Today I’m kicking off my new blog series with a guest post from the lovely Carmen Swanwick-Roa. Carmen is a freelance translator working from Portuguese and Spanish into English. Find her on Twitter at @swanwickroa or in the real world at translator events and Japanese restaurants.
You’ve seen the meme. The one showing a cartoon skyline of apartment blocks at night, with one light on in one window, captioned “how to recognise a translator”. We’ve all been there, but is it really the image we want to be projecting?
To me, the whole idea of “freelance” is completely at odds with the stereotype of the overworked translator. I became a freelancer so I could regulate my own working hours and ensure a good work/life balance without any of these things being imposed on me by an employer. So it puzzles me when I see freelance translators grumble if they have to work all weekend until stupid o’clock to get a job delivered on time.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that letting off steam to colleagues about your workload can be therapeutic, especially when your parents/husband/goldfish think the sentence “My client’s asked for discounts on fuzzies, Trados has frozen and the TM is garbage” needs translating itself. Sharing memes about burning the candle at both ends and venting about the Leaning Tower of Paper on your desk is usually just a way for translators to cope with tough days. However, the image of the red-eyed translator tapping away at their keyboard at 2am, still in yesterday’s pyjamas, isn’t exactly something to aim for and casts the profession in a poor light. And although the goal is freelancer solidarity, it affects how young translators view their new career and how outsiders see us.
When I started translating regularly around four years ago, even though I’d received excellent guidance on deciding on my own working conditions from my MA tutors, after reading the experiences of other translators I thought that a 9-5, Monday to Friday working week was fantasy, at least if you wanted to earn enough to live comfortably. It was only after meeting other freelancers at CPD and networking events that I learned that it was completely achievable. Now, as a part-time translation tutor on an MA translation course, I have had to debunk the myth of the overworked translator several times. I recently shocked a student who asked me if I usually work weekends by telling her no, not unless I’ve negotiated a higher rate or I’ve seriously messed up my time management. (The fact that I felt I was bragging about having a normal work/life balance as a freelancer just shows how ingrained this idea is in our profession!)
The overworked translator stereotype can therefore be damaging for new or inexperienced translators. It’s notoriously difficult to start out as a freelance translator, and if newbies believe that they should be working weekends and late nights, they’ll do it if it means they’ll get a foot in the door. I grappled with this when I first started out, as did many of my peers. The problem is that once they set yourself up in one corner of the market, it’s difficult to move up or across to better ones without a colossal effort and a complete overhaul of your business practices. An increase in the number of translators accepting poor working conditions could also have a knock-on effect for the rest of us: if more freelancers work unsociable hours, outsiders may start to see professional translators as 24/7 workers and we could see a shift in client expectations (“If they can deliver 4000 words a day and work weekends for us, why can’t you?”)
Reiterating the message that the average translator is working night and day (and night again), even through obvious hyperbole for the purpose of amusement, perpetuates the idea that freelance translators should expect and put up with this sort of lifestyle. Let’s challenge this stereotype and break the cycle – if we want to be seen as professionals on a par with lawyers and accountants, we first have to change how we see ourselves.