By Jim Clennell
I became a translator more by accident than design. Having blundered through a succession of ill-fated jobs after my arrival in France in 1991, by late 1997 I realised that enough was enough and I would have to retrain in order to earn a living doing something I actually wanted to do. So, I took a Diploma in Translation with The Institute of Linguists in London, which apparently made me a qualified translator, if not an employed one.
The decision to become self-employed more or less made itself, as openings for inexperienced non-specialised translators were few and far between. A trip down to the local URSSAF and I was – literally – in business.
Finding customers – either directly or indirectly through agencies – proved quite tricky, though one fantastic opportunity helped enormously: a friend of a friend was working for the Organizing Committee of the football World Cup, held in France in 1998. As a football-mad translator, this was the perfect job, and I also managed to network fairly effectively too.
As the months progressed I began to get a reasonably regular supply of work and learned a major lesson for freelance translators: whatever the subject, claim extensive experience, take the job and ask questions later (unless it’s legal, medical or accounting, where blagging will often come back to haunt you). As a result, I now have an absurdly broad range of knowledge on subjects ranging from inflatable boats to film financing and from the Antiquities of the Louvre to legionella cultures via racing car lubricants and air traffic control. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately) I rarely remember much of anything as I have to clear space in my limited memory for the next thrilling instalment.
On the plus side, my job is endlessly varied, wonderfully mobile (wherever I connect my laptop, that’s my office) and flexible in terms of working time.
But, I’m seriously thinking about giving up translating for a living, because, although I love it, I just can’t seem to make it work.
Firstly, the flow of work is extremely irregular, as is the case with many freelance professions. You’re either beating off work with the proverbial shitty stick, or waiting in vain for the phone to ring, whilst watching virtual tumbleweed blow across your desk. Sod’s Law then dictates that the moment you accept a crappy 1,500-word job because anything is better than nothing, the phone will ring offering you something better that you then have to turn down.
Secondly, the pressure on costs – as for all service industries – is inexorably downward. Despite being a better, more experienced translator than I was when I started, my rates have never risen and in some case have fallen. Indifference to quality on the part of customers and automated translation may play a role, but there are translators out there who, for whatever reason (overdeveloped sense of competition, ignorance of market rates, etc), will work for significantly less than I can afford to. This isn’t about me being greedy, it is simply not economically viable to work for less than I owe URSSAF, CIPAV, RAM, the Tax Office and all the other organisations who feel entitled to a chunk of my earnings before I see a single cent. I’m not going to go off on a rant about how small business gets screwed in France, but you can take it as read.
The third issue is the length of time it takes to get paid. Last year, I did a long and rather interesting translation on greenhouse gas emissions for a government agency. I initially invoiced for it in March and finally got paid in August. That may not sound like a long time overall, but it left a big hole in my cash-flow because while I was working on this project, I couldn’t do other work for which payment comes in more rapidly. Furthermore, if you are working on a long project, you drop off agencies’ radar once they have found out you are unavailable a few times and thus the available work is distributed elsewhere.
And so, despite increasing my turnover every year since I started out and despite thoroughly enjoying much of my job, the conclusion I am reaching – with a heavy heart – is that I just can’t afford to be a translator.
Jim Clennell is a French to English translator. If you want to send him an email, contact Céline.