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?