adjusting to.

No matter what, I make myself get out of bed and into the shower. I get dressed and have breakfast and generally just pretend that I am off to work. Sometimes, I treat myself to a bit of housework before I start (or indeed instead of) working. Sometimes, I am fired up and eager to find new agencies to apply to. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with myself and end up curled up on the sofa reading Harry Potter and wishing I lived at Hogwarts.

Today, I went for a run. The sun was out, the park was quiet and when I got back I felt wonderful. Perhaps all it really takes is a few things that I can control (running every morning, eating lunch at 1pm) and the rest will fall into place. Maybe the traditional 9-5 isn’t really for me anyway. Maybe I need to sit down with Freelancing and talk about what I really want from this relationship. Then maybe, just maybe, Freelancing and I will be OK.

Mrs H

 

 

If at first you don’t succeed…

Not going to lie, April was shaping up to be a bit of a rubbish freelancing month.

Firstly, Mr H and I were about as ill as I can remember being for a very, very long time. We were struck down by the type of flu that leaves you feeling as though you will never leave the sofa again, let alone the house. The kind of flu that actually takes weeks to recover from and leaves you feeling a bit shaken and a bit down on life in general. Plus, the fact that self-employed freelance translators do not get sick pay was suddenly an all too real issue for me.

The second, and I do not say this lightly, truly horrendous thing that happened was that, while in the very darkest hours of flu-fighting, I received an email from a translation agency to tell me I had failed their translation test. Even typing it now sends a ripple of horror through me. How can I be trying to establish myself as a freelance translator when I can’t even pass a simple translation test? How awful at my job must I actually be? After crying for about four hours and feeling ashamed for, well, I’ll let you know how that one turns out, I began to try to dissect what had happened.

The reviewer of my (technical) French to English test had commented (in French) that my English did not flow well and that the piece read like a literal translation. Now, I am sure that you don’t need me to tell you that this is just about some of the worst feedback a translator can receive. Translation 101: Must not read like a literal translation. Devastated, I picked over the corrections and then realised what had happened. I had missed an idiomatic expression that, hand to God, I had never heard before in my native-English speaking life. As a result, the reviewer had branded my work “too literal” and I had been kicked out of the club. Apparently, the fact that all the technical terminology was correct or that I had checked the client’s website to make sure I was using their preferred terms or that I had converted all measurements accurately and into the right units counted for nothing.

My new best friend the Internet is rife with the musings of spurned translators on the subject of test translations. I saw every side of the argument and comments ranging from “my translation was sabotaged because the reviewer knew I’d done an amazing job and was afraid of the competition” (hmm) to “no good translator has ever failed a test translation” (ouch).

Now, while I would love to believe that my translation was so stunningly good that the rest of the freelance community now fear for their livelihoods, I unfortunately tend to react to criticism in a more “oh my God I am terrible” kind of way. With that in mind, I replied to the agency in question and said how disappointed I was with the outcome but thanked them for their time.

For the next couple of weeks, I dreaded the chirp of my work email. Please, no one send me translation: I suck! This agency told me so. Feeling betrayed by my profession, not to mention a crushing sense of humiliation and failure, I retreated into myself and decided I would never make it as a freelance translator. That was it. The dream was over, I was rubbish at everything. I began Googling admin jobs.

Then, I met up with my former boss from my old agency. She was astonished that I had simply rolled over and taken the rejection and hadn’t put forward any arguments as to all the things that I had got right. Translation is so subjective, if someone else had marked my test then maybe the outcome would have been different. I get it, but the fact is that what I was offering didn’t work for this agency and I started to think that maybe this had happened for a reason. This agency had already negotiated my rate down by 33% and, if they were so quick to fail me based on something that wasn’t really related to the test I was taking, then how quick would they be to refuse to pay me for work because they didn’t like my style? Yes, I had failed and yes, it felt horrible but these things happen. I had to pick myself up and get on with it. I may not know every idiomatic expression in the English language, but I do know what all the parts of a tractor are called and how to interpret technicians’ notes on what’s wrong with your intake manifold. I just needed to find some agencies that did like what I had to offer.

The next week, I got a call from a different agency. They had an urgent job that would take four days and pay me half the monthly income of my previous in-house role. I was nervous, but determined to do the best that I could. One day into the job, I got another email. I had done a translation a while back for a certain client, and they had contacted the agency to request me personally for another one. In the “feast or famine” way that seems to define freelancing, I had to turn it down but, honestly, it was a bit of a career highlight and exactly what I needed to lift my spirits.

This industry is tough. You’re never going to be able to please everyone all the time. You just have to do the best you can, always act professionally and learn to take the rough with the smooth.

Mrs H

 

Onwards and upwards

Yesterday, I received my first rejection.

Now, as you may remember, I have previously lamented the fact that the majority of my application emails have gone unanswered. I naively thought that there was nothing worse than the anguish of not knowing whether or not my application had been accepted, of not knowing whether I was saying the right things or quoting the right prices. Turns out I was wrong. Actually, my fragile ego is much happier believing that one day my acceptance email will come.

Having never been a massive fan of rejection (who is, right?) I will generally go out of my way to avoid it. With that in mind, the agencies I have applied to so far have been the bigger ones that I have heard of, or ones where I know people who work there. Basically, I tried to play it safe. I applied to this particular agency safe in the knowledge that they provide a steady supply of work to many of my former colleagues. I was reassured by the fact that I know not one, but two project managers who work there. So yesterday, when I received an email informing me that ‘they were not looking for translators with my profile’, I will admit to being a little crushed.

With my beloved Mr H working away in London and unavailable for rejection crisis talks, I took to the Internet to make sure that I was not the first freelance translator that this had happened to. I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that I was not. I really was comforted by the number of blog posts that addressed rejection specifically within the freelance translation community, and the overriding message of all of them was the same: don’t take it personally. Now, sensitive creative souls that we are, I think that this is an easy thing to say (and honestly mean!) to other people, but a difficult thing to take on board ourselves.

Last weekend, I went to visit my best friend. A psychologist by trade, weekends with her tend to involve food, wine and free therapy. I come away with my troubles eased, if not ever so slightly hungover. On this visit, I told her I was struggling with the lack of control I had over the freelancing situation. I didn’t know when the next job was coming in, or which agencies were going to sign me up, or whether I would even be successful. This then spiralled into worrying about the lack of control I had over other things: when we’d finally be able to afford to get the car fixed, when the DVLA would return my updated driving licence and our marriage certificate, when Mr H’s bank would finally authorise the payment he has tried to make to me six times so I can pay my credit card (and tax the car that won’t start). Dr Beth poured me a glass of wine and said, sounding exactly like a psychologist, “without wanting to sound like a psychologist, you may not be able to control those things, but you can control how you feel about them”.

I realised then that I could take back the power. I couldn’t force this agency to want me on their books, but I could deal with the rejection in a professional and positive way. So I emailed them back and thanked them for at least taking the time to let me know. I then decided to change my approach towards applying to agencies. Rather than following the masses to the biggest agencies, I would actually back myself and seek out the ones that specialise in my languages and skills. Translation is my passion. I want this more than anything, and in order to get it, I’m going to have to put myself out there. And by putting myself out there, I am putting myself in the path of rejection.

So I’m going in. Cross your fingers for me, I’ll keep you posted.

Mrs H

 

Honesty is the best policy

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.

Mrs H

 

 

The kindness of former employers

Today I hit my second, as it turns out relatively minor, bump in this twisty turny road towards freelancing.

Things were off to a great start this morning when I sent off an application to an agency and – pause for dramatic effect – actually received a reply. After getting over the shock of seeing a name pop up on my email app that did not belong to my husband, I eagerly opened the correspondence only to learn that the references I had provided were not acceptable. Following in the footsteps of my freelance mentor before me, I had only given the names of referees who worked at my former company. In retrospect, this may not have been the best idea; but the truth is that my confidence in having worked in-house for one of the biggest translation agencies in the world had clouded my judgement. Why on Earth would they care about any previous jobs? Surely dropping the name of this industry heavyweight was all it would take to get me onto anyone else’s books? Sadly not.

Now, I mentioned that this was the second bump in the freelancing road, the first bump being a request from an agency to see copies of my degree certificates. Cue panicked search of the house before realising that 1) I had absolutely no idea where said certificates were 2) The most likely place for said certificates to be was in a storage locker in my home town. Two hours’ drive away (our car hasn’t started for about three months now). On that occasion, my poor mother and stepfather saved the day; spending a Sunday morning pawing through black bags full of papers that spanned thirty years. Unfortunately, this time I’d probably have to sort the problem out without my mummy.

Just one further snag with regard to references. My former boss is on maternity leave. Oh, and the company that we worked for dissolved two years ago. Feeling justifiably foolish at having assumed my reference from the one company would be good enough, I wrote back to the agency and explained the situation in the overly explanatory, too-much-information way that I tend to slip into when panicked. Meanwhile, I emailed my former boss and hastily begged her for a reference. Then felt terrible on both counts.

Just as I was sinking into a spiral of self-loathing at interrupting my former employer’s wondrous first months with the brand-new life she had created, she got in touch to say she’d be happy to provide a reference. To her, it was nothing. To me, it was a resolution to always, always do whatever I could to help anyone feel the gratitude that I felt then.

If I’ve learned anything from the past few days it would be that it doesn’t cost the Earth to do a good deed. This weekend, I saw someone administer CPR to a half-marathon runner who had collapsed just past the finish line. Although the runner is sadly still in a critical condition, there is a very real chance that that person saved his life. Sometimes, amidst a media storm of hatred and gloom, remembering the good in people can go a really long way. Giving someone a reference is by no means a matter of life and death, but to me it made a difference. Things may be tricky on the job front right now, but if ever I can, I want to be the person who brightens someone’s day just that little bit. There’s nothing to stop me doing that.

Mrs H

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping the boredom at bay

Well hello there! My name is Mrs H.

First things first, let’s be clear that I don’t actually expect anyone to read this (perhaps in part due to the fact that I don’t intend to tell anyone about it). I don’t mean that to sound as negative or indeed “insolent teenager” as it does, but the point of this is rather more cathartic. You see, for the past two months I have been rattling around the house alone and have now reached that dreaded point where I have started talking to myself. With my mind flooded with images of crazy cat ladies, I figured I may as well talk to the Internet. Somehow it feels much more socially acceptable. Kind of like talking to God but with a slightly higher chance of getting a reply.

Perhaps I should explain. I am a newlywed. I adore my husband and his support is beyond compare. His ability to deal with the crazy is a constant source of amazement to me, but the reality is that I now spend my days dying white washing pink and making meals that my better-employed half describes as “a good starting point”. Two months ago, I was different. I had a job. I had a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I had a reason to wash my hair.

I am starting to realise that I had always been one of those smug individuals who flitted from one job straight into the next, leaving a trail of budding career paths in my wake. Waitress, estate agent, property lawyer. I inadvertently viewed jobs in the same way others might see relationships – when I’m done with this one, something better will come along.

But then it happened: I fell in love. As soon as I found translation, everything changed. I knew I wanted us to be together forever and I would do whatever it took to make that happen. Months working in-house turned into years, and then my next self-assured notion was born: translation and I didn’t need anyone else, I was going to work for myself.

Flash forward two months and here we are. I am a freelance translator. I am talking to the Internet because I can no longer afford to play out with my friends (and let’s face it, the lack of hair washing probably isn’t helping either). My days are full of unanswered applications to agencies and guilt-ridden binges of Homes Under the Hammer. I wander around the house looking for washing to dye in order to avoid clearing the cellar (the only productive task that remains. I can show you a neatly filed set of bank statements dating back to 2003 should you need further proof).

All jokes aside, I am assured by everyone I know that them’s the breaks. Apparently, it will be at least another two months before I get any work, and then another two months after that before I get paid for any work that I do manage to scrounge. In the meantime, and in a bid to stave off full-blown insanity, it will just be me and you, Internet. I can practice writing and spend time Googling phrases such as “them’s the breaks” to check the grammatical accuracy. I’m going to tell you a story, and it’s a story that I don’t know the ending to yet.

So here it is: The Tale of a Freelance Translator.

And hey, maybe someone out there will even read this. And that would be lovely.

Mrs H

 

 

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