When it comes to the usual career expectations the focus is on climbing 'the ladder'. This ladder, however, is completely imaginary. It has no top, there's no place to stop, and the satisfaction of being on it only comes from being 'higher' on it than peers. When thought of this way, it's not necessarily how people would choose to live life on the whole, given the choice. In this article we'll look at how freelance translation compares as an alternative to working for one of those many companies whose CEOs wouldn't know or care for your name, let alone what gives you satisfaction in life, but has been gracious enough to give you a rung on 'the ladder'.
For the people who have chosen to join one of these companies, that being nearly everyone at some point, it can make a lot of sense to trade your time for a fixed salary and contract for a fixed period. But this trade-off can come at a price. Once on the books of a company, they can often expect work hours to be all hours, forcing 'a team player' culture in order to advance. Many other unfortunate consequences can arise from being contractually tied to a single employer, but those are not the focus of this post, and so will be saved for another conversation. The point being made is simply that this kind of culture can lead to a general consensus among workers that if you're not working 9-5 or even 9-9 in your job then you aren't as ambitious or strategic in your life plans as those who do. As a result, freelancers of all kinds can hear comments from employees that imply that the freelancer has found a clever loophole in the system, affording them better work conditions (less time working) and in some cases higher pay. When it doesn't result in higher pay, the comments can even become incredulous or dismissive, leaving the 9-9 culture-entrenched worker dumbfounded as to why you'd take all of the extra effort and risk for less pay.
However, as many folks, famous and otherwise, have noted, a career is not just about work conditions and pay. While these are greatly important to all who work for any private or public organisation, as evidenced by the evolution of French employment law, work conditions can blur into a quagmire of costs and legislation for employers. They can effectively throttle growth, or encourage increased productivity, but either way they are only of concern to those involved in the system itself. An alternative career path, that of the freelancer, offers a difference in focus that could reflect one's view of their whole life.
Of course some people only go into the employment contract system for a limited period, knowing that they want to exit by 50/60 years old with all of the assets they are aiming for in hand. This makes sense, and is an optimised version of the traditional model of "study > work > retire" that has been the lot of many previous generations. Freelancing offers an alternative that looks more like "study > work/study/retire" where you learn a wide range of skills throughout the career, while taking time out with family and friends for the whole working life. The average 40 years of contracted work between 20-something and 60-something tends to be spent improving the lot of others, while leaving much less time for family/friends and general life events, condensing those moments into tired evenings and weekends. Freelance translation is not like that. Certainly you can be the mythical self-employed person who works 100 hours a week to keep the business afloat, but that is not necessary. Normal office hours can be kept with the minimum of fuss, rates can be set high enough to ensure that you aren't relying on each job to cover living costs.
Other attractions of going freelance
And there are other rewards, too, particularly for freelance translators. At the highest level, translators can be satisfied with their careers as they work to help increase trade and understanding between cultures, using very few of the world's resources in the process. On the day-to-day level, like other freelancers, they can opt to work for NGOs, open source software projects and other causes or organisations they might approve of. This level of involvement is very difficult to achieve in a standard corporate environment.
The freedom to work in a range of workplaces can also be a source of satisfaction. From university libraries to coffee shops, shared workspaces, home offices or gardens; the list goes on, provided the conditions are right. And the conditions are few, and easily sourced: a secure and stable internet connection, quiet or consistent noise levels and comfortable surroundings. That's it.
As a freelance translator you can also live up to your full intellectual potential. After training and professional experience comes the ability to hold complex sentences in the mind and rearrange and substitute them in other languages, all dependent on the context, style and the writer's goals; not a trivial task, and certainly good exercise for key areas of the brain that are often linked to good mental health into old age. In addition, the use of the many skills needed to find and maintain translation jobs from a variety of providers can be a good way to give a new perspective to one's life, in understanding that bit more how trade and commerce work to further everyone's goals.
A basic level of pride can also be drawn from the quality of one's work, with the resulting rewards of more work and better pay over time, contrasted with those long-term employment contract jobs where despite a high work load, no further rewards emerge above salary and meagre bonus, both typically a fraction of your true worth to the company.
Things to be wary of
Of course there are potential downsides, such as lack of real-world communication that most freelancers tend to complain about initially. This can be solved through the use of public workspaces or teaming up with your local colleagues. There is also the higher risk of low income throughout the starting period while you gather clients. It is possible to mitigate this risk by either moonlighting to find your first few clients, if your employment contract allows it, or using a savings buffer to start and marketing to all and sundry to get started effectively.
Job security might have been seen as a downside previously, but now 10 good translation clients can be much more secure than 1 uncertain employer. Now the more clients you can work with, the more secure your career - you can take control of your job security in a way that optimal working conditions (like in France, for example) would struggle to offer.
Are you satisfied?
It may be daunting to start a new line of work with a blank canvas. So much time, so few clients, etc. but it is worth taking the chance, as the employment contract system isn't going anywhere, and freelancing can be far more rewarding than the commute-meeting-meeting-noise-commute cycle in most cases.
So who is this option really open to? Anyone who has or is willing to put in the years of training in their field of expertise, and into language learning at a near-native level, can then go into translation. A language degree and/or translation qualification is recommended to work with the best clients, as no official international qualification exists, but those plus membership of a local translation association ought to provide enough proof of abilities, and give enough confidence to market to the most satisfying clients for your own personal needs, in your own time.