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!


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.

Sound Advice for New Interpreters

I truly admire bloggers who manage to keep up their blogging schedule through the summer months. And I doubly admire one blog in particular for having made a number of valuable contributions to the interpreting blogosphere this summer.

I’m referring to Life in LINCS, a blog written by the members of the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies (LINCS) at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. If you follow the Interpreter Diaries on Facebook or Twitter, you will have seen me sharing a number of their posts over the past few weeks.

I particularly liked the three-part series “From gown to booth – Turning your degree into a job” on how to get started in the interpreting profession:

Hurdle nº 1: Experience required

Hurdle nº 2: Becoming a paid interpreter

Working for an international institution

So thanks very much to the people at Life in LINCS for all the great summer reading. I’m planning to address market entry for new interpreters on the pages of the Diaries in the weeks to come, so if the topic interests you, please stay tuned!


The Long Dark Summertime of the Soul

“That’s it for this season! I won’t be back in the booth until mid-September.” These words were spoken by a colleague of mine almost a month ago now (on June 17, to be exact). Her comment got me thinking about one of the things at the top of freelance conference interpreters’ minds around this time of year: the dreaded summer break.

Now, don’t get me wrong: freelance interpreters like their summer holidays as much as the next person! The problem, really, is that we tend to get far too much of them. Take my colleague, for example. Let’s assume (reasonably, I think) that she, like many freelance interpreters in Europe, won’t be getting back into the booth until the second Strasbourg session in September, which starts on the 26th. That gives her a whopping one hundred days of summer vacation between interpreting jobs.

That figure, while falling just short of the 104 days that Phineas and Ferb made famous, is still considerably more than most other professionals would consider necessary to recover from a busy spring season. This year, my own summer break will start tomorrow (which explains why I am writing about holidays today) and will last until my first fall contract on September 12th. That gives me a total of 65 days to do … what?

I know it’s from the wrong book, but still, it fits here, don’t you think?

Well, first I’ll spend some time recovering from a grueling spring season that saw me travel 83,599 km and spend 62 nights away from home (I know this for a fact, because I have this little app on LinkedIn that actually keeps track of my travel times and distances – depressing, really). I also plan to refamiliarize myself with where everything is kept in my kitchen and bathroom at home, not to mention reintroduce myself to my kids.

A big highlight of my summer will be the trip I’ll be taking back to the homeland to see my family and celebrate both my mom’s birthday (the big 65) and my Oma’s birthday (the big 100). That trip, which starts this weekend (yay!), will take up what’s left of July.

Then what? Well, it would be great, having fully recharged the ol’ batteries and caught up with my family, to be able to get back down to work upon my return home on August 1st.

Of course, we all know that’s impossible. I can hear my readers laughing uproariously already. Everybody knows the entire European continent shuts down for the month of August while its population heads for the beach or the mountains, and there’s nothing that you or I or anyone else can do to change that. This is where the bright, happy summer break starts turning into a very long, dark summertime indeed.

Wowbagger, eat your heart out…

A conference interpreters’s working life – being concentrated, for obvious reasons, into the periods when people hold conferences – is highly seasonal. In Europe at least, the busy seasons for interpreting are surprisingly short, with one peak from March to May and another from October to November. The Germans have a good word to describe the lengthy bit in between: they call the dip in activity seen in many industries in August the Sommerloch. For interpreters, I’d say it’s not so much a “hole” as a gaping chasm.

The Long and the Short of It

Despite the seasonal nature of our work, interpreters, like all other people, have to pay the rent or mortgage, the car loan, and all the other bills on a monthly basis. So what does this mean? Well, for me at least, it means working like even more of a madwoman in the short high season so that I have something left over to make it through the long summer. For others, it might mean taking on other types of work to bridge the gap.

The good news here is that the translation industry seems to work in reverse to the interpreting industry. Companies seem to tend to get their big jobs ready to ship out for translation just before they shut down for the summer – and expect to have the translations sitting on their desks waiting for them when they open up shop again on September 1st. This summer translation peak is manna from heaven for those interpreters who also translate. They get to spend those empty days actually earning money instead of just watching it disappear from their bank accounts. A bonus here is that many full-time professional translators also choose to take some time off over the summer, meaning that companies are more likely to call upon “standbys” to fill the gap.

Of course, not all interpreters can or do translate (I touched briefly upon this point in my recent article for IAPTI, Confessions of a Conference Interpreter). Similarly, not all interpreters are lucky enough to be able to work “overtime” in high season to compensate for the lack of earnings during the rest of the year. I guess everybody has to find their own way of coping with the lack of income over the summer season, and there are probably as many solutions as there are interpreters in this world.

Busy, Busy …

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that conference interpreters sit around doing nothing at all during their extended summer break. On the contrary, interpreters are notorious for finding ways of keeping themselves busy, and so I suspect there are precious few out there just sitting around all summer bemoaning their underoccupied fate.

One excellent way to fill up those long summer days is to use them for professional development. Learning new languages or brushing up on the ones they already speak are probably among the favorite summertime occupations for interpreters. This can be done in any number of ways: by arranging stays in countries where the language is spoken, ensuring their summer reading list includes books in those languages, or signing up for extra language classes.

Professional development can also come in the form of one of the many summer courses targeted at conference interpreters. This year, there are refresher courses for practicing interpreters being offered at Cambridge, Lisbon, Heriot Watt University in Ediburgh, Germersheim, York University in Toronto, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,  and probably some other places I’ve missed. There was supposed to be a refresher course this summer at the University of Westminster, too, but we all know what happened to that plan. Also, there is a Training for Trainers seminar scheduled for early September in Budapest and run by the incomparable Dick Fleming. The UIMP summer school is not specifically targeted at interpreters, but is a popular summer destination for colleagues planning to add Spanish. And there are probably many more courses that I haven’t heard about.

Anyone looking to network in person this summer might want to check out the FIT’s XIX World Congress in San Francisco on the topic of “Bridging Cultures”. Conference interpreting highlights on the conference agenda include keynote speeches by Olga Cosmidou, Director General of Interpreting for the European Parliament and Benoît Kremer, President of AIIC. Funnily enough, the World Congress is being held in August. I don’t know whether this is an admission of the fact that interpreters have nothing better to do at that time of year, or if it is because other unwritten rules apply to the U.S. conference season that I know nothing about.

As for my own long, dark summertime of the soul, I imagine that I will be forced to spend much of August emptying my inbox, which currently boasts almost 2000 unsorted emails and is sure to have doubled in size by the time I get back from my three-week-long, largely internet-free holiday (just for readers’ information, I have prepared and scheduled blog posts throughout the month of July, so there will be something coming out every week while I am away). Also, my Portuguese teacher has come up with the brilliant idea of holding a test in the first week of September, an event for which I am woefully unprepared. Well, I guess I’ve got 65 long, summer days ahead of me to remedy that …