French/English Translators Weigh in on How to Maintain Your Sanity While Running Your Business

During the 55th Annual Conference organized November 5-8, 2014 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Chicago, I attended a session entitled The Freelance Juggling Act: Tips For Living The Life You Want. It was a discussion panel moderated by Eve Bodeux with translators like herself who work with English and French languages: Corinne McKay, Marianne Reiner, and Andrew Morris.

The debate was initiated with an issue that is close to the heart of many freelancers: How do you deal with fears generated by the uncertainty of our industry?

Corinne started out by saying that the worst thing about being a freelancer is not knowing when work will come your way. To counteract that, she makes sure she's available when clients need her. She mainly works with direct clients, whose only French-to-English resource is her, so she has made an effort to learn the critical times in her clients' yearly schedule, when their contents need translation, so she can be there for them.

Andrew followed up by saying that he also works with direct clients, which allows him more flexibility as a translator. And, whenever he is not available to work on a project himself, he does outsource tasks to a small team that he can trust.

As for Marianne, she takes advantage of the time zone difference and checks her email very early in the morning in San Diego, California, when her clients in France are in the middle of the afternoon, this way she can plan her schedule better. She also resources to outsourcing when her schedule doesn't allow her to work on a project herself.

“When I started working as a translator, fear was my daily companion,” Marianne admitted. “But I realized that there will be a next project, there will be a next client. Learn your client's pattern,” she advised.

Moving on to the next question, Eve wanted to know more about time management: How do you make time to do the things you like?

Andrew said he sets boundaries: “I never work weekends, but I never switch off, though.” Although being used to working 11-hour days, with a short break, Andrew invests in client education so nobody calls him on Friday evening with a new project.

Corinne likes looking at the larger picture. “I have finite physical and emotional energy,” she said, indicating that she needs some downtime to recharge her own batteries. “You are a non-renewable resource. Know your time-crunching period,” she recommended. And, if translators realize that this “crunch mode” has become the norm, she suggests that they raise their rates.

Marianne said she doesn't work evenings anymore. “I'm a good communicator with my clients, and I'll respond to them, but not immediately,” she explained. “I'll tell them that I'm out of the office, but will get back to them at a certain time.” About working on weekends, she prefers to avoid it, because it interferes with her schedule on the following week. “I occasionally work weekends, but then I have to make that time up with my family and do something special with them.”

The next question was related to the subject, more specifically about availability and rates: Do you feel that work-life issues affect your pricing?

After asking the question, Eve herself said that she has a different outlook on pricing, in that she analyzes the enjoyment, as well as the monetary value each project has to offer.

Marianne agrees with that, saying that her personal time has an impact on how she feels about a project. “If clients don't respect my personal time, they won't be part of my schedule,” she put it emphatically, explaining that she enjoys working with very long projects because they have a reasonable deadline, and that way she can organize her personal life around these assignments.

“I push my rates up whenever I feel that I can get away with it,” Andrew admitted, although he said that he never associates his price with the sense of time. “Only 3% of my projects may have an unreasonable deadline, but it's imperative that you charge higher rates for urgent projects.”

Corinne has a more concrete method and stresses on coordinating work schedule and self-improvement. “That's the #1 factor. I set my translation rates based on making the income I want while working 20 hours a week,” she explained. “I try to keep my schedule full to make my target income and have free time to do other things―like blogging, attending conferences, etc. If you're working 40 hours a week consistently, where is your business going to be in five years if you don't have time for continued education?”

The last question Eve had for the panel involved outside interference: How do you set boundaries with people you interact with throughout the day?

Marianne said she uses a shared office sometimes, but always has a professional mindset, especially when she's working from home. “Even though my office is ten feet from my bed, it's still my office. I dress up professionally and, when people see me, they know I'm going to work. You're a professional, so dress the part. Have a door that closes in your office. Respect your work space. You send a signal by the way you dress, the way you work on your computer.”

Andrew said he also dress for work, but allows himself a pajama day once a month. He has the advantage of not having neighbors, because he lives in the countryside, and both him and his partner work from home―she's a therapist. “My partner and I respect each other's space and we use the biggest rooms in our house as our offices,” he mentioned.

As for Corinne, she acknowledged that working exclusively from a home office wasn't ideal for her. “It's okay to admit that you're horrible at working from home,” she opened up. “I realized, after ten years, that I was a total failure―I couldn't say no to people,” she mentioned, talking about how family and friends would ask her for favors when they knew she were at home, even though she would be working on a project. “Now I use a co-working office and get more done in less time. I also eliminated work coming home. My boundary now is that I'm just not home when someone asks me for something.”

The panel then welcomed questions from the office, and the first one came from someone in the audience who said that she loves what she does and that work is her life. Considering that, her question was Why do we need work-life balance anyway?

Andrew said it's important for freelancers to do a lot of introspection. “It's perfectly fine to have your work as your life,” he answered. “I choose to spend my time—a lot of it—working, because I love what I do.”

Corinne offered another perspective: “Instead of saying 'work-life balance,' we should say 'work-life choices,' and you have to accept the choices you make. When my daughter grows up, I want to say that I was there while she was growing up.”

Marianne had a similar view: “You have to choose what works for you. I love my work, but I've realized that my work is not my life. When I work, I work 200%; when I travel, I travel 300%.”

The next question had to do with client management. How do you manage letting your direct clients down when you have to say no?

Marianne said the experience is familiar to her. “I've been there. I think coming to conferences and interacting with other people is valuable. We're not superheroes, we cannot do every single project, it's just not gonna happen,” she pondered. Her personal solution is simple: “You need to outsource.”

Andrew agreed, and talked about his own experience: “To outsource work, you have to be a fast communicator. I answer within five minutes, and the people who work with me do exactly the same.” However, he said that when clients need translations in an area he's not familiar with, he tells them to look for someone else.

“Send these clients to a parallel universe to find someone who can answer them at 3 a.m.!” Corinne joked, and then offered another alternative: “I set up auto replies referring direct clients to a trusted colleague. I don't outsource, but I never lost a client after referring them to someone.”

The next question came from a social media user, who said, “If I'm not on Twitter, I feel like I'm missing something!” Her question was: How can you manage turning off the social media when people can get in touch with you instantly?

Corinne, who has a very successful translation blog and uses social media well, put it simply that “It takes as long as you give it.” She said that she turns off all alerts when she's working. “I don't wanna be on the social media after a certain time. I try to compartmentalize. I'd rather be 100% working or 100% not working. You have to know your trigger moments.”

Andrew and Marianne didn't quite relate to the issue. For him, social media is nothing but a tool to interact with other translators. As for her, this kind of interaction doesn't become much of a distraction. “My personal view about social media is that I'm very careful with what I share and what my clients can read about me.”

The last question from the audience was more of a comment about working under pressure: When I don't have a deadline, I take longer to get work done...

“There's a procrastinator in all of us,” Marianne said. “For me, it's about being organized. When I realized my passion was really books, and that I could make that my profession as well, there are projects now that I simply won't do,” she acknowledged.

Andrew agreed: “Different texts bring out the procrastinator in me. If you chip away all the clients that aren't a match for you, you'll end up with clients with a profile that is similar to yours. After five years, I've managed to run to the computer to work on texts that I like.”

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS),  a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.