Life as a freelance translator

New premises

IMAG0769What they are now is a community apple pressing space (because I live in the sort of community that has a community apple juice cooperative) and nine rented studios. There are other people to say hello to in the morning and sometimes to have cups of tea with. The problem of having a job you love is knowing when to stop, and separate workspace makes it easier to set yourself sensible working hours. The walk is enough time to switch from work mode to home mode, and if it isn’t I can take a scenic (and muddy) detour round some fields and/or hills on the way, work-life balance is immeasurably improved and the boundaries between who is in charge of the domestic side when are much much clearer too.

The building has been sensibly converted, retaining as much of the old industrial architecture as possible. 20130627_165800Some of the offices have the metal beams running along the floor, which is very industrially Victorian  of them, but I chose one that doesn’t because the ones in the corner at the end of the corridor give me more headroom for my bookcase.  You need to get your priorities right.

If I lean back in my chair at my desk and look up through my skylight, I can see the high, narrow brewery tower in the picture above. If I look sideways through my skylight, I can see the other former brewery tower that towers above the skyline for miles.20130627_165311 It has been converted into a flat and beneath it is an antiques shop. As my son put it, “Two towers! It’s like Mordor!” Translating amid the forces of evil, that’s me.

When I lived in Bristol, I worked in part of an artist’s studio in a converted stable block at the end of the artist’s garden and this has a similar feel. I even have a friendly artist working downstairs. On Tuesdays in the autumn, the rest of downstairs is full of people pressing apples and it smells fantastic. Although the Victorian buildings are no longer a brewery, there is still a local brewery next door so the rest of the time the air is filled with the smell of beer. Fortunately I don’t object to the smell of beer.

I was recently interviewed about freeelance workspace solutions that aren’t sitting in your back bedroom for The Linguist magazine and Miranda Moore’s article is in The Linguist 53,5 here. Several of us recommend getting out of the house and working in a separate space.

Books Life as a freelance translator


In which some people enjoy spending a sunny afternoon arguing about punctuation.

At the end of May I went to Ros Schwartz’ translation workshop at Crimefest in Bristol, which was brilliant. I decided I might as well go for the whole day rather than just the workshop in the afternoon so went to 2 morning panels, one on what happens when people’s books get filmed (having to rewrite the whole thing around Caroline Quentin being pregnant, apparently) and one on “forgotten authors” (including John Buchan, who isn’t that forgotten from where I am standing, but I daresay experiences vary).

And in the afternoon about 20 people met for a literary translation workshop. Ros Schwartz got us into groups to retranslate the first page of Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State, which I will now have to buy so I can find out how it ended, or indeed what happened on page 2. It was very well organised for specialist and non-specialist participants, with copies of the  French and a word-for-word English draft to work on, and groups assigned so that each one had at least one French speaker and one professional translator. My group had a range of French-English and German-English translators, generalists as well as people specialising in chemistry, finance and marketing/copywriting, me, and a man who had read Stieg Larsson and been so impressed he wanted to know how translators did it. He was a great asset because he kept asking basic questions and made us think about things we were doing automatically, but I think he left a bit bemused, partly because he now thinks translators take 2 hours to translate half a page.

Everyone got very argumentative and excited, as you do when you spend your life doing something all on your own and suddenly get unleashed to talk about all the tiny, fascinating details of it, and we barely agreed on anything. The technical translators kept wanting to turn it all into proper sentences with verbs in (me: “It’s got commas, it’s OK to have commas!”), someone wanted to remove chunks altogether, and I seem to specialise in scanning the whole thing first and spotting all the problems (“What the hell are we going to do with the reference to the Abbé Dubois, oh good she’s provided Google…”) and having firm opinions on punctuation (poor person writing it down, looking at me doubtfully “Are you happy about the colon?” Me: “I am never going to be happy about that colon”). It was good stuff.

The group work was followed by a whole group discussion and a look at the published version. It was a really fun afternoon with lots of food for thought and inspiration. I miss working with a partner and reciprocal proofreading by e-mail isn’t quite the same as getting your heads together and arguing it out on the spot. It also convinced me, not that I need much convinicing, that the creative side is where I want to be and although I do a lot of it, I should aim to skew things that way even more.

Life as a freelance translator

That’s the way to do it

Yesterday a client had questions about a translation. Normally an agency coming back with questions from the client results in a feeling of horrendous dread, especially when the e-mail is accompanied by a file in which the end client has completely rewritten the entire thing in a strange version of English which is entirely their own. This time it was different.

1. The agency e-mailed to say the author (it was a non-fiction book) had some questions and would like to discuss them with me over the phone because she thought that would be easier than sending me a file. The agency agreed and wanted to check I was OK with that.

2. I said that was fine with me and gave times between which it would be OK for her to phone.

Bonus points to the author for realising that her changing the text and adding comments, sending it to me, me taking her changes out again and adding more comments, sending it back again, ad infinitum might not be the best use of our time.

Bonus points to the agency for asking me first rather than giving the author my phone number and landing me with a phone call from Sweden out of the blue. Also for not refusing any contact between translator and author for fear I would steal their client.

3. Friendly author phoned up, asked if it was a good time to call, and we went through the text together. The questions were mainly along the lines of  “I don’t understand the word you used there and this book will be read by non-native English speakers so can we change it to something simpler?” “this person wants to be a project leader rather than a project manager, is that OK?” “Can we make this heading shorter?” “Why have you called this organisation by this name that isn’t anything like the Swedish? (answer: because they use it on their website but do ask them yourself if you like).

Bonus points for sensible, valid questions asked in a friendly spirit of collaboration. Unlike some I could mention, not “correcting” my grammar, replacing every occurrence of “which” with “that” or trying to gain status in the company by proving they know English better than the translator does.

Why can’t it always be like this? Please?

Life as a freelance translator Organisation Work-life balance

New routine

Finally, the now 2 year-old is sleeping all night rather than waking at three, and I am getting back to the work routine that suits me best.

5.30 – 7.15 a.m. Work

7.15-9.30 a.m. Breakfast with children, get everyone dressed, hunt for nursery bag, book bags and shoes that have unaccountably vanished since the night before, put in a load of washing, walk to school and nursery and walk back, through the fields if it’s not raining.

9.30 a.m. – 3.30 p.m. Work, not non-stop, though, unless under dire pressure of deadlines. Husband picks baby up from nursery at 1 and children from school at 3.15.

3.30 p.m. Stop work. Speak to children, wash up breakfast, hang up laundry, make scones, practise school reading, entertain visiting small friends, take people to Brownies, build train tracks…

I am a morning person. I wrote all my university essays at 5 a.m. and before children I used to start work at six. Now that I am able to do that again, things are so much better. I used to view breakfast with the children as a frustrating interminable delay preventing me from getting to the computer until about 9.30.  This did not make for a happy and harmonious home. Now it’s a pleasant interlude (admittedly, with the odd bit of shouting about shoes) after sending out the early jobs and getting a start on longer deadlines. I don’t feel so rushed in the mornings and last week I even had time for a quick coffee with a friend at 9 a.m. because I’d already done all the first thing urgent stuff.

I used to either be working when the children came home, which made them cross, or trying to work in the evenings, which makes me cross. It also makes me extremely slow and unproductive. For me, working after 8 p.m. is like trying to translate through fudge. Getting that time in the mornings back means I get evenings too. I can put the children to bed without feeling stressed at having to get back to the computer or having to choose between work and choir rehearsal.

It helps that many of my clients are in Scandinavia and with 3.30 being 4.30 in Sweden and 5.30 in Finland they tend  to be winding down for the day by the time I stop. My mobile phone downloads work e-mail via the home wifi until 6 p.m. so if something does come in, I know about it, but usually it’s quiet then anyway.

It might not suit everyone – my husband is one of those people who hits his mental peak at about 1 a.m. – but it suits me and I feel better for it.

Life as a freelance translator Organisation

The paper is encroaching again

When I moved out of my office in March 2007, I had to remove cardboard magazine files containing print-outs of every translation I had ever done since I started freelancing in 1997.  That’s a lot of paper. I moved them here to our new house, transporting them from the car in a wheelbarrow, and stacked them in the cold, damp, unheated, earth-floored storeroom by the back door, the only place there was room. I planned to go through them, shred any that were confidential and put the rest in the recycling.

Um… in two years I’d only managed to get through two boxes. The Finn bought a little machine that was supposed to turn paper into handy briquettes that you can burn in your woodburning stove and he thought we could get rid of some of it that way, but you had to shred the paper first and get it wet and in our climate the briquettes never dried and there was nowhere to stack them while they did, so we gave up on that idea. By this year the stacks of paper had started going mouldy and the ones that were faxes (when I started, all of my source texts were faxes) had faded beyond legibility. In June we had an enormous bonfire and burned the lot.

Although I felt strangely mournful and bereft seeing ten years of work, (my work!) going up in flames, I had to admit that I had hardly ever looked at any of those translations again after finishing them. What exactly was I keeping them for?

When I started out, you had to keep the hard copies because often that was the only version of your source text you had. I also used to teach translation at the University of Surrey and raided my past jobs for teaching material. But now I can’t remember the last job I had that wasn’t e-mailed. These days, if the client comes back with questions weeks later or I need to look up a previous job on the same subject, I’ll search my hard drive rather than tipping boxes of files over the floor. Everything is also backed up onto a separate hard drive and, as of last week, automatically backed up to Zen’s remote storage every night (thanks Philippa for reminding me to sort that out). Even if the computer exploded, I wouldn’t have to scan every translation I’d ever done in again.

I proofread on paper (nothing will convince me that quality would be improved by doing otherwise) and printing out every source text as soon as it’s confirmed and having it sitting on my desk as well as booking the job into TO3000 means there is no way I will forget I’ve got to do it.  But once the job is done and sent it is probably unnecessary to keep the paper copy forever.

However,  I now have six full magazine files of finished translations on the desk and the windowsill and recently completed jobs are balanced on top and overflowing onto the floor. It might have to be time to cull some of it if I don’t want another huge bonfire in 2029.

Finland Sweden Work-life balance

Summer in Scandinavia

I’m back from four weeks driving from the West of England to Eastern Finland and back again via Dover-Calais, Amsterdam, campsites in Germany and Sweden, stops with various Finnish in-laws, a weekend in a Swedish cottage in the Stockholm archipelago, 2 days with my non-Swedish-speaking cousin whose husband has suddenly been relocated from Grimsby to Helsingborg, and Legoland in Denmark. With three children under 8. As one of my Swedish clients put it, “yes, but when are you having a holiday?”

The relaxing bit was a week in a Finnish kesämökki (summer cottage) by lake Vahvajä30072009097rvi near Hirvensalmi. Saunas, lots of saunas, and swimming in the lake followed by beer and barbecues, Finns have the right idea about how to spend the summer. I’ve never taken four weeks off in a row before but it helps that this is precisely what my Scandinavian clients expect people to do. Also going as early as I could, when our schools broke up on 18 July, and being back at my desk as Swedes and Finns came back to work in mid-August seems to have worked quite well. Work is now pouring in and I am refreshed and recharged and energetic enough to cope with it. I am also being firmer about saying no, having realised, as soon as I stopped, how overworked I had been and how much I really needed a holiday. Long may it last.

Although I didn’t do any work while I was away, spending time in my source language countries will benefit the business. We visit family in Finland at least once a year but what with having babies, it’s been a few years since I’ve set foot in Sweden, and reading online newspapers and blogs isn’t the same as being out there on the streets, or in my case, in campsites, and talking Swedish to ordinary people. I’ve also stocked up on Swedish and Finnish crime fiction to get me through the winter and update the source language input a bit more. Definitely a beneficial break all round.

PS. I have also proved that although they understand me, I really cannot understand spoken Danish. Well also I wasn’t expecting to be asked my name when attempting to exchange Swedish kronor for Danish kroner in a bank.

Life as a freelance translator

I like agencies…

…who send me a PO with a deadline a day later than the one I offered “so that you’ve got enough time to do a really good job”.

…who pass on positive feedback from end clients (though I am bemused as to why the European Commission gave me a tick for “command of style and register” but not for “layout and formatting”. What was wrong with my formatting?”) .

…who when I’ve done one quick additional sentence to a previous job for free, send a job number when the client comes up with another one an hour later.

…who when I say “I can’t do anything right now because I’m about to go swimming, but it’s fine if it’s for next week”, tell me to get off to the swimming pool and have a good time.

There’s a lot of agency bashing going on at the moment, with people being asked to reduce rates in the current economic climate, but I haven’t encountered any of that and am lucky to work for some very nice people.

Life as a freelance translator Work-life balance

ITI Conference

I managed to attend the second day of the ITI conference last weekend, they having appositely timed a conference on sustainability and work-life balance to coincide with my husband’s 40th birthday. So in keeping with the work-life balance theme, I attended half of it.

The day started with Philippa Hammond and Sarah Dillon’s joint presentation on Web 2.0 and social media. I’ve been communicating with people online since about 1998 through Usenet, mailing lists and in the past couple of years Livejournal, but none of it has been directly work-related. In fact I spent Saturday night at the flat of a friend I originally met on a mailing list ten years ago. We were discussing how today if people with a particular hobby wanted to find fellow fans/afficionados online, it’s unlikely they would start a mailing list, a newsgroup or even a message board. Things have moved on and will continue to do so and it’s useful to find out what’s going on and decide whether it’s something you want to be involved in. Obviously I already have this blog, but the presentation did make me consider Twitter again. Previously I’d assumed that the noise-to-signal ratio would be too high for it to be useful unless you have hours of spare time to sift through a lot of rubbish, so discovering that there are ways of filtering it was encouraging.

Another speaker I was keen to hear was Spencer Allman on specialisation and revision, as Spencer and I are two of the very few people in the UK who translate from Finnish and may well have ended up revising each other without actually knowing it. It was good to meet up with him again.

I initially thought I wouldn’t hear Phil Goddard talking about walking across the US because it clashed with a session on MemoQ. I’m in the middle of a 45-day trial of MemoQ and wanted to find out some more. It says a lot for their on-the-ball customer relations that they looked at my name tag and immediately knew I’d signed up for the Proz MemoQ 50%-off group buy, which I’d done only half an hour before getting on the train. More on MemoQ in a later post.

Anyway, jetlagged Phil Goddard overslept and the schedule was reorganised to fit him in later so I did hear him too and was glad I did. His account of walking and translating his way from New York to Los Angeles with a laptop did make me wonder why, given such a flexible career, in the past couple of weeks I have ended up spending about 20 hours a day in my office/bedroom. Inspiring stuff. Not that I want to walk across America, but getting out more often into the bits of Exmoor and the Brendon hills  that I can see out of my window would be a start, with or without a laptop (note to self: mend or replace laptop).

Siobhan Soraghan’s session on work-life balance for freelancers gave me similar food for thought, and having suffered from burnout herself, she did know what she was talking about, unlike the poor bloke who came to tell us about the problems suffered by HR consultants. That’s unfair, he did know what he was talking about, it’s just that what he was talking about was largely irrelevant to the lives of freelance translators. Women translators do not fail to get work because of insufficient networking opportunities due to childcare (I just about refrained from asking why the male HR consultants aren’t doing any of the childcare), nor do they get paid less than their male counterparts, and if HR consultants really can’t get work other than by schmoozing people on golf courses, I’m very glad I’m not one.

It’s been a busy month and it was good to get out of the house, meet people and get some good stuff to think about.

Life as a freelance translator Work-life balance

And never the twain shall meet – incompatible holidays

If you live in the UK and work for clients in Sweden and Finland, from the end of April you are constantly missing each other. This Friday is May Day. For my clients, this is a public holiday and you won’t hear much from them from lunchtime on Thursday, i.e. about 11 am., and as they’re an hour ahead of me, that’s most of the day gone. On Monday the 4th they all come back ready for work and the UK promptly has its May Day bank holiday, now held on the first Monday in May and exacerbated this year by my children’s school having a staff training day on the Tuesday and giving them all another 4-day weekend.

Then, sooner or later depending on the date of Easter, there is Ascension Day, a public holiday in Scandinavia. And as it’s always on a Thursday, the Swedes will take the Friday off too. This year it’s the 21st. On Monday 25th the UK has its Spring Bank Holiday (formerly Whit Monday). In the whole of May there is only one full working week when one of us isn’t having a day off and this year that one happens to have my husband’s 40th birthday in it and I am taking him away for 2 days for the first time in five years. It’s fortunate I no longer have any clients in Norway or we’d have to factor in their National Day on the 17th of May as well.

I’m not sure how any of this is compatible with running a business in a sensible manner. I used to take Scandinavian public holidays off and work on the UK ones, but acquiring a husband and children whose lives have to fit in with the rest of the UK has made that less workable. I just have to hope for some long jobs with long deadlines that I can do in my own time rather than the “can you do this for tomorrow?”  stuff.

juva_mokki02Being tied by UK school holidays is another change in the past couple of years, especially as these too bear no relation to the system used by my clients or my Finnish in-laws. From April onwards, clients are asking me my holiday plans so they can plan for The Summer. Schools in Sweden and Finland close at the end of May and re-open in mid-August. Businesses wind down, particularly during July. British schools, however,  break up in late July, this year it’s the 21st, and start again in September. Usually I haven’t even started thinking about summer holiday plans as early as April.

Many translators follow their clients’ example and take July off, as work is often slow, but I have found that working in July has its advantages. Being available when no-one else is can gain you new clients who try you out when everyone else has vanished and stick with you when the holidays are over. When I worked in a partnership, we staggered our summer holidays so the business was always open and a couple of times translated books between us ready for the client’s return from the summer break.

But you do have to have a holiday some time or you will fall over with exhaustion. This year I am taking a month off from the end of term in July until mid-August. Last year I took late August/early September off and think that not being around when my clients returned from their own summer breaks meant it took them a while to remember I existed again. This year I’m trying to achieve the best of both worlds, and also enable my children to meet their Finnish cousins during the couple of weeks that their summer holidays coincide.

Life as a freelance translator

Invoicing day

End of the month and invoicing day. I know that not invoicing every job the instant it is finished means I am giving my clients free credit, but a) they are nice clients and I don’t mind and b) there are some very good reasons why invoicing monthly makes sense for me. To whit:

  • I work for agencies and often do a lot of small jobs for the same client. Invoicing them all one at a time would drive them, and me, nuts.
  • Most of my clients are abroad and pay by international bank transfer. They are going to wait until the total mounts up to a reasonable amount rather than paying me in dribs and drabs in any case.
  • The amount I’m charging for the job is either agreed on the PO before I start (I invoice on source count) or I tell them what it worked out at on delivery, e.g. if it’s editing charged by the hour so I’m not keeping clients waiting for that information.
  • End clients frequently come up with extra text or the final text comes back for proofing a week after you thought the job was finished. If you haven’t invoiced it yet, it’s easier to add the extras in under the same job number rather than having them end up as a new job on a completely different invoice.
  • The software I use, initially a program developed by my husband which sadly won’t  run on anything later than Access97, and now TO3000, automatically collects all the uninvoiced, completed jobs for each client. Invoicing 27 jobs is no harder than invoicing one.
  • Having the same invoice date for all my invoices makes it easier to track and chase any late payments. I just check the bank statement online 30 days later, and usually pay myself drawings for the month at the same time.
  • I set aside time on the last day of the month to Do The Invoicing and have the incentive that it all has to be done before the end of the business day.  This means it doesn’t get put off and that once a month I sit down and see what the business is doing, how this month’s turnover compares to the previous one or with the previous year.

I should really set aside similar time for doing my accounts, as that’s something that does get put off until I have to fill in the VAT return, at which point I go mad trying to do three months’ worth at once.