That Old Freelance Magic

Does this ever happen to you? While learning a new language, you come across a word you’ve never seen before.  No sooner have you entered it into your internal glossary than it suddenly seems to start popping up everywhere, forcing you to wonder whether it was there all along and you just didn’t notice, or whether there is some maleficent force in the universe playing games with your head by strategically placing newly learned terminology right where you’d least expect it.

Something similar has been happening to me over the past few weeks, ever since I wrote that post on the freelance interpreter’s summer. It seems that everywhere I turn these days, I see blog posts about freelancing. The most likely explanation for this is that the blogosphere has always been full of this sort of thing, and that only now that I have started making my own contributions am I noticing others’. Another possibility is that these other freelance bloggers, like myself, find the freelance lifestyle to be highly appropriate subject matter for summer posts. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Be it as it may, I’d like to share some of the more interesting posts on freelancing that I’ve come across this summer.

First there was a post by The Liaison Interpreter where he explained that there is virtually no such thing as a freelancer in Japan (Trust, freelancing and the Financial Dpt., July 22). As someone who lives in the land of autónomos, pymes and the S.L.U., I found this a very interesting read.

A few days later, Translation Times posted information on a freelance survey and encouraged readers to participate (Changing the Perception of Freelancers, August 1). Proof of just how slow off the mark I am this summer is that I didn’t read the full post until the survey deadline (August 9) had passed, so I can’t even do the same and encourage those of you reading this to contribute your replies. However, I do look forward to hearing about the results when they come out this fall.

The translation blog Want Words had Twitter all a-flutter in late July and early August, with the publication of two posts on freelancing that struck a chord in some readers and raised hackles in others (8 Reasons to hate freelance translation, July 29; When not to go into freelance translation, August 2). I won’t say which of these it did in me, but I will say that the author certainly appears to subscribe (like yours truly) to the school of thought that blogs are meant to provoke debate.

And finally, the author of Dolmetscher-Berlin posted a lovely photo of herself enjoying the good life and then proceeded to explain why being a freelancer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially in the summertime (Süsses Leben, August 9). I enjoyed this post, not just for the photo and the freelance talk, but also for the up-to-date insights it offered into the workings of an industry I was briefly involved in many years ago: script translation.

Crisis? What Crisis?

Usually, I take my freelance status pretty much as a given, and the above posts also seem to follow the line that a language service provider’s life is, practically by definition, that of the self-employed. But an innocent question asked by a curious friend at dinner last night reminded me that for a conference interpreter with my profile, there is, at least theoretically, another option.

“Why have you never applied to be a staff interpreter for the EU?” was the question. The one reason that trumps all others, and which basically makes the decision a no-brainer for me, is that I wouldn’t want to uproot my family of isleños and cart them off to Brussels. The long answer, the bulk of which I’ll spare readers but which my friend received in full last night, also includes the fact that I’ve never had a “proper job” in my life and I’m not entirely sure I have the personality type for it.

This brings me to a very useful checklist that AIIC has put together for young people thinking about becoming interpreters. It’s a short quiz entitled “Will a professional conference interpreter’s lifestyle suit me?”, and if you have been asking yourself this question, then I highly recommend you go through it and see how you fare. As the quiz itself indicates, there are no wrong answers.

At some point, The Interpreter Diaries will be looking in more detail at the relative merits of freelance vs. staff interpreting (and how one usually goes about trying to become one or the other). Personally, I reckon that as long as I have more boxes ticked off under the “freelance” column than under the “staff” one, then I am still doing all right. Of course, the big brother of the “mid-summer crisis” is the mid-life crisis, and one never really knows when that one might strike …

13 thoughts on “That Old Freelance Magic

  1. Honestly, all this loud talk about freelancing on the translation twittersphere and blogosphere is making me sick. True, some postings do offer real value and genuinely useful information – your blog is always an inspiration, as are Translation Tribulations and Dolmetscher-Berlin. But most others give me the impression that their authors are spending more time reading and writing about freelancing than actually being a freelancer. I mean, how can translators who say they work only 7 days a month (earning “just enough to survive”) spend most of their time on Twitter posting links to articles about freelancing? I may be missing something here, but for now I prefer to distance myself from that lout talk about freelancing. It will definitely go away sometime, as more and more freelance translators find out that they should be making their businesses grow, instead of just talking about making it grow.

    • Thanks for your comments, Fabio. I’m a great fan of your blog, myself. I’m always sending your posts to my Portuguese teacher, who has been asking me questions lately about the translation market that I have found myself unable to answer.

      I imagine everyone has their own motivations for writing a blog. My own is to offer information, hopefully nicely packaged, to people interested in finding out more about conference interpreting. From the feedback I’ve received so far, my impression is that is how it is generally being received. Others may have other reasons for being active on the blogosphere. Could some of it have to do with the translator/interpreter’s desire to find their own voice instead of always expressing others’?

      You’ve been around for longer than I have, so I guess you know better than most whether this freelance thing is a recent trend or more like constant background noise. The good thing about everything that’s on offer on the social media is that we can read (and share) what we consider useful and simply ignore the rest 😉 .

  2. Michelle, ¡qué lástima que me pasó lo mismo que a ti con el post de Translation Times…! Como lo de la UE, Bruselas y echar raices en otro sitio, amén de la vida de empleada más que de autónoma, voy a hacer el test de AIIC que sugieres ¡a ver qué resultado sale!

    Un abrazo,

  3. Well what is interesting is that I think many interpreters are people who like to move around and have a lot of control over where they live and where they work. I don’t seem to have met many interpreters who were very set on routine and predictability. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but inherent to working as an interpreter is doing a huge amount of self-motivated learning every day – to me, this seems to go hand in hand with being self-employed. As a future conference interpreter, I am torn, though. There are definite advantages to being a staff interpreter… and disadvantages too.

    I really like your blog and read it assiduously. Do you think you could maybe do a post on how to enter the job market after graduating? It’s got me a little crazy. Thank you!

    • @Louise: I think there are as many different lifestyle preferences as there are interpreters out there. I know freelancers who detest travel but do it bcause they don’t have any other choice. And I know staff interpreters who volunteer for every mission they can because they love to travel so much. Then you have the freelancers who live in a place with large local market who probably get plenty of work and still get to sleep in their own beds at night. So it’s not really correct to equate freelancing with traveling and staff positions with a sedentary lifestyle.

      The same holds for routine and predictability – it’s not entirely true to say that staffers always have more of this and freelancers less. A freelancer with a few very steady customers will find their work quite routine and predictable. And staffers have plenty of in-house opportunities for professional development that offers them variety – learning new languages, terminology management, training, testing, outreach projects, administrative responsibilities …

      To your other question about whether I could write a post on entering the job market: I will be spending the next few months looking at training, after which I will start a new section that looks at market-related issues. I hope you can hold on that long. Anyway, there’s no silver bullets or magic formulas, it’s mostly a matter of common sense and hard work.

  4. Hi there!

    I have not worked officially as an interpreter so I cannot have a mature say in this topic. I am neither a freelancer nor a staff interpreter at the moment!

    However, I think both ways of professional development have a great number of advantages. In my view, the interpreters’ personality has a direct effect on the professional path they choose. Personally, I feel that a strong sense of identification with the principles defended by some international organisations – such as peace or development cooperation – may be a source of interest for potential staff interpreters who want to do their bit.

    That is why – as far as I’m concerned – some Translation and Interpretation students dream of becoming a staff interpreter in the UN or in the EU from the very beginning of their studies. I think they are not attracted only to the magic emanating from these organisations, but also to their objectives.

    In short, what I want to express is that when you are a staff interpreter – especially when you work for an international organisation – you feel you belong to a big team and you know you are not only interpreting but also contributing to develop other fields of work. When you’re a freelancer you may do so too, but you get a different kind of fulfillment.

    I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that I have just opened my blog (The Booth Inhabitant). Through this blog I would like to tell everything I do day by day within the framework of my master’s degree on Conference Interpreting starting next September. It will be written in Spanish!


    • @David, I’m pleased to hear about your new blog, and I look forward to following it over the coming months.

      If you’re interested in personal fulfillment or identification with a cause, you don’t have to go rushing to apply to the international institutions to get it. The non-institutional freelance market offers plenty of that as well (for example: a number of colleagues of mine from AIB spent some days this August interpreting for Amnesty International). As for belonging to a team, freelance interpreters can also become involved in collaborative efforts that give them this same sort of satisfaction. So again, I don’t think its necessary to work on staff in order to get this type of experience.

      You should remember, of course, that as an interpreter you are not there to defend your own ideals, but to express the views of the person you are interpreting for. And working for the EU or UN does not mean that you will agree with everything that is said there. Again, some examples: the European Parliament has groups ranging from the Greens to the European Conservatives and Reformists and everything in between. Interpreters may find themselves defending organic farming in one breath and pushing for more subsidies for intensive farming in the next. At the European Economic and Social Committee (one of the EU bodies whose interpreting services are provided by DG SCIC), one group represents employers, while another represents workers and trade unions. An interpreter can’t possibly agree in principle with absolutely everything that is said by everyone there. And yet they have to endeavour to sound as convincing as the original speaker each and every time!

      Anyway, these are the sorts of things that become clearer over time and with experience. Thanks again for your contributions, and I look forward to reading your blog!

  5. From my standpoint as an agency-owner that works with many freelancers, I would say that for the most part, “good” interpreters have work on a regular basis, despite the economy. They are a dedicated, ethical and curious group that is always learning to stay ahead of the curve and thus in high demand. They are well-rounded individuals that can transition from one industry to another with seemingly little effort and are familiar with much relatively obscure sociological information that surprisingly comes in handy (in comparison to their non-interpreter counterparts). Unless they have family or other obligations that affect the interpreting lifestyle, on the whole, they prefer to be self-employed, because of the freedom it gives them despite the security tradeoff that comes with a regular paycheck.
    To Louise, who commented above, I would recommend to spare no efforts at becoming the best that you can professionally. At the same time, try to become the best human being that you can, and it will all pay off. You will naturally be your own best promoter and never lack work as long as you have the natural ability and don’t compromise on either front.

    • Thanks for the very insightful comments, Maria Cristina. I subscribe fully to what you’ve said in response to Louise’s question. However, I wouldn’t necessarily say that interpreters tend to prefer to be self-employed – there are always plenty of applicants to the open competitions for staff interpreters at the EU, so those interpreters, at least, would clearly prefer the regular paycheck! 😉

      My plan is to dedicate a number of posts to these issues at some point in the future – it’s hard to do it all justice in a comments section.

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