My route to becoming a freelance translator

(What do you mean, you don’t remember asking for my life story?)

Colca Canyon, Peru. © Natalie Soper, 2015

My name is Natalie, and I am a freelance translator.

It still feels weird to say to people “I’m a freelancer” “I work from home” or “I own my own business” – but I am slowly getting used to this relatively new path in my life. Maybe one day I’ll be able to swagger into a room and flick business cards at people, one-handed, like a magician, but I’m not quite there yet (and sadly, I haven’t found any marketing training that teaches business-card-tricks).

Let’s get the clichés out of the way first: ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a translator. Well, since around the age of fifteen; after I grew out of my desire to be a hairdresser, and I realised that I would have to take A-Level maths if I wanted to be an architect.

I liked the sound of being a translator, but didn’t really know what it entailed. All I knew is that I wanted to continue to learn languages, so I went off to university to study French and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). A few weeks into my four-year course, something horrible happened: I realised that I was going to hate teaching. I’m terrible at standing up in front of a group of people and talking, let alone getting them to take in my every word – and honestly, I didn’t think I had the patience to teach. I hoped that I hadn’t just squandered £3000 of tuition fees, so I went to see my tutor, and something along the lines of the following exchange occurred:

Me: I’m not sure I like my course. Is it possible to change it?

Tutor: Well, we don’t offer French as a single honours….do you know any Spanish?

Me: Er…well, I did GCSE Spanish—

Tutor: Meh, do a Spanish degree!

And lo and behold, I came out of the other side of university with a BA (Hons) in French and Spanish (First Class, even), despite having finished the GCSE at the same time as my A-Levels. I’m usually a very indecisive person, so to this day I am astounded at how lightly I entered into that Spanish degree.

Throughout university you are repeatedly told, as a languages student, that being multilingual gives you a competitive edge in the professional world, and my coursemates and I were convinced that we were going to become millionaire diplomats the second we took off our mortarboards. However, as we wandered through career fairs and sat through employability modules, we realised that when your only skill is another language, and you haven’t had the foresight to combine it with a degree in law or business, you run the risk of falling into the old vicious circle: you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t gain experience if no-one gives you a job. What to do?

After university, some of my friends trained to be teachers – and they’re brilliant at it – but I was still convinced that it wasn’t the path for me. Others took Leonardo da Vinci placements in various companies; a great way to gain work experience in Europe. I had immensely enjoyed all of our translation modules throughout university, and definitely wanted to pursue the subject, so I applied for a Master’s degree in Translation Studies at Cardiff University. There, a whole new group of obstacles presented themselves: it seemed that getting an in-house translation job was quite rare, and the idea of going it alone was positively daunting. The theoretical side of the course made it feel like every translated text had gone through an existential crisis, and, sitting among my multi-national classmates, I felt that English-natives with a French and Spanish degree were a dime a dozen, and about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

But, I still loved the act of translating. To me, translating feels like a puzzle or a scavenger hunt: you have to find and piece together information and put it together in a way that makes it complete, maybe even beautiful. Finding something mistranslated, or not being able to find the “right” translation, is like finding a jigsaw puzzle where one piece has been pushed in the wrong way round. What better way to combine translation and puzzles, than to write my dissertation on the challenges of translating Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? This is where my language geekiness reaches full throttle, because I genuinely enjoyed writing that 17,000 word essay. I still have it, somewhere. (You can read a condensed version here.)

Anyway, fast-forward to a year ago, where I was working for a training company in my hometown, in Cornwall. It wasn’t translation-related, but the company kindly assigned me to contracts with France- and South America-based clients, so I was at least using one degree. Still, I couldn’t shake the guilty feeling that I wasn’t doing what I wanted, and that I’d spent 5 years and a good £25,000 for nothing.

Then, on the 25th November 2014, my friend died.

Her name was Hannah, and she was more of a family friend, and my sister’s best friend. She was born with Pfeiffer Syndrome, and died aged 23. Although her condition meant that she spent a lot of her life in and out of hospital, in terrible pain, she was always a sunny, optimistic person who was originally given until the age of 5 to live. So, she did pretty well. I was reading an article about her and it had a quote from her, about her outlook on life.

“Don’t think too far ahead. Take each day as it comes. Be there for your friends. And, above all, get on with living your life.”

This was the kick up the backside that I needed. I realised then that if I couldn’t find an in-company translation job, I would have to make it happen for myself. I realised that I would rather try now, and potentially fail, and learn from my mistakes, than stay static for a few more years, in a rut, always wondering what might have been.

So, I quit my job. I contacted the sister of a colleague of my partner, who was a freelance translator too, and told her that I wanted to get myself started. She was very kind and helpful, and told me to just go for it. She said not to underestimate how useful a Master’s degree is; it shows that you understand that the translation process is more than just a linguistic exchange. I made a website, bought an ITI membership, started contacting agencies and clients. Very slowly, they started to reply. Some are still only just replying from e-mails that I sent 6 months ago. I got a couple of projects. I obsessed over them; I was almost scared to send the translations, in case I was told they were rubbish. But they weren’t rubbish! People came back for more work! They even thanked me, praised my professionalism! I was doing it! I’m actually doing it!

So, I have only been a freelance translator for 6 months. I’m still very much a newbie – not just in the translation industry, but to marketing, doing self-assessment tax returns and decorating my own office (if there was ever an argument in favour of paying a professional to do a professional’s job, take a look at my attempts at wallpapering).

But, some things are making themselves clear. I’m actually good at what I do. It was good to take that leap. I’m happier now than I have been at any other job. And, I’ve also learnt that everyone’s paths in life are different, and that it’s okay to change your mind. Take advantage of opportunities that are available to you. And, above all, Hannah was right. Get on with living your life.

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