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.


How to stay positive on quiet days

After a very busy, productive July with several new clients and some really interesting projects, August has not been so positive (at least not so far, there’s still time!). In freelancing, we all know about the infamous feast and famine, and I’ve already posted some ideas on how to fill the time in famine periods, but today I want to talk about how to avoid the feeling that actually, the security of a full-time office job would really be quite nice…

 The big picture

When you’ve returned all those big projects and you suddenly find yourself at inbox (almost) empty, it can be easy to dwell on the negative aspects of being a freelancer – insecurity, unstable work and income, the infinite wait for that new project – and lose sight of the bigger picture. If your not-so-great period hasn’t been going on that long, try to take a step back and see the big picture – you NEED these calmer periods, for admin, for sleep and for your sanity! And remember that it’s only temporary (if you’re getting really worried, post on social media about how happy you are to have a day off – a sure-fire way to go from zero to crazy busy in no time ;-)).

 Be proactive

One of the most effective ways of stopping the clouds of negativity gathering overhead is to outrun them! Both literally and figuratively. Exercise is one of my favourite ways to avoid negative thoughts, so get your blood pumping, those endorphins flowing and a smile back on your face!

And once you get back to the office, get on with your to-do list. There are always things we’re putting off until the right time – it’s now! If you’ve really done everything (really? I don’t believe you!), check out my post here for some more ideas.

 Count your blessings

As freelancers, we are responsible for our own successes. But when things aren’t going so well, it can be easy to forget those successes and all the wonderful things we’ve already achieved – I mean, you’re running your own company, how amazing is that?! A while ago, I came across the idea of a ‘positivity jar’ and I think it’s really great. Basically, every time you are proud of something you’ve done, you write it down and put the piece of paper in a jar on your desk. And when you’re feeling down, you take out the papers and read back through all of your achievements until you start feeling better about your business and yourself.

My positivity jar (well, plant pot). It's a work in progress!

My positivity jar (well, plant pot). It’s a work in progress!

As always, I would love to hear any other ideas you have! How do you avoid the negative thoughts sneaking their way in when things are quiet?

My first office sharing experience

For the last few months, I’ve been telling myself over and over again that I should go and check out my local office sharing space – it’s 5 minutes away, so once I’d figured out using TeamViewer to access my desktop computer from my laptop (one of Raphäel’s useful tips from the Brussels Lab!) I really had no excuse for not going.

Except… I’m a very shy person. So just making the call to find out the opening hours was a huge deal in my head. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I made a deal with myself that I would just get on with it, and I did. The bank holidays at the start of May meant I didn’t actually go in person until last week, but simply having made the call and spoken to someone, I could feel my courage building.

The office sharing space here in Reims is situated at the Chamber of Commerce building, and therefore is able to offer various training and information sessions, as well as an open plan office space, and a plentiful supply of coffee. If you’re interested in finding a similar space in your town or city, try Jelly – they seem to be everywhere!

So last week I packed up my laptop and headed over. I chose to go on a Friday afternoon, assuming that it would be fairly quiet and therefore a bit less stressful in terms of meeting people. What can I say, I am SO glad I moved out of my comfort zone and actually went. After a few technical hitches (my TeamViewer had switched itself off on my desktop, so I had to nip home and turn it back on), I felt at home straight away. The people are lovely (I even met another translator there) and as someone who works better with some background noise, I think it even boosted my productivity.

Overall, I had a really positive experience, and I’m planning to go again this week. I don’t think I could work there all day every day (I like my home office set-up too much!) but I think one afternoon a week spent in a different location will be about right.


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All you need to work away from home…

Have you tried co-working, or working in other locations than your own home? I guess it’s something that isn’t for everyone, but you won’t know unless you try!

5 things to do on quiet days

Having one of those days where you don’t really know what to do with yourself? It’s something every freelancer experiences…. Here are five suggestions to help you make the most of that empty time!

1. Update your CV and social networking profiles

Marta at WantWords has some great advice on translator CVs, and taking a few minutes to check yours is up to date (I’m sure there’s something you can add – a new specialisation, some project case studies, your recently changed phone number…) will save time when you next need it! Make sure your LinkedIn profile, website etc. reflect the ‘you’ that you want to present to clients.

2. Marketing

Find some new potential clients to send targeted marketing emails to, or send a copy of your newly updated CV to clients you currently work with – this might ‘remind them’ that you are there, and will show that you are taking a proactive approach. Marketing is one of the most time-consuming aspects of starting as a freelancer, but it’s also an ongoing process, so no slacking!

3. Admin

Yes, it’s boring. But spending some time keeping your records up to date throughout the month will make it much easier if you are busier at the end of the month! Think through your processes – are there any parts which could be streamlined? Now is the time to get it done!

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Sometimes it’s good to just take a break and relax too…

4. Develop your skills

Take an online class, sign up to a webinar, practice your languages – I’ve never yet met a translator who doesn’t have at least a short list of things they want to learn! Whether it’s how to use more advanced aspects of a CAT tool, making sure your foreign languages are up to date, or concretising your knowledge of a specialisation, think of this time as an opportunity to become an even better translator, with more to offer your future clients!

5. Update your software

As translators, we are constantly on the computer. While you are having some downtime, run a virus check, make sure your computer is running as well as it can, and download any patches or updates for the various bits of software you have. If you have a bit more time, do a full digital audit – what software and hardware do you no longer need, or do you need to find a better version of? Are you using all of your programs to their full potential? Combine this with point 4, and see if there are any tutorials to help you develop your knowledge of a CAT tool, for example!

Any other ideas? I would love to know what jobs you save up for a slow work day!

BxlTweetUpLab: An interview with organiser Emeline Jamoul

Today’s blog post is a special one – my first guest! Hopefully you’ve already seen some info about the International BxlTweetUpLab in April – if not, go have a quick read here. It looks like it’s going to be a really exciting event – something new to the world of translations! So here’s an interview I did with one of the two co-organisers, Emeline Jamoul, to find out more.

Hi Emeline! I’m really looking forward to coming to the BxlTweetUpLab! First of all, do you want to explain a bit about what it is, and how it’s different from other events?

Hi Carol! First of all, let me thank you for inviting me to speak about the BxlTweetUpLab on your blog, it’s so kind of you! The BxlTweetUpLab will be a one-day event divided into two parts: the morning will be devoted to presentations and the afternoon will allow attendees to network and to mingle with fellow translators and linguists. It differs from other events because it is designed to be highly interactive. We want the attendees to play around with new ideas that will help them improve their skills and change how they see their business and the industry – hence the Lab term.

How did you come up with the idea?

Well as you might know, we’ve been running BxlTweetUps since November of last year. So far, it’s been very nice to meet colleagues and to make things change. But we wanted to go beyond these friendly gatherings. I’ve launched a survey among translation students here in Belgium, in France and in Luxembourg – the results just keep on proving my initial thoughts: the gap between translation studies and the industry is huge and it doesn’t seem likely that the situation will change any time soon! Newcomers to the profession have no idea what running a business means. This realization and the fact that many new translators seem to find themselves lost in the middle of sea of resources telling them how they should run their business were good enough triggers for us. We don’t want to be gurus dictating people how they should act – but rather bring out their potential and help them achieve what THEY want to do.

And what about the presentations – why did you decide to focus on these areas?

We wanted to avoid current popular topics in the industry such as branding and marketing, which Sara and I have already cover a lot in both our blogs. Instead, we chose to focus on underestimated and often overlooked areas which are still crucial for the new-coming translator – blogging and social media, networking and technology tips & tricks. Blogging helps you present yourself to clients and colleagues. If done well, it can give you more credibility. Social media, as you know, is an invaluable resource for professionals, yet many people seem to be unaware of that fact and we hope we’ll be able to convince them in that sense. Networking is an inherent part of any business, and well, of life! We connect with people since we were born, but do we really know how to do it efficiently? Finally, Raphaël Toussaint will be sharing technology tips and tricks which will help attendees to improve their productivity. As you can see, the presentations are varied and we hope everyone will find at least one topic that will interest them. 

It sounds like a great mix of topics! What has been the most challenging part of organising the event so far?

Timing is particularly stressing, as we’re all very busy and it’s not always easy to juggle regular work, our blogs, our personal lives and this project. Thank God we love being busy and we love working hard!

But it’s worth it, right? What are you most looking forward to?

Of course it is – it’s a very interesting process! Personally, I’m really looking forward to hear what attendees have to share with us. Regular conferences are often one-sided, with attendees listening to one speaker, which can be quite daunting. We want to change this setting in order to optimize what participants will take home and to make them feel welcome and comfortable.

Okay, last question! Give me the one reason people absolutely shouldn’t miss this event?

Just one? But there are so many! First of all, it’s a friendly event, so we want to stress that attendees are really encouraged to take part and not to be afraid of asking their questions about the industry (if they’re still students) or of asking for advice and opinions (if they’re already freelancers but seem to be stuck somewhere). Not many events are taking place in Brussels, so it’s a real opportunity for Belgian translators to unite and engage with each other. And last but not least, let’s not forget about the Belgian food!

Ah yes, I’m dreaming of waffles and cherry beer already! Thanks for taking the time to tell us more about the Lab, Emeline, and a very big thank you to both you and Sara for organising it!

A technical tour

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been setting up my new home office. Along with numerous trips to a certain Swedish furniture store, this also involved a major overhaul of my IT set-up. For two years now, I’ve been working on my laptop – and while I love the flexibility this gives me to work wherever I want, it definitely felt like time for a change – something more substantial, more professional, you might say.

My new home office

My new home office

So what have I gone for? As you can see from the picture, I’ve joined the two-screen translator club. I’ve now got two 24 inch LED screens with my desktop expanded over both of them. What a difference! I can also ‘snap’ programs to half the screen, so I can be looking at four different things (email, TO3000, web browser and Trados, usually) at the same time. I never realised before quite how much time flicking between tabs / views was taking up! Apparently (according to the man in the shop – I am no expert) most computers now can take at least two screens, so I would definitely recommend giving it some thought! Even if you work on a laptop, it should be possible to add a larger screen.

The screens are plugged in to a HP CPU – I wanted one with 8 MB RAM and this one, a 500-263ef, is great value for money. Apparently it’s only available in France, but I’m not sure about that…

I was a little worried that setting everything up would be complicated, but it’s pretty much been plug in and go! In no small part thanks to Emma’s blog posts on how to transfer translation programs, I have to say – they came at a perfect time for me, and I would definitely bookmark them if you’re thinking of changing computers any time soon!

One thing I really tried to pay special attention to was ergonomics, as I will be spending a lot of time sat at my desk, but I have to say I’m not convinced by the ergonomic keyboard. At the moment it’s taking me forever to use it, but I guess that’s true of any new keyboard – thankfully my brother was kind enough to send this one from England so I only had to use a French one for two days, or I would never have finished typing this post! I also have a footrest which will hopefully improve my posture and keep away the dreaded back pain. It seems to be doing the trick so far!

I really think it is worth investing time and money setting up a good home office – I’m already so glad I’ve done so!