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.


“I don’t know how you do it” freelancing with children

Since my husband was made redundant in November and I have been translating full-time again, friends locally have been coming up to me in the street and saying “I don’t know how you do it”, as if I was in that book by Allison Pearson, except that her heroine wasn’t a translator. Well to be honest, working full-time with a partner available for childcare is a darn sight easier than working part-time was. The children-work juggling act is difficult, and at the Proz Translator as a Strategic Partner conference in November, I kept having muttered, brief conversations in coffee breaks with people, all women, about exactly how we do it. As Sarah Dillon says here, it’s something the translation industry seems reluctant to debate, probably for fear that translation will once more be seen as something that women do for “pin money” rather than a job for professionals.

So, if anyone wants to know, here is how I did it. In 2001 I had been freelancing for five years, had taken on an employee, gained ITI membership and made the employee a partner.  Then I had a baby. Having a well-established business first helps. Having a business partner who kept the business going while I took 3 months’ maternity leave (the maximum at the time) and then while I worked part-time helped even more. The baby went to nursery two full days a week, my business partner booked work in for me on the other days and I would pop into the office with the baby to keep in touch as well. There were times when I used to wheel her round the streets in the pushchair at nap time until she fell asleep and then dive into the office  to type frantically for an hour until she woke up again, and I did quite a bit after she had gone to bed, but it worked. It kept working when I had my son in 2004 (longer maternity leave), although when the eldest started school, I could no longer work from 8 am – 6 pm and switched to three mornings instead.

In 2007 we moved out of Bristol and I had child no. 3. Since neither of us were now living in the same place, or in the same place as the office, we dissolved the business partnership at the end of my maternity leave.  From April 2008 I was working from home doing the juggling act on my own and it was much harder. The baby goes to nursery three mornings a week and often naps when she gets home. That was as much time as I wanted to be working but when I firmly stated that I was not available on Tuesdays and Fridays, I found that clients ended up not contacting me at all because they couldn’t remember which days I worked. As soon as my husband was made redundant and I contacted everyone and told them I was full-time again, the work picked up.

In my experience, the biggest issue is contactability/availability. I work mainly for agencies, often on small projects with fast turnaround. They don’t mind when I actually do the work, but they do need to know fairly instantly whether I can take it or not. If I am working part-time, there will consequently be times when I am answering work enquiries with children in the background. I think, and my experience last autumn shows, that clients would prefer that to me not answering at all. Isn’t not getting back to them promptly more unprofessional? I do try to make e-mail the default rather than the phone and I have Skype so clients can tell when I am at the computer for instant replies. As I said above, at the moment it’s all less of an issue because I am working full time and my husband is entertaining the baby when she isn’t at nursery. I stop at 3.30 when the children come home from school, but my Scandinavian clients are coming to the end of their working day by then anyway.

I also have the advantage that Scandinavian clients seem to be more child-friendly than UK ones. Work-life balance is more advanced there than it is here. I have had project managers (even male ones) tell me they are working at home while looking after  a sick child, that they have to leave early to pick up a child from daycare but will get back to me in the evening, or ask very politely if I could deliver early because it is sunny and they want to stop work and take their children to the park. I don’t have a problem with that, or think it makes them more unprofessional when they are at work. Why does the UK?

When the baby starts school in 2011, I’ll be able to work from 9.30 to 3, five days a week, and that will be fine. If my husband finds a job before then,  I’ll be single-handedly juggling again and I’ll have to think hard about the contactability issue. We shall see… This business is flexible. And it’s my business. And in our experience, over the past eight years it has proved to offer more job security than the IT industry. Why, when I have spent 12 years building it up, would it make sense to abandon it completely as soon as I have children? I am still the same person and I am just as professional now as I was back in 2000, probably more so as I am aware life offers more distractions these days and double check everything. And if I had stopped work completely due to having babies, what on earth would we all be living on now?


SFÖ membership

I’m officially now a member of the Swedish Association of Professional Translators. I had heard from a couple of clients who I had given as references that they had been contacted about me but the official confirmation, complete with a certificate and a badge, has now arrived in the post. All five of my referees must have said good things. I needed three for Swedish-English and three for Finnish-English and there was one that could vouch for both. All had to be able to state  I had worked for them for five years.

This is something I should have done years ago. After all, I’ve worked with one of them for ten years. I applied for and gained ITI membership after five years of experience (references plus assessment of work) but didn’t get round to joining the Swedish one. It will be interesting to see whether I get more enquiries as a result of being in their database and what kind of enquiries. While I have gained long-standing Swedish agency clients through the ITI database, the UK agency clients that contact me through the ITI tend to be agencies who have suddenly encountered a piece of Finnish and aren’t likely to see another one for another couple of years. I’m wondering whether I’m likely to get more Swedish enquiries as a result of being in SFÖ or whether Swedes looking for English native speakers tend to look at the ITI first instead. Maybe Proz is taking over now.  Well, I’m there too. I wish I’d kept records of how my clients found me initially right from day one. At some point when there’s a lull, I should go through and see if I can remember.

Membership isn’t just about new clients either. There’s also the benefit of keeping up with what’s going on in the industry in my main market, and the opportunity of attending conferences in Sweden. Do I want to go to Borås in April? Can I abandon the 18-month old for two nights again?


Workload management

Last week was half term holidays so I was only working minimally and stopped altogether at Thursday lunchtime. This means that firstly I’ve had three days off and feel quite refreshed and ready for full-on work tomorrow and secondly that I spent some time this evening seeing what e-mails I’d missed and planning ahead for the next couple of weeks.

Unusually I’ve got a few jobs with long deadlines. Often I’m permanently busy but with no work booked for more than two days in advance. I’ve entered everything into TO3000 but am irritated that it doesn’t let you show how long the job is on the Main Projects page. The columns are customisable but only from a selection provided: Code, Project name, Client name, Deadline, Flag (I use these) and Date assigned, Completed and Client PM (I don’t see the need for those). But no length or volume option. When you’ve got several projects overlapping, it would be useful to be able to see at a glance whether each one is 12,000 words long or 350. I have customised the columns in the Client Jobs view to show volume so maybe I need to use that as my main view instead, but then I’d lose the Flags in seven cool colours that I use to show whether the job is at the draft, rewrite or proofreading stage.

I am happy with TO3000, and it seems much better designed for the lone freelancer than Translator’s Office Manager, which I also tested when I was looking for something to replace the translation management software my husband designed ten years ago, which sadly won’t run on anything later than Access 97, but there are always things you’d like to tweak. And the less said about TO3000’s Schedule of Projects calendar the better.

Look, it does the invoicing. Be grateful.


Back to the dark ages

dscn9649When the majority of your clients are in Sweden and Finland, it is slightly awkward to have to explain that an inch of snow means you have no electricity.

This was two weeks ago now. Fortunately I’d e-mailed the only job due out for the day at 8.30 when the power went off at 9, and I was in the part of town whose power lines were mended by late afternoon, not the bit that didn’t get fixed for three days.

All the snow has since vanished and life has returned to normal but it was quite a shock to realise just how much my business depends on power.  Of course it does, it’s obvious, but you do rather take it for granted until the moment it all suddenly disappears. No computer. No internet, no e-mail, and therefore complete inability to work. No landline either, until I climbed about in the loft and dug out an old phone that doesn’t need to be plugged in. All I could do was phone a colleague who e-mailed a couple of clients to tell them I was out of action, and go sledging instead. I made up the time lost on the long-running jobs over the following weekend.

Things that would have helped had I thought about it in advance:

  • Having all my clients’ contact details somewhere other than in TO3000 and Thunderbird, on my computer.
  • Having a working laptop. The keyboard on mine died a few months ago and now I’m working from home all the time, rather than switching between home and office, I haven’t really needed it. Replacing it would probably be a good idea. In this case it would have given me enough battery power to finish anything urgent.