Challenging stereotypes: The overworked translator

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.

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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!)

negativespace-19.jpgThe 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.

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5 Comments

  1. Hi, Carol and Carmen!

    I totally agree with you, Carmen! This is one of the topics I myself set aside to write about on my own blog, because I admit I never understood why people take pride in saying they don’t sleep, don’t take vacation, don’t take weekends/holidays off, etc. Why is this reason to be proud of in the first place?

    I did work like that when I started out, but then I learned what I wanted and didn’t want for life. And quality of life is something I don’t take for granted. I’m only 32, but I already had a few health problems when I was working like crazy, so I learned a lesson or two.

    The funny thing is that those freelancers laugh at us when we say “Have a great weekend!” or when we say good-bye at 5 pm because we’re calling it a day or even when we give notice we’ll take a vacation. As if we were the weirdoes. Go figure!

    I’m glad there are reasonable people out there who value quality of life and personal/professional life balance.

    Great post!

  2. Hi! Thank you for the text. Allow me to share with you what I think: I went from inhouse to freelance in 2002. I see myself as an independent professional and a company all in one. That means I have to think and act like a translator, marketing manager, sales manager, customer relations manager, financial manager, etc. In short, I have to be a good manager of my business and personal life. If one is not, one should look for a job to punch in and punch out, go home and only have to worry about work the next day. As a freelancer, I only work if I want to, not because I have to, on weekends, holidays. whenever, and not complain about it – because there are no labor laws, employee benefits, whatever. Nobody cares because we are just service providers, so we need to bury the employee way of thinking and act more like entrepreneurs.

  3. YASSSS! My thoughts exactly.

    I actually posted something similar on my FB yesterday, and I mentioned the meme with Johnny Depp (the one conforting a child).

    I myself choose (?) to work on weekends because I suck at time management too and I’ve mastered the craft of procrastinating (also, TBH, it’s almost winter here so I don’t feel like going out at all). Unfortunately, I still haven’t found my way to organize my days and work but I’ll be there, hopefully. .

    Kudos on this article, Carmen and Carol!

  4. Thank you so much for the guidance on this tricky subject. As a new translator on the market it is invaluable to hear this kind of advice from seasoned professionals and I think setting your standards from the beginning, even though it might mean turning down that only client you got so roughly got will be beneficial in the long run.

  5. Very well said, Carol! The whole point of becoming a freelancer is to be able to decide when to work. and who to work for. We might decide to work a bit during weekends occasionally if we don’t manage time effectively during the week (the client doesn’t need to know that) or if the client is willing to pay the extra amount we think it is worth. However, if you overwork on a regular basis you will have a poor health, and no time for yourself. And time is key, at least for me.
    Why would you let others dictate your working conditions and when to go on holidays? We are nobody’s employee, but many people seem to behave like they are a client’s employee, but just pay their own taxes.

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