Lesson 131: Paradoxes in a freelance translator’s career

Lesson 131: Paradoxes in a freelance translator’s career

As part of my recent presentation in Rotterdam, I did a small experiment and I applied some of my favourite social science approaches to a freelance translator’s career. We talked about paradoxes, wicked problems and messes. The translation profession is full of them, you can’t deny that!

Our working definition for the talk, and how I invite you to see paradoxes in the light of this article, was a mind-boggling, surprising statement contradictory in its nature or in contradiction with common or individual knowledge. We agreed that some situations or sentences are so puzzling that we instinctively feel they’re causing an internal (or sometimes indeed external) conflict.

I think it’s extremely important to acknowledge these paradoxes because… they need to be understood, analysed, acted upon or accepted. I divided paradoxes I came across in my career into four stages, from still being a student to running an established business.

Stage 1: Paradoxes in translator’s training


  • If there’s no one right solution, why is my solution wrong?

You’ve surely came across this one if you ever had your translation checked by a tutor. If you’re being told that there’s no just one good translation, how come all you can see when you get your text back is red lines?

  • Sometimes the simplest translation problems are most difficult to solve.

One of the first thing I’ve learned as a translator was that the simplest words or expressions would often pose the biggest challenges. This explains the sheer complexity of the process but also causes lots of frustration to a newcomer.

  • If there’s no one right solution, how do I know I’m doing it right?

One of the most puzzling thoughts I’ve been faced with, and I think it’s essential in establishing one’s confidence as a translator. How do you know you’re doing the right thing? How to verify it? Or is it even possible?

  • The first step in the translation process is to read the brief. Wait, what?

It was an important lesson for me and I think it still remains a real shock to any graduating translation student. Many aspects of what we’re being taught at universities or courses doesn’t really happen in the real life. For example, getting translation briefs.

Stage 2: Translator transition


  • You need to get some experience before you start working but you need work to get experience.

If you’re just transitioning into freelance translation, you’ll surely be faced with this unsolvable conundrum. At a first sight, you can’t really break the cycle. Many newcomers are indeed stuck and give up. Is there a way out of it?

  • If you want to find work, start working at lower rates and raise them with experience.

False! One of the most credible paradoxes because from the outset, it kind of makes sense. If you’re hired, you’re usually earning less as a newcomer and then progress through the stages of your career, earning more and more. However, it’s a fallacy in business. If you start charging less now, you’ll never break out of this pattern.

  • I don’t have money to invest but I won’t have money without investing.

If you’re not investing, you’re less likely to make more money. If you’re waiting to invest in a new PC, CAT tool or training, hoping you’ll soon start earning more, you’re falling a victim of this fallacious thinking. Invest first, reap rewards later.

Stage 3: Establishing business


  • Though I’m great with other people’s words, I’m bad at communication.

Something that I noticed in the second or third year of running my business (and haven’t fixed until a couple of years later) was that though I was great with translating other people’s communication materials, I myself wasn’t a great communicator. How did that happen?

  • I do lots of outbound marketing but I don’t pick up the phone when it rings.

Guilty as charged a few years back, much better now. Maybe this pattern is familiar to you, too: go out there to an event, hand out business cards, follow-up and then just dodge a hint at meeting up. Or just don’t pick up the phone. Isn’t that the most paradoxical of behaviours for a business owner?

  • The narrower I specialise, the more jobs I get.

It usually takes a while to let it go and understand that narrowing fields of expertise down doesn’t mean there will be less work – quite the contrary! Though it’s paradoxical with what the gut or common sense tells you, it’s true.

  • The busier I am, the busier I am.

As paradoxical as it sounds, being busy can only mean you’ll get busier.

  • You need to see the value of your work to make others see the value of your work.

Just thinking that clients need to value/appreciate/reward translation work more is hardly ever going to work. It takes being convinced yourself first.

Stage 4: Business-as-usual


  • I need technology; technology threatens to replace me.

Some colleagues (let me know if it’s not you in comments below) seem to be caught in this tricky situation where they do realise they cannot work without technology and at the same time are afraid it’s going to replace them anyway. How to balance these two? Or is this position justified at all?

  • Experienced translators are good. Good translators are experienced.

An example of fallacious thinking which took me years and years to realise. I lived convinced that all experienced translators, those who’ve been working in the industry for years, are always good and conversely that good translators are always those who’re the most experienced. Life has proven me wrong.

  • The more I give back, the more I have for myself.

Giving back to the profession, something you usually start thinking about a few good years into stable business, is perhaps the most enriching of experiences. Every little thing you do for your colleagues gives you satisfaction and what goes round, comes round, also by way of recommendations.

  • The more you criticise someone for something, the more likely you’re to be guilty of it yourself.

This is perhaps one of my most recent lessons learned. We often see, especially on social media, certain groups criticising others for doing this or that, or failing to do this or that. It also boils down to individuals. It has only dawned on me recently that those who criticise the loudest sometimes (not always) are those who’re guilty themselves.

What are the paradoxes that you came across? How did you manage to solve them?


  1. Elena Tereshchenkova , on Jun 18, 2015 at 09:10 Reply

    Great post, Martha! I’ve been faced with some of the paradoxes you’re writing about. For example:

    Sometimes the simplest translation problems are most difficult to solve. (c)

    Certainly true! My favorite example of this issue is the translation of the word ‘enjoy’ into Russian. The literal one-word translation rarely fits the context, so I have to wrack my brain every time I come across this word, which it quite often used in texts for the travel industry.

    I don’t have money to invest but I won’t have money without investing. (c)

    I think, in today’s world this problem is much easier to overcome than it was, say, 10 year ago. If you don’t have money, you can invest time and get good results, too. Of course, there’re some things that you just have to spend money on, like paying for hosting services, if you want to have a website. But it doesn’t cost you a fortune.

    As for CPD, there’re many ways to engage in it even if you don’t have the money to invest: signing up for a course in your specialization on sites like Coursera or reading blogs like this one or many other wonderful blogs written by our colleagues are excellent examples of how one can make a good start.

    Though I’m great with other people’s words, I’m bad at communication. (c)

    This is a funny one, because I hear lots of fellow translators talk about it, although they don’t produce an impression of someone, who finds it difficult to interact with others. Actually, I’m also having quite a hard time ‘coming out of my cave’ (as Chris Durban put it once), although it probably doesn’t seem that way.

    One of the reasons for this might be that translation is a kind of job that you mostly do alone. In any case, I find it hard to concentrate when someone’s around. So, the profession of a translator is often chosen by people, who are ok with being by themselves.

    And I know it from experience, that if I don’t watch out, I might end up with a tiny circle of people, whom I feel most comfortable with, without any desire to expand this circle. However, this approach is counterproductive, because making new connections is a necessity, if one wants to grow (professionally and otherwise) and develop the business.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 10, 2015 at 15:08 Reply

      Dear Elena,

      Thank you so much for stepping by to comment! I think we’re facing a similar issue with “enjoy” in Polish and indeed it ends up being something else almost every time.

      Well, in my case, I think I got to be quite good at communicating with others, but it’s still comes at a bit of an expense from my side it just doesn’t come naturally 🙂

  2. Elena Tereshchenkova , on Jun 18, 2015 at 09:25 Reply

    And I meant ‘rack my brain’, of course. Sorry for the typo.

  3. Yael Cahane-Shadmi , on Jun 18, 2015 at 11:16 Reply

    Thank you for another great post! Another paradox is “One of the reasons I became a translator is because I like working by myself and not having to interact with other people, but in order to get clients I have to go out there and network”. I think a big part of our professional and personal growth as business owners is developing strategies that will help us meet other people and make new connections and friends, even though we’re shy/introverted.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 10, 2015 at 12:11 Reply

      It definitely is – and it’s always worth it to reach out to other people 🙂

  4. Haydée Menna , on Jul 1, 2015 at 01:04 Reply

    Dear Marta,
    I will make comments on the sections I will mostly identified with:

    Stage 1

    Sometimes the simplest translation problems are most difficult to solve: We have to be careful when setting a deadline. However simple a sentence may be, we must devote appropriate time to complete a project.

    If there isn’t one right solution: how do I know I am doing it right?
    We do all the necessary research to do it irhgt. However, sometimes we have doubts; I think it is normal. I believe we must have good communication with our client and consult him/her in case a doubt arises. We tend to be afraid of consulting.

    The first step in the translation process is to read the brief. Wait, what?
    It is true, we rarely get translation briefs, but as translators, we are trained to identify the main ideas in a text, so we can consider doing that as a replacement for the brief.

    Stage 2
    You need to get some experience before you start working, but you need work to get experience: We must not give up. We must try, and try, and try.

    I do not have money to invest, but I won’t have money without investing: Training is essential; it is part of the process. Investment in training is part of the process.

    Stage 3
    Though I’m great with other people words, I’m bad at communication: This is difficult for me too. Within years, I improved on this. However, I have to keep on trying.

    Stage 4
    Experienced translators are good. Good translators are experienced: Experience gives you a lot of tools so as to be a good translator, but if you are not experienced and are well-trained, that is also an excellent tool to become a good professional.

    The more I give back, the more I have for myself: Helping each other is a gratifying experience.

    The more you criticise someone for sth., the more likely you’re to be guilty of it yourself: Instead of critcising, we should communicate as colleagues. We cannot waste our time; we must take advantage of it. I think that some people criticize because they are afraid and insecure. We must speak about our passion and exchange experiences.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 10, 2015 at 12:23 Reply

      Thank you for a very thorough comment. I think that you have a great attitude – determination is key to success after all 🙂

  5. Paulinho , on Jul 2, 2015 at 10:29 Reply

    Hi Marta.

    Thank you for the article.

    One of the hardest topics found here is the one reality almost all translators have faced recently: Pricing. At university my Essay “project” was about professional translators and the translators who ‘parachute’ in the field. They work for very low rates and as most translation companies are aware of that, all other professionals get the same pay and that makes the system level down and not up, if you know what I mean. So increasing prices in the translation business is quite a tough task, and I am not going to touch the QA combined with low rates, lack of professionalism, etc. You got a point here. 

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 10, 2015 at 12:30 Reply

      I think that this is why we need to make sure our work is good and share what we know with our colleagues. Changing the industry isn’t easy, but hopefully more and more translators can realise they can do better than they are doing right now.

  6. Noelia Martinez , on Jul 3, 2015 at 08:45 Reply

    Another great post Martha. I can identify myself with many of this statements specially this one: Though I’m great with other people’s words, I’m bad at communication.

    Also I am good at advising people who to progress in their careers or what steps they should take in their business and when it comes to mine… I don’t know what to do! hehe

    Many of them apply also to my work as content writer…

    Thanks for all the wise advises. I really admire what you have achieve!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 10, 2015 at 12:28 Reply

      Thank you, Noelia! I have a similar dilemma – as a lot of us, I’m naturally better ad advising people than applying said advice to myself. One of the ways I solve this problem is to look in the mirror and treat myself as my own client, sometimes even give my ‘mirror image’ another name 😉

  7. Dmitry Kornyukhov , on Jul 12, 2015 at 17:12 Reply

    Thanks for the great post, Marta! I gotta say, I can relate to many of those things. I’m doing quite a lot of outbound marketing, but when the phone rings and I don’t know the number my brain freezes. I don’t want to pick up the phone. I’m forcing myself to do that eventually but not without a struggle. For some reason, I just hate talking on the phone. I don’t know why.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 17, 2015 at 07:37 Reply

      Thank you, Dimitri 🙂 I think a lot of us feel dread when the phone rings, I found that rehearsing a line before I pick up helped me overcome most of this fear.

  8. Nigel Wheatley , on Jul 15, 2015 at 01:54 Reply

    I was going to take up your challenge about technology, but when my reply got to nearly 1400 words I thought it was better placed on my blog than yours!
    As a short summary, I don’t think machine translation will replace human translators, but I think it will be come an ever greater part of some translators’ tool kits once it becomes good enough to save translators time while allowing them to deliver their normal quality. http://visverborum.com/i-need-technology-technology-threatens-to-replace-me/ if anyone wants the long version.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 17, 2015 at 07:42 Reply

      Thank you, Nigel and I do agree this is a distinct possibility 🙂

  9. María Chayé , on Aug 4, 2015 at 14:40 Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us, Marta. I find your words so inspiring. I hold a 6-year degree in English-Spanish translation and absolutely loved my university years. I’ve worked for two different agencies since I graduated. However, I can’t seem to find my niche, and as a consequence, I’m demotivated as a translator. I would really appreciate it if you could dispense some advice.
    Thank you,

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Aug 7, 2015 at 14:12 Reply

      I’m sorry you find yourself in this predicament, Vicky, but I’m sure you can get through it 🙂 I think you might either want to give yourself a bit of a break, take a nice vacation and return to thinking and research, or think of a professional course. You seem like a great candidate for my Expert-Level Bootcamp for Translators, where we have a good chunk of time devoted to good niches. Alternatively, Corinne McKay offers great courses and consultations at Thoughts on Translation. Good luck!

  10. Martina , on Sep 17, 2015 at 07:42 Reply

    This post is just fantastic, I’ll share it with ‘young’ translators in the Italian community right away 🙂

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