2 Years on the Desert Island – Reflections on Mobile Translation

On May 24, 2014, I got on a plane headed to Santiago, Chile. It was an ambitious, yet risky, endeavor: I was going to put aside my interpretation business and focus solely on translation, whilst traveling from Chili to Mexico over a one-year period.  Could I pull it off or would I go bust? This was the fundamental question that lingered in my mind as I planned for the trip and got it under way.

Well, it’s been more than two years since I set out on my journey, and I’m happy to report the gamble paid off – I’m still working as a mobile translator. In the wake of my 2-year anniversary, I’m taking the time to reflect on the experience and talk about some lessons I learned. I certainly didn’t learn all there is to learn in life, but I’m definitely a better translator and better businessman since I’ve been on the road. Without further ado, here are some things I learned on the road:

1. What do you really need?

I ask this because it’s really easy to accumulate stuff. As a linguist, it’s really easy to collect books, especially dictionaries! However, by going mobile I was forced to really decide what books I needed for my job and what was unnecessary. The useful books were digitized, i.e. I took photos of all the pages and turned the book into a PDF document. At this point, I still have access to quite a few books; I just don’t lug them around. Going mobile actually made me reconsider having phone service, too. Don’t be mistaken; I still have a phone, which allows me to use apps that help with translation. I just don’t blindly pay a ton of money for phone service each month now. With so many ways to communicate nowadays, having an expensive phone contract with a major carrier seemed too much. If I have Wi-Fi, I can use WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype or Google Voice to communicate, and the latter two offer phone numbers if you need to have a phone number. This essential question can apply to every busy aspect, and I think it’s really healthy to take stock of your situation every once in a while and lighten your load. I think you’ll like the new you.

2. How good are your résumé and email writing skills?

As a freelancer, these are two things I have to take care of most because they directly affect my workflow. For example, when you write emails, are you polite? Do you greet the recipient in a positive way? I think it’s really easy to lose sight of common courtesy when writing a “quick email,” but it shouldn’t be ignored. Kind words make a difference. And make sure the emails are clear and stay on point. Make sure your sentences and paragraphs aren’t confusing. The reader will be grateful for the clarity, particularly if you are writing about a job position or project. In the same vein, is you résumé clear? Is it concise? My résumé is one page long. If your résumé is longer, I suggest finding a way to condense it. One quick tip is to use a smaller font and wider margins. The rest depends on going back to the question in point 1. What do you really need? It’s probably less than you think. If it isn’t clear, perhaps having a colleague look it over with you will help. He/she may be able to pose the right questions to help clarify what should stay and what should go.

3. How are you foreign language speaking and listening skills?

If you’re an interpreter, this question is directed at you. I can say from my own experience that when you work with a lexicon in a certain region/field, language exposure will have limitations. For example, I worked as a legal interpreter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Most of the Spanish speakers I interpreted for had a Mexican background. Occasionally, I’d interpret for Spanish speakers from other places, and while I didn’t have great trouble, my lack of familiarity with their speech didn’t help me either. Now that I’ve spent a good amount of time speaking with locals in lots of countries, I definitely feel better about my speaking and listening abilities. If you know that a certain regional version of a language gives you trouble, perhaps going mobile and spending some time there can help you get over the hurdle.

4. Do you have a website and blog to go along with your other profiles?

I’m going to assume you have a LinkedIn profile as well as a profile with the ATA, Proz.com, or other professional translator and interpreter organizations. But do you have your own website? If you do, great. If not, you might want to consider creating one. I’ll admit it took me some time to come around, but I eventually did, and I’m really happy about it. It’s a very good way to make yourself stand apart from competitors, and it provides focus for your work. Plus, if you are fortunate to work with a good web designer – or know how to do it well yourself – you can design a fun website, like I did, and I think that extra fun is helpful in attracting new clients. When you consider how many translators are out there and how many people potential clients have to deal with each day, it’s helpful remind them that you’re a human being and not just a number, i.e. not just the email address they see when they write you.

5.  Are you a risk taker?

Taking risks is a good motivator. Once you go out on that ledge, you’ll be surprised how motivating it can be. Sure, it’s nice to make good money and have creature comforts, but sometimes that can stifle growth and creativity. In my case, I was working as a federal interpreter and making really good money, but after a while the work became monotonous and ceased to satisfy me. The switch to just translation was great because it made me learn new things again and really hustle for work. It’s hard for me to say what risks you should take, but I’d suggest identifying something – perhaps purchasing a CAT or earning a certification – and then going through with it. You just need to get the ball rolling!

6. Do you have enough clients? What do you do when business is slow?

Only you know the answer to the first question, but for me the answer is “never.” For me, working as a freelancer means you always have to be hustling. I have many clients who send me work, but as you probably know, there is always an ebb and flow to the workload. Sometimes you get slammed with a ton of work, and the next week things are very quiet. Now, I definitely enjoy my free time during those quiet moments, but I don’t get complacent. I continue to send emails and résumés to potential clients and bid on jobs to ensure that I have enough work and revenue coming in.

But let’s say you have enough clients for the time being. If business is slow, there are always plenty of ways to improve your business. When things are slow, I find it’s a great time to write a blog post. It’s good for clients to see you’re thinking about your work in a critical manner. This post is a case in point. This week, I’m writing a new post, and I’m also buying new software – Trados. I’m buying Trados so I can cater to more clients. True, the initial investment is always a good chunk of money, but in the long run, it pays off, and now I’m opening the door to new projects and clients, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Eventually, it will pay for itself.

7. Is it time for a raise? When is a good time to bring it up? How do I ask?

Only you can know when it’s time, unless you’re content to make the same wage. Depending on the client and workload, the idea of a raise may never be on your radar, but recently I’ve starting asking for a raise from some clients. Why? Because it’s been two years since we signed our original contract and because life doesn’t get cheaper. Inflation is real, folks, and if the working relationship is good, then most likely a client won’t be against bumping up your rate. Unless they’re extremely tightfisted (they won’t give you a raise) or run their business poorly (they say they can’t) – I’ve experienced both. This is why point #6 is so important because eventually you’ll run into this situation, and you shouldn’t have to work for bad wages.

So when is a good time to broach the subject? Anniversaries are a good time. If not a one-year anniversary, definitely on the second year. Or perhaps, you’ve just done your client a huge favor, or a string of crazy projects and you were the star who help’em get things done.

If you do ask, be courteous and highlight the reasons you think warrant the pay raise. Underscore your positive work relationship with the client and the continuing positive relationship to come. When I do this, I sometimes try to put them in my shoes with phrases like “if you were me” to try to win them over.

Some clients will simply say no, which is unfortunate, but that’s life. You’ll have to try to weed them out eventually by finding new, better paying clients. Others will say yes, and if they do, you’ll know they value your work, and you’ll be even more motivated to work for them.

8. What do you do when you don’t get paid?

Stay calm. Be polite. Be consistent. Being rude or passive-aggressive will get you nowhere. It’s unfortunate, but getting paid can really drag out sometimes. Patience and courtesy are virtues you’ll need. From the moment you go negative, you’ve lit a match that will probably burn the proverbial bridge, and your chance of eventually getting paid will be highly diminished. When attempting to collect, you need to put yourself in your clients’ shoes. Shit happens. The end client may not have paid your client on time, creating a domino effect. Someone in accounting may have quit or got sick. Or maybe your client just isn’t very organized. There’s a myriad reasons to explain slow payment or a lack thereof. If this happens, stay consistent in your efforts (write once a week, perhaps), and try to be helpful (asking, “Is there anything I can do to expedite payment?”). There may be nothing you can do to help, but if you at least ask, they’ll know you’re helping in the resolution process, as opposed to hindering it. If you can follow this advice, you should eventually receive payment. It might take some time, yes, but it’s preferable to not being paid at all.

I hope this has been helpful. There may be a few more tips I could add, but I don’t want to get longwinded. Happy translating!