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Unvarnished truths

When my esteemed colleague Paula from Aptrad first asked me to write about the challenges I faced in my first year since returning to freelance in March 2016, the Pollyanna side of my brain kicked into its usual optimistic overdrive. I was thinking about turning this into an inspirational piece about how every challenge we face in life is actually an opportunity that opens new doors and avenues. Then I decided that perhaps, this is no longer the right approach to our work and to life in general. Every day, I watch shocking events unfold and I constantly ask myself what could have been the reason for it all and where did we miss the warning signs. I believe that recently, the world and our industry in particular have been confronted with some sad and unattractive truths, the existence of which some of us refuse to acknowledge. Maybe if we call our experiences what they are and stop looking for silver linings in everything, we will be better equipped to deal with whatever comes our way. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

I am not new to freelancing. After graduating from the Monterey Institute, I first worked on various office projects in different parts of the world – from Hanoi in Vietnam to St Petersburg in Russia – which I viewed as a great chance to absorb the terminology, style, and requirements of the industries, in which I was specialising. But one cold February night in 2007, when I moved to the quiet county of Devonshire in the UK and once again found myself with a clean career slate, I did not even think of going to any recruitment agencies or seething through any job boards – I had my trade and I was confident I will be able to make a living. From that day, I worked day and night to build my business as a freelance translator and I specialised in legal, marketing, and technical fields. I loved what I was doing but having always been a so-called people person, I strived to get more interpreting assignments and on-site work where I will be able to apply my social skills. For that, I had to move to the capital – the big city where, I assumed, opportunities run galore for trained multilingual professionals.

This chance came in 2012 when my client of 10-plus years, a translation company, offered me to join their ranks and work with a major oil company on site in their London offices. I jumped at the opportunity – not only because it was my chance to move to London but also due to the fact that it would have given me a chance to see another facet of the industry: working within a translation agency and observing how they organise their processes and objectives. Which is what I did for almost 4 years until I felt I could survive in the city without the security cushion of a regular salary.

I went back to freelance in March last year. There were certain aspects of my work that I remembered from my previous stint at freelancing. This includes the importance of managing your deadlines, devising your own pricing strategy, and being able to identify how you can deliver the utmost quality. I needed no help researching client demand in my area of specialisation nor did I require any hand-holding when networking or negotiating rates with potential clients. There are, however, three aspects I wish I had taken into account when I started:

  1. Prioritising my wellbeing.

As soon as I went back to freelance and was able to craft my own work hours, I dived straight into lots of interpreting assignments and exploring options for my professional development. I started learning more about English law and taking classes in preparation for my diploma in public service interpreting. I sat my exams in June (and happy to say I passed them with flying colours) but it meant that for three months straight, from April to the end of June, I was running on 60-hour workweeks: interpreting in court, at meetings, and during arbitration procedures while studying for the exams. By the end of this three-month period, something had to give and sadly, it was my wellbeing.

Here is the lesson I learnt: I am the main asset of my business after all. While it is important for interpreters to hone their skills constantly, we also need to take care of ourselves. I decided that every day, my priorities would be exercise, sleep, and nutritious food, and only once I had all these three aspects of my wellbeing in order, I will be able to deliver my best at work, in social life, or in my personal development. Also, determining your priorities and making sure you stick to them clears up a lot of mental space: you no longer have to choose between a good-night sleep and reading another chapter of your favourite book: you will know that if you sacrifice one area, you will not be able to give it 100% in any others.

  1. Watching the cash flow.

I was lucky to be offered lots of work by a direct client who kept me busy all through my first spring and summer of freelancing. I was interpreting in the area I know best, I was constantly meeting new people, and I felt that I was truly making a difference. The downside? Direct clients sometimes take up to 3-4 months to pay while rent, bills, and other living expenses can rarely be “postponable.” While I still managed to meet my commitments on time, I did learn a valuable lesson. Now my goal is to balance out my client list better. I attempt to distribute it based on a 50-50 ratio between direct clients and translation companies: the latter pay on time and help me cover my living expenses while my income from any interpreting and translation assignments for direct clients – large corporation and law firms – helps me subsidise the marketing and CPD activities I planned to undertake during the year.

  1. Constant prospecting.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say it takes a community of like-minded people to achieve your dreams. Work on building your community, learn about the industry and your area of specialisation, approach new clients and devise a list of potential leads, and network like there is no tomorrow! The legal case that you have been working on for the past 3 months can reach its culmination tomorrow, the project you have been editing will lead to a completion, or a company you translate for most of your time might decide to send their materials to their in-house personnel instead. Even if you do not run out of work, there is always someone more generous, more interesting, and more promising around the corner. Our workflow is a pendulum and we frequently swing between being less in demand and working at full capacity. If you have a wide range of clients and projects to choose from, you will certainly have more freedom to control how long the pendulum stays on the “right” side.

So, dear Paula, these are the three main challenges I faced during the first year of going back to freelance. I genuinely hope no-one thinking of following my path will become discouraged: my idea was to tell you what to expect and how to prepare in advance. As a freelancer, I have infinite freedom and infinite responsibility for every single action I take in my life. I am free to do what I wish for the majority of the time and I am only accountable for myself but I am also the one to face full consequences.

Still, I did not regret my decision to go freelance even for a second – 2016 was one of the best years of my life. It is when I got to test the limits of my willpower, learn what being resilient means for someone surviving on her own in a big multicultural city, and of course, how it feels to have an ultimate freedom to control your own life. I had an option to travel to most exciting places (Iceland, Brazil, and Argentina amongst them), take on very interesting assignments even if they made little business sense, volunteer for my favourite causes, and arrange my social life in a way that was most enjoyable.

About the author:

Sabina Metcalf is a certified English and Russian interpreter based in London, UK. She is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and has over 15 years of professional experience of conference and court interpreting, translations for oil and gas companies, and providing on-site support for both public and private sector. She was a recipient of George Soros fellowship for graduate studies from the United States Department of State, and has a Diploma in public service interpreting and a Master's Degree from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. https://uk.linkedin.com/in/sabinametcalf



Publicada em: 02/02/2017


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