The Myth of Work/Life Balance

I promised readers a guest post exploring how one interpreter-researcher manages his work/life balance, and here it is!

The Myth of Work/Life Balance

Starring: A Young Family, Interpreting, Research and Lots of Cups of Tea

by Jonathan Downie*

As I type this, my pregnant wife is reading to our nearly fifteen month old son, I am fighting a cold and preparing for an interpreting job that will last almost all of next week and there are at least three research conferences that need my attention, especially given that for one of them, I still don’t know where I will be staying. Add on the fact that I have about an hour’s worth of research interviews to transcribe and it might seem that life is pretty crazy at the moment. It is.

When I was asked to write a guest post, the first topic that was suggested was how to balance researching, interpreting and having a family. My first response, which I didn’t dare say, was that I am not sure I know how to do this myself. The reality is that it has usually been the case that when family or research demanded more of my time, interpreting work was slow anyway. I also made the decision not to do any overnight interpreting or research conferences for the first year of my son’s life. So, it was more a case of the scales being loaded one way or the other than achieving anything that an outsider would call “balance”.

But then, perhaps balance is overrated anyway. Even in the completely crazy times, like this month where everything seems to be happening at once, or like the eight days I spent in Germany for data gathering, it has never been a case of starving one part of my life to feed another. In fact, as far as possible, I have deliberately tried not to divide my life into “parts” that I try to “balance”. Instead, I have tried (and not always succeeded) to act as one person with one life that involves all of these areas rather than three or four people trying to live together in one body. In short, I try to centre everything on family, even to the point of taking my wife and son on a data gathering trip, which became a holiday for them.

I also don’t make decisions on my time on my own. Whenever something comes up that would have me away from the house overnight or even just missing my son’s bed time, I talk it through with my wife and we decide together. That way, it is much easier to resist the siren song of overwork and the lure of getting self-worth from activities, even good ones, that would distance me from my family.

It also helps me work harder. As a big social media fan and enthusiastic blogger, it is easy, all too easy, for me to spend hours on Facebook when I have data to work on or a conference to prepare for. On the days I work from home, it really helps to have someone to kindly remind me, every so often, that Facebook doesn’t pay the bills and that paid projects should take precedence over unpaid ones.

The biggest unspoken benefit of freelancing is that, when we get to work from home, we get to be present with our families and to share our work world with them. While we might occasionally moan about distractions and might want to barricade ourselves in the home office for eight hours a day, the reality is that working from home automatically melts the work/family barrier. I believe that is a good thing. Sure, we might not be as “productive” as we imagine we might be in a workplace[1] but what could be more rewarding than getting to earn money to keep a roof over your head while getting to spend time with the people you love the most?

Freelancers also get to set their own pace, within reason. I am off interpreting from Tuesday to Friday next week. As long as I get the prep work done on time, I can choose whichever hours work best to get it done. So, if my son needs a hug or if my brain needs a bit of writing to wake it up, no big deal. My son can get his hug and then he can go play with his toys while I play with IATE.

As well as melting the work/family barrier, freelancing also then gives us a unique level of flexibility and maybe our use of that flexibility is the closest we might get to what some people call “balance”. The truth is, you can’t give a toddler lunch and do terminology research at the same time, as much as it might be fun to try. You can, however, be patient over lunch time and allow time with your toddler to let your terminology settle into your brain. After all, a relaxed brain is a learning brain.

And what about research? Well, for most of this week, research hasn’t really figured on my agenda. That’s okay. As my wife reminded me, you can only do so much. One of the benefits of being a part-time PhD student is that I get flexibility there too. If I am off for a week interpreting, no problem. If anything, given that my PhD is in interpreting, it is a win-win as I get a nice reminder of what it is like to be in the booth, working under the very same weights of expectation that I am researching. Separating research and paid work makes no sense at all when they are so closely related.

To use two words that are big in research-land at the moment, instead of balance, what I am always looking for is “engagement” and “collaboration”. The first simply means that people outside of an area, say academia or interpreting, get to discuss and debate what is going on there whenever it involves them. My family have a right to be “engaged” with my work and research life since the decisions made in those areas have a direct effect on my time with them and the amount of finance coming in.

“Collaboration” goes one step further and sees us working as a team. It might be something as simple as my wife giving me the “lay person” view on a research problem I am facing or as complex and long-term as making sure we are working together as parents and as a couple. The longer we are married, the more I realise that the greatest moments aren’t found when I have gone off and achieved something on my own but when my wife and I have worked together on something. The greatest views are the ones we have shared, not the ones I saw on my own.

The problem with looking for a “work/life balance” is that it assumes that your life can and should be split into slices, which then get shared out like pieces of chocolate cake. The problem is, of course, that there is always someone or something pushing for a bigger slice. Often, what we call “work/life balance” is simply a calculation of how much sacrifice we can ask our families to make before disaster happens.

If our families are engaged with our work in creative ways and we are engaged with their lives too, something interesting happens. Even in those moments when we can’t be with them physically, as will happen when you interpret or when you are away doing research, you do those things with the help of your family and with their blessing. Instead of “work” and “life” pulling in different directions, our aim should always be to make every part of our lives into a single, coherent whole. It’s not easy, and we will make mistakes but even the journey to get there is worth it.


[1] Anyone who has ever done both will tell you that workplaces aren’t always as productive as you might think. All those watercooler chats, team meetings, sneaky games of solitaire, trips to other offices and times spent waiting for approvals add up!

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Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing your story! For more stories from interpreters about how they address the issue of work/life balance, check out these links (and don’t forget to read the comments):

Being a travelling interpreter, spouse, mom and friend (Elisabet Tiselius at Interpretings)

A call for childrearing interpreters (Matt Haldimann at 2Interpreters)

Work-life balance: not as simple as it sounds (Anne-Kirstin Krämer at The AIIC Blog)

*Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, PhD student and blogger. He is also a director on the board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. He co-edits the LifeinLINCS blog for the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University and has recently launched RockYourTalk, a blog which aims to help academic, languages professionals and preachers deliver talks that work  for the social media generation.

La experiencia en Bath

The Interpreter Diaries:

Hear about the recent Bath CPD course from the point of view of one of the students, Beatriz Abril, who has published a chronicle of her experience in Aida’s blog. Many thanks to Beatriz for her endorsement of the course that Helen Campbell and I gave in July. It was a pleasure for me to work with Beatriz and the others!

Originally posted on Aventuras de una traductora-intérprete en Madrid:

Esta crónica es la primera colaboración en el blog de Beatriz Abril, intérprete a la que tuve el placer de conocer en persona durante las jornadas dedicadas a la interpretación en el Coloquio Lucentino de Alicante en noviembre de 2012. Gracias a ella podemos saber un poco más sobre un curso de perfeccionamiento para intérpretes que se imparte en Bath.

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Mi querida Aida me ha concedido el gran honor de redactar una entrada para su blog para contar mi experiencia en el curso de interpretación de conferencias de preparación para los exámenes de Naciones Unidas y Unión Europea. Esta es mi crónica.

Este curso se celebró en la Universidad de Bath del 1 al 6 de julio (http://www.bath.ac.uk/cpd/courses/interpreting.html). Se trata de un curso intensivo de una semana de duración, eminentemente práctico y que tenía dos combinaciones posibles de idiomas: inglés y francés e inglés y español…

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Top 5 Lessons Learned in Edinburgh

Recently, I treated myself to a week in Edinburgh. No, it wasn’t a last-minute getaway or family holiday. I went to attend the Edinburgh Interpreting Research Summer School (EIRSS) organised by Heriot-Watt’s School of Management and Languages. The EIRSS brought together some 30 interpreting researchers, students and practitioners for an intensive course in all things interpreting studies-related (you can consult the full programme here). All those in attendance agreed that the EIRSS was a resounding success and that the organisers did an excellent job of putting together the inaugural edition of what is intended to become an annual event. (For a full review of the EIRSS and a look at the event’s photo album, click here.)

Photo credit: EIRSS

Photo credit: EIRSS

While I am not entirely sure my readers would be interested in learning about the virtues of qualitative vs. quantitative research or hearing about the best apps for bibliographical reference management, I do think there are a few things that I learned at the EIRSS that are of interest to the broader interpreting community. I’ve decided to choose the five main lessons I will be taking home from Edinburgh to share with readers today.

1) Interpreting Studies has come of age. Looking around the room in Edinburgh, it became quite clear to me that Interpreting Studies (IS) is alive and kicking. Some may insist on continuing to consider it a subdiscipline of Translation Studies, while others may agree with Pöchhacker that it is a full discipline it in own right. As I see it, it doesn’t really matter what you call it. As one EIRSS attendee quite aptly commented, “We’ve been saying that Interpreting Studies is young for 40 years, and it’s about time we acknowledged that it has grown up.”

Of course, the fact that IS is able to stand on its own two feet doesn’t mean it is isolated. There were constant references over the course of the week to crossovers with other fields, including Translation Studies, and one word that was on all lecturers’ lips was “interdisciplinary”. But my impression is that increasingly, IS can engage in interdisciplinary work not as the poor cousin, but as an equal partner.

2) Interpreting academics have their feet planted firmly in the 21st century. Forget dusty library stacks and stuffy academic gowns. Participants at the EIRSS were quite happy discussing the best apps for organising bibliographical references (oops! I said I wouldn’t talk about that – but do check out EndNote and RefWorks if you’re so inclined) and taking notes on their iPads (Evernote and Scrivener seem to be the favourites there). Similarly, lecturers offered tips on everything from annotation software for video transcriptions (ELAN) to online survey tools (SurveyMonkey) and statistical programs (Qualtrics).

Speaking of high tech, I’m ashamed to say that I was one of the few users of pen and paper in the room – for that I blame my old-fashioned consecutive note-taking habits, which were learned Rozan-style way back in the 20th century…

Social media got their turn at the EIRSS, of course. After some hesitation on the first day, the few hardcore tweeters in the crowd, including yours truly, managed to get a modest Twitter feed going (hashtag #EIRSS) and even succeeded in drawing a number of new converts onto what is undoubtedly the superior social network on the planet (Facebook and Pinterest, eat your heart out!).

3) It’s well worth meeting the people behind the names. A quick glance at the EIRSS programme reveals that the organisers managed to put together a star-studded list of lecturers for this first edition. Having previously only met Daniel Gile in person, I have to admit I was more than a little curious about the sort of impression that I would get meeting all these top IS researchers in person. I’m pleased to report that the experience was extremely positive.

At the EIRSS, I had the opportunity to witness great minds at work. Just to name a few: we saw Graham Turner effortlessly connecting the dots between seemingly unrelated phenomena to reveal structure where none was apparent; Daniel Gile grinning like a Cheshire cat as he discussed current trends in Conference Interpreting studies; Jemina Napier making correlational statistics actually sound like fun; and, last but not least, Cecilia Wadensjö’s eye twinkling as she undertook a content analysis of Gorbachev  speaking through an interpreter in a televised interview, naughty jokes and all. I assure you, this last one alone made the trip worthwhile.

Equally gratifying was the opportunity to meet so many up-and-coming researchers in the field, each with their own experiences, insights and research priorities. Which brings me to my next lesson…

4) It’s all about weak ties and long tails. These terms actually came up at one point in the seminar, during a discussion on how to maximize the impact of research. But I didn’t have to look up at the PowerPoint slide to know that the world runs on the strength of weak ties. All I had to do was glance around during the coffee breaks to see colleagues busily building those all-powerful weak links with like-minded people, upon which future collaborations and new initiatives will undoubtedly be built. And I have to confess I did a teensy weensy bit of networking myself (I couldn’t resist!).

5) Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I went to Edinburgh with two main questions in my mind: 1) is it possible to balance a PhD workload with raising a family, and 2) how do academics manage the financial side of things? You know, I’m thinking of the minor details like paying the bills, filling the fridge…

I asked a number of EIRSS participants these questions on the sidelines of the seminar, and the most common reply I got was a shrug, a chuckle, and “Oh, you know, one manages to muddle through somehow.” While this may not be the sort of answer I can take to the bank, it is reassuring to see that yes, generally speaking, PhD students – even those with small children and heaps of other obligations – really do manage to survive, somehow.

Which reminds me, I have a special treat for you for my next post: Jonathan Downie, a PhD student, interpreter, and yes, husband and father based in Edinburgh, has agreed to write a guest piece for me about how he manages his work/life balance. I won’t give away the punch line, but do watch this space for an upcoming article about how one interpreter manages this balancing act…

To conclude, let me just express my thanks to Katerina Strani and Raquel de Pedro of the EIRSS Organising Committee and everyone at the Edinburgh Interpreting Research Summer School for this extremely enriching experience. I have only listed five lessons learned here, but there is much, much more that I’ll take home with me from Edinburgh.