Guest blogger: Why I’m going to give translation up

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.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:34+00:00 January 27th, 2006|Freelance Translation, Guests|10 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. petite January 31, 2006 at 3:13 pm

    That does make depressing reading, Mr Clennell. I hope you have a plan B…

  2. TW January 31, 2006 at 6:19 pm

    Dido, petite. Being a fledgling translator myself, this story is a bit dishearteneing. And like you, Petite, I’m wondering what Jim is planning to do instead of translate.
    Actually, maybe an in-house translation position would be more to your liking, Jim, because from what I’ve read, it seems that it was more the feast and famine cycle of freelance life that you disliked, not the translation itself.

  3. SD January 31, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    The biggest problem about working in translation inhouse being – at least here in the UK – that it pays abysmally… I earned more working as a secretary for a charitable organisation (and not even using my lanhuages at that)
    Sorry to hear about your woes, Jim – but hey, you’ve had a few years of fantastic experience working for yourself. At least you’ll never wonder “what if”.

  4. effisk January 31, 2006 at 10:42 pm

    Hello there,
    I landed here by accident, I was looking for info about someone who bears the same lastname as the author of this blog and lives in Australia.
    According to the info given out in (on?) the “about céline” page, there’s a good chance you know who I am talking about 😉
    I’m afraid my English is not perfect, and I hope Jim’s situation will improve. TW’s suggestion sounds a good option.

  5. TW February 1, 2006 at 1:49 am

    Effisk, your English is actually pretty good. What’s your native language?
    SD, maybe Jim will be able to able to get a higher paying in-house translating job given his years of experience. I hear the U.N. pays pretty well.

  6. Jean February 1, 2006 at 10:59 am

    Jim, this seems a sad – though very understandable – conclusion to reach when you enjoy the work. Maybe this is the time to try the risky or the off-the-wall solutions before giving up. Eg try raising your rates a lot – the variation (both up and down) never ceases to amaze me. Or maybe there is something else you could also do freelance, alongside translating? More than one income stream always seems a good idea.

  7. céline February 1, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Probably like all translators, I’m worried about developments in terms of automatic translation etc., and I’ve been thinking I should try and diversify my activity, as Jean suggests. Search engine optimisation, for example, which is getting more and more important, requires language skills and a knowledge of specific foreign markets. This is just one idea, there must be other things we can do!

  8. effisk February 1, 2006 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks TW. I’m French. I realized after I posted my comment that there is a French version of the blog, this would have been less challenging for me, though. 😉
    Céline, I am a webmarketer. Search engine optimization (SEO) is part of my job. It is technical domain, moving very fast, but it’s still fairly new so you can start from scratch now and become very good at it within a few months. You need to learn about HTML, PHP, CSS and so on. You might already have a grasp of all this.
    I am unsure how you would link that to your translator experience.
    How about writing editorials/articles for magazines/websites/etc. in domains you have already covered? It’s just a thought.

  9. Jim Clennell February 2, 2006 at 7:21 am

    Thanks for the comments. I have to say, there are times when I feel less negative about translating, but perhaps it was a good thing to write my guest post during a “down” phase. Working in-house (I fear) would remove two of the most important things I value about my job – the content variation and the flexible working time – though I have obviously considered looking for something along those lines. Last year I renovated a property to sell with a friend as a second revenue stream. The problem I found with that was the instant nature of translating. The property was an hour from home and had no phone connection, so if work came in I had to drop whatever I was doing (possibly wasting a mix of cement or something similar) and rush home. Overall, I probably broke even once the house was sold, as I had to turn down a substantial amount of translating. But it’s a solution I will look at repeating (closer to home!). In the meantime, I am actually up to my ears in work just now, so I’d better go…

  10. Daniel February 11, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    I feel your pain. The same thing happened to me: I was a Japanese-English translator for about 4 years but finally gave it because of the inconsistancy of the work (ie. one month I was flat out, the next month I would be sitting around doing nothing) and also because getting paid was a big hassle sometimes. I got into IT after that and haven’t looked back (much) because I found a company which has clients in Japan, so my language skills are still valued.
    And yes, you definately do gain “an absurdly broad range of knowledge” when you are freelancing. I can bore people to tears with all the things I know about about the “stone money” used on the island of Yap, and still wake up at night in a cold sweat after translating a 500 page ship motor engine manual. If I ever see another schematic for a Voith-Schneider propulsion system..
    Good luck. There is life after translation!

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