10 things you are sick of hearing as a freelance translator and interpreter
Updated: Apr 29
Freelance translator or/and interpreter. Four simple - yet so complicated, words.
Freelance (adj.): self-employed and hired to work for different companies on particular assignments
Translator (n): a person who conveys written material communicated in one language into another
Interpreter (n): a person who conveys speech communicated in one language into another
After many talks with colleagues and friends, I realised that some comments about my #profession kept on coming up. I started noticing that I often found myself in the position of being asked similar questions in small talks with friends of a friend or a family member who refused to understand what my job is all about.
At first, I wondered whether it’s just me. After I plucked up my courage, I decided to start talking about it with some friends with whom I share the same profession. That was it: It was not me – these tactless comments are part of a broader challenge that all language professionals face during their career irrespective of their language combination or the country they live in or work at. For some people being a translator or an interpreter is like being a magician. They know it exists, they know that it is thought to be a profession, but they somehow don’t get it. The lack of professional recognition and the rather stereotypical classification of professions (some people believe that being a lawyer, a doctor, a professor or an accountant are the only rational and ‘acceptable’ career paths one can take) are two possible reasons that lead to misconceptions about language professionals.
Here is a list with the most relatable situations that language professionals find themselves in during their career (they are all based on actual events).
1) An all-time classic: You are at a party, a conference, a dinner (insert preferred context) and start making small talk. The first thing that pops up in your mind is to ask other people about their profession. Then, it's your turn to say something about what you do for a living, so you proudly say: ‘I am an interpreter’. The person asking seems confused, so s/he takes some time and then asks ‘That’s the same as a translator, isn’t it?’. You take all the courage you have left to either explain to that person what the difference is (or to tell them that they can check out this article if they want to know more!) or you briefly say that they are two different professions by outlining the similarities and differences – I am sure that most of us have already done this a million times, so after a point it's almost like a reflex. This conversation can be even more confusing for other people, if you happen to be both a translator and interpreter. Good luck at explaining how you can do both at the same time!
2) Moving on to (hopefully) less mainstream discussions. You are at a family dinner. You explain to your family how things are at work and you say that it has been going on well/not so well lately. Suddenly, your cousin says ‘Sounds good, but when are you going to get like a real job?’. Error 404 – for so many reasons. Personally, I don’t understand why people feel entitled to share their opinion especially when it comes to something they haven’t been asked for, but since this is just me being picky, let’s move on to the next reason why this question is inappropriate. What does this cousin (aka average Joe) mean by real job? Obviously, s/he has no clue that it's 2020 and this means that there are new types of jobs that give extra freedom and space for creativity. This person is convinced that proper jobs are only full-time jobs at a company or a bank.
3) Scenario two in the aforementioned situation: ‘Working from home is awesome! It’s like you have all days-off’. Actually...no! Working from home is not like chilling at home on your day off. As the term suggests, it is w-o-r-k. This means that a translator who works from home has to wake up at a specific time, work for a certain number of hours (needless to mention all logistics, marketing, client hunting tasks that are not merely translation-related but are necessary for business) as s/he would, if s/he had to work in an office. Yes, the fact that someone works from home gives him/her the freedom to work on his/her PJs (I don’t because I am a nerd, but some people do), but working from home means nothing more than working from home. Working from home means that you do what other people do on a normal day at work only without socialising and commuting.
4) You just met a friend of a friend. S/he gets very excited after s/he hears that you are a translator and then goes on by saying ‘Actually, I am so lucky I met you because I am in desperate need of some extra money. Let me know if you have any translation projects, I can help you with!’. Don’t be that person! I know that the job market and its structure (aka ‘the system’) is the reason why some people find themselves in this situation but we are held responsble for our actions. Yes, one often cannot find a job due to unemployment but diving into unknown waters and doing a job you are not qualified to do makes you responsible for proliferating an unfair job market – because there is probably someone else doing your dream job to earn some extra cash.
5) A friend of a friend approaches you and asks you to translate a document from Italian. You kindly reply by explaining to him/her that you are a translator but Italian is not a language you work from/into. You encourage him/her to contact a colleague who works from Italian and wish him/her all the best. Five minutes later you receive a new email saying ‘It's really urgent. Are you sure you cannot do it? I thought you were a translator’. Yes, I am a translator, but (a) this doesn’t mean that I speak or understand every single language spoken on planet Earth and (b) even if I did, speaking a language is different than translating from/into it.
6) A client approaches you and asks for a quote. You kindly reply by giving him/her the quote and explaining the services that you offer. The client, who clearly doesn’t want to pay, gets back to you by expressing discontent, downplaying your value and using your young age as an argument for a lower price. Don’t give in! For a very interesting insight on age and its role in our profession as translators and interpreters, read an article (The youngest person in the room) written by my dear friend and colleague, Annika Schlesiger.
7) You are talking with a group of friends and you are randomly asked what a word means. You are caught off guard and, honestly, you don’t really know. ‘But you are a #translator!’ your friend says. You are tempted to reply by using the cliché ‘Yes, I am a translator, I am not a dictionary’, but you don’t. You just breathe in and have another drink.
8) Did you have to study to be a translator? What? Are you sure this was a wise career option especially in the age of technology and Google Translate? No further comments needed.
9) Your quotes are way too high. I'll just use Google Translate. Beware of this trap: This person almost never uses Google Translate and s/he is trying to make you feel that you really need the job. Their ulterior motive is to make you lower your prices by undermining your value and qualifications.
10) I have a translation that needs to be done and it's really small – it shouldn’t take more than 10’. My alarm bells go off even when I write this sentence. Going back to all the times I've heard this phrase: (a) the project is NEVER small and (b) for some incomprehensible reason, it is always full of super technical terms. Apart from these two things, which should not be a problem for professionals anyway, nobody really wants a client who tells a translator in advance how long the translation of a project will take. Because it is never 10' minutes really.
But apart from these 10 things, there are people who really admire our work and acknowledge its importance.
‘Speaking and listening at the same time? For real? It is almost like having a superpower!’: This is one of the best things I've heard about my job as an interpreter!
'So, if I got that right, translating is something like giving life to a text in another language by using different words but keeping the same meaning?': This is another great thing I've heard about translation. It's probably one of its best definitions too.
And it does feel like that! #Conferences, #international meetings, summits are only some of the settings where our help is invaluable. This is why, one should not be discouraged even if they're told all 10 things mentioned above! It is true that some professions are better established than others but raising #awareness about our job and its features should be perceived as part of our job. In fact, it's almost like our #responsibility towards it. This is how each of us can pave the way for a better recognition of our profession and at the same time help the future generation of translators and interpreters avoid being exposed to all the awkwardness (and sometimes frustration) associated with all aforementioned situations.