How I became a translator…

For ten years, translation has been my main source of income.  So how did that come about?  Here’s how…

In 1998, I joined a global translation company as a Project Manager, working in the Birmingham office.  My specific responsibility was liaising with the offices in Germany on German-English translation projects, because of my German language skills.  However, I soon found myself managing multiple language projects for our offices around the world and for external clients.  Part of the job with the German-English was proofreading work carried out by freelance translators.  I have to be honest, some of it was of an awful quality and I soon found myself editing, rewriting and even retranslating passages.  Eventually, if we had small jobs, additional bits of text etc., I took to translating it myself rather than outsourcing.  All this time, I was approving freelancer invoices for far more than the pittance the company was paying me at that time and this got me thinking.  If I could do better myself, perhaps I ought to give it a try.  The idea never fully took shape, as I was offered a new role at corporate level, which I snapped up as it gave me a chance to get involved in other things and finally earn a decent salary.  The idea of going it alone was put on ice for a while.

As a side note, the corporate experience was enlightening.  It lasted a mere seven months, before myself and my boss who brought me into the team were both made redundant, but I think I learned more about business in that time than in my several years studying Commerce at university.  Mainly from a “what not to do” perspective, but still.  The amount of bullshit that was talked and written, the amount of wasted time, effort and money, the lack of actual action, the total absence of common sense or any kind of awareness of people’s needs and motivations was staggering.  I did not really fit into the corporate team, I must confess.  I do not suffer fools, so I was constantly exasperated or downright angry with the people I had to deal with.  I was also not afraid to speak my mind.  At my first meeting with the full corporate team, where my boss had told me to observe rather than participate, I (a) told the newly recruited marketing director he was rude for typing emails during the discussion, and (b) suggested that corporate meetings be held somewhere in the country, away from the normal offices, and that the people attending should leave “mobiles, laptops and egos” in their hotel rooms!  My boss did not physically have his head in his hands, but near enough.  Fortunately, our more senior boss at board level shared some of my opinions and that probably prevented me from being booted out there and then!  Despite the opportunity to visit Singapore and the USA for the first time, and several trips to Germany and the Netherlands, the time in that job was marked by severe stress, frustration and disillusionment and, to be honest, I was not entirely gutted when our redundancy was announced.

To give myself something more enjoyable to do during my corporate experience, I had been taking on a few small translation jobs in my spare time for my former colleages in the Birmingham office, which by now had been taken over by another company.  When I was made redundant, the possibility of trying to work as a freelance translator came up and, with nothing to lose by now, I decided to give it a go, at least for a trial period, knowing I could look around for other jobs at the same time to keep my options open.  Using my redundancy payment (such as it was) to purchase a PC, translation software, dictionaries and to set up the beginnings of a home office, away I went.

It was certainly daunting, but as I had not given up employment to pursue it, I knew the worst that could happen was that it would not work out and I would be looking for a new job, which was the situation I was facing anyway post redundancy.  Fortunately, things did work out.  Because of the excellent relationships I had built up with offices in Germany, they were willing to take a chance on me.  And, though I do say so myself, my work was of at least as good a standard as the other freelance suppliers they were using.  Before long, I realised that I would not need to be signing up for agencies, and I cancelled my online job alert subscriptions.  I was enjoying the freedom and, most of the time at least, the work itself and there was also the irony that my former employer was paying me far more as a freelance supplier than they ever did when I actually worked for them full time.

Of course, things have changed slightly over the years.  I now have a much wider client base, as contacts have moved from one translation company to another, set up their own agencies, or recommended me.  I like to think I have built up a reputation as a professional translator, who delivers excellent quality material on time and is easy and flexible to deal with.  Certainly, I am in a position where I constantly have to turn work down – if there were ten working days a week instead of five, I could fill them.  The major benefit of this is that I can pick and choose, ensuring that I can spend more time working on the kind of jobs and texts I enjoy and that I can do more work for clients that pay me more.  Many clients are also prepared to wait for me to be available, rather than have their documents translated by someone else.  So from humble beginnings, I know I can be proud of what I have achieved.

Although there are downsides, as anyone who works alone and mainly at home will know.  It can be a lonely existence at times, but generally that is more than compensated for by the lifestyle options a freelance career opens up.  I consider myself very fortunate that I was put in a position where I could start up the business without any great risk, otherwise I might never have taken that step, but mainly that I have fallen, almost by accident, into a career that has given me flexibility, a good income and the chance to create a healthy balance between work and life.

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