To be a freelance translator (or not to be)

I am a freelance translator, meaning I translate stuff for clients respectful of my skills and experience while drinking coffee and watching Youtube from my home computer wearing only my panties, right? RIGHT?



I am a freelance translator, meaning I translate stuff for clients respectful of my skills and experience while drinking coffee and watching Youtube from my home computer wearing only my panties, right? RIGHT?


Well, while some of it is true (I do work in my panties sometimes and watch Youtube instead of working), it’s not the joyful and peaceful ride everyone tend to think it is (that is, everyone who’s never worked from home). Matt Inman made a comic a few years back describing pretty accurately the pros and con of working from home (and it’s funny too, so you should check it). But I want to focus on one particular bad side of that kind of work: stress. Not the good stress that increases adrenaline levels and makes you more focus and causes the work high of workaholic people. I’m talking about the one that, if you build it to unreasonable levels, leads to anxiety and depression.

It’s a lot due to the social side of the work. In the translation business, work is mostly done via Internet, so I never meet my clients. They contact me by email to offer me a job, and we negotiate the rate and deadline until we agree on the terms and I do the job for them. I can also contact them out of the blue to whine about not having jobs, but ultimately, they are the ones offering. But that’s the thing, even if I work a lot for some clients, if they don’t have anything to offer at a certain time, I won’t get paid and they won’t give a single crap whether I manage to find some other gig. That’s a huge source of stress. And worst of all, I worry about that even when I’m overloaded. I can’t help but think that it could end right after the project I’m currently working on.

And it’s cumulative with the fact that sometimes, I go on vacation, so it’s a week here and there when I don’t get paid. I could also get sick, which would reduce my productivity and therefore my income depending on how sick I am. The other day, I went to my  part-time job (which I do because if I were only to do translation, I would never go out and never see the sun have a social life in a city where it’s already so hard to make contacts), and I got upset by something that normally wouldn’t trigger me, but I realized that I had built so much anxiety in the previous weeks that just a small thing could make me breakdown.

And there is something about translation that nobody usually know. It’s supposed to be a very interesting job, but really, it’s a crappy industry, and it’s not getting any better. It’s a disrespectful industry, where the translator’s skills and experience are not valued as they should. It’s like a food chain, and the translator is at the bottom of it. They get fucked from every direction, and they can’t do anything about it, because they have literally no mean of leverage against the companies they work for.

To understand that, we shall see it from the perspective of the translation company. Those companies never hire translators, because it’s not financially rewarding. It’s more interesting for them to give projects to freelancers. It’s cheaper, and they can go for different project types or language pairs without being specialized in it. So they hire project managers, who contact clients and then find a freelance translator who can do the job. So the translator can start negotiating, but ultimately, it’s the company that decides the price (you can accept it or refuse the job) because, like in any industry, there is a huge competition (obviously, the price also depends on the type of content, and the language pair, so it’s interesting for the translator to specialize).

So, now, how do companies assess the skills of the translators. Well, they follow strict regulation to meet the ISO 17100:2015 standard… just kidding! (1) Well they say they meet the standards, and their client are not gonna check that, because it’s way too complex. But, for example, standards specify that one can only translate to their mother tongue. I have translated to English for some companies, so I know that’s bullshit (2). Another one says that editors should preferably be experienced translators and specialized in the project content; well, nobody likes editing, so the experienced people refuse it, and it falls in the hand of the rookies. Again, I know that because those were almost the only jobs I was getting when I started. And how do they know if the translators are skilled enough?


Now, let’s talk about Internet. It’s a progress that has awesome and horrible consequences in translation. It’s great because it makes things so much easier; you can contact clients rapidly, get work, annoy and/or block people, and you don’t have to actually meet anyone. But the flip side is that just anybody can now say they are translators and nobody can tell if they’re bullshitting. And there are a lot of bullshitters.  Actually, it’s pretty easy to know if someone is a crappy translator: they usually don’t have a proper registration (meaning they work illegally), but the translation companies don’t check that, and it’s not because they can’t, it’s because by hiring illegal workers (or, if you prefer, by looking the other way…), they drive the prices down (3).

The current situation is so bad that in France, some people in the translator’s union wish to implement licensing for freelancers and standard prices. For the record, I am totally against that. I don’t really want to develop on that because it’s not the topic (and it’s pointless anyway since it’s an international business), but the point is that the companies should be more respectful of their freelance collaborators.

There is a problem that makes me look at other line of work: there is virtually no career path. You can’t progress because there is no hierarchy (4). The only thing you can do is train yourself to get another specialization, and you’re always behind the trend because you can only react to the change in your specialization topic. Seriously, would you do a work if you knew it would not change at all in your entire life?

And then, there is technological advancement. The killer of many industries. It’s not gonna kill human translation. At least not in the next decade. And right now it’s actually helping in many areas. One thing happened with Internet was that it made industries work faster, which resulted in higher loads of production, and therefore documentation, that need to be translated. So a good thing about technology, is that it takes care of all the boring, repetitive stuff, so you only have to focus on the more important parts. Well, almost. A new thing that came out is called Post-Editing. Basically, it’s an editing job, but you correct a translation made by a machine. Exactly, like Google Translate. It’s paid a little better than usual editing, but it’s way under translation rate, although you often have to rewrite everything because, well, you know why. Once, I’ve got a company that asked me to do a “fast” post-editing: meaning I didn’t have to write well, I just had to make it “understandable”. I drew the line there. You don’t get to ask me to write like shit so you can barely pay me.

So there, this job is a stressful hellfest, because it’s hard to be respected, and I tend to always work with the same people since we develop an understanding and it makes it easier to work together, and they supply me with a consistent load of work. But I can’t help but worry about my future in this industry, and sometimes, I break.


(1) There are other standards for various specialties, that tend to be respected, especially in legal or medical industries, because a translator error can lead to terrible outcome (let’s say some people can die in clinical trials due to a bad translation).

(2) It’s a sound rule, but one can translate in a different language, especially in technical translation where it’s very codified. It’s more complicated in literary works where style is very personal.

(3) Illegal worker don’t pay tax, so they can accept lower income. Even the most respectful companies I work with never asked me about my registration number (but I put it on every invoice).

(4) You can get hired as a project manager or expand your business to make it a normal company. But then you’re not a freelancer anymore, and you have to go by company rules, so you don’t enjoy said advantages of being a freelancer anymore.

*Comics illustrations are from Mox’s blog. It’s hilarious, go check it out


Author: Élise

I'm a 30-something French writer, living in Montréal QC, who has a lot of ideas but struggle to put them on paper. I am also socially awkward and I can't go out without my social shield.

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