I used to be one but now, I am the owner of a small, specialized translation business. Anyway, that’s what I tell people when they ask me what it is that I do for a living.
I still do most of the work the same way and by myself. I just decided not to call myself a freelancer anymore because to most people, a freelancer is a person who doesn’t know where the next job is coming from. This is true, but there is no reason to emphasize this aspect of my profession by using a term that is understood by most people so mono-dimensionally.
How it works is that you stop being a freelancer when you stop calling yourself that.
I have been thinking of myself as a freelancer since 1987 when I was fired from a stupid job by a dumb blonde named Gwenn. I wonder what she looks like now. Is her hair all white or is she dyeing it? I bet she’s dyeing it.
I never thought that something like that could ever happen to somebody as wonderfully gifted as myself! Never, ever in a million years! And yet, it did happen, I did get fired and thus my freelance career was serendipitously launched.
Sometimes a major blow to our significant ego is exactly what we need to change the direction of our life’s journey. Without a major blow or significant event (not unlike the trauma of being hit over the head very hard with a blunt object), many of us might never realize that there are many directions from which to choose from, and not just a few different ones. Instead, we stubbornly continue in just one direction, mostly as a result of inertia, the strongest power in the universe.
It Was Not a Bad Life Being a Freelancer in the Pre-Translation Industry Era
Up until now, more than 29 years later, it has been so that as a freelancer, I have not known and still don’t know where my next job is coming from. But each year during those twenty-nine years, I have still somehow managed to make enough money, more money every year than I used to make in the years during the first decade of my working life when I was an employee.
I am not sure how exactly it works, but many freelancers who know what they’re doing often make more money than employees. After a while, of course, because in the beginning, all they can do is keep wondering about where the next gig is coming from, and the gigs are usually few and far between.
I remember how in May of 1987, I was walking our dachshund Muffin, whom we adopted from the SPCA’s pound and who since has gone to the happy hunting grounds on heavenly green meadows more than twenty years ago, in a small park off Lake Street in San Francisco. I forgot the park’s name because my wife used to call it Muffin’s Park.
In one corner of the park, there was always a cluster of old Russian men sitting on the benches playing domino. I could smell the delicate aroma of the bark of the big redwood trees in the park while walking around and watching the the rest of the people in the park, endlessly wondering whether it was even possible to make ends meet when one does not know where the jobs will be coming from and finally deciding that I must give it a try, whether it is possible or not.
I was young then, (if mid 30s counts as young), and since I am now about the age of those old Russian guys who used to cheerfully play a wicked game of domino just about every time when I would walk Muffin in that park, I must be old now too.
In my head and in my brain I still feel young, but my body knows it is a lie.
Being old has a lot of disadvantages, mostly related to wear and tear of the human body which is unavoidable just like any other wear and tear; in cars, for example. Some cars run well over two hundred or even three hundred thousand miles (especially German ones, the ones that beat tests with cheating software), but few last more than that.
The problem with people is, unlike the engines in cars, the engine inside us cannot be equipped with cheating software, or swapped for one that has fewer miles on it.
But being old also has a few advantages mostly related to the fact that things that used to matter a lot at one point are no longer as important as they used to be.
At the peak of my career, I simply had no choice but to make enough money to support a wife, two children and a number of different dogs over the years – three dachshunds, one German shepherd/something else mix, one pit bull/something else mix, plus an Australian bearded dragon lizard. There were probably a few more creatures there that I don’t remember right now – and I had to feed them all!
That’s a lot of heavy responsibility that younger people, mostly men actually, (I know that some women will hate me for saying that, but it happens to be true), are asked to assume. But older people are mostly allowed to cast off the heavy stone that they used to carry around their neck for decades.
If I still lived in San Francisco, now that I am old, maybe I could join the old Russian men playing an exciting game of domino on the benches in Muffin’s Park. My Russian is good enough for that, I think … except that they are probably dead now. God knows who is sitting on those benches in that park now, or if the benches are even still there, next to the children’s playground.
But a Freelancer’s Life Is Not What It Used to Be These Days
So anyway, as I was saying, I don’t call myself a freelancer because I don’t think of myself as a freelancer. I prefer to think of myself as an owner of a small, specialized translation business, who as it happens occasionally keeps a few other translators who may think of themselves as freelancers quite busy.
There is a big difference between people who called themselves freelancers 30 years ago and people such as translators who call themselves freelancers now. Thirty years ago there was no Internet yet, or at least most people had no idea what the word meant, including myself. To become a freelancer, in the age of fax and modem-to-modem communication when e-mailing a wordprocessed file in WordPerfect 4.2 with a handshaking signal through a phone line meant being at the cutting edge of the latest technology, was to really go out on a limb, given that 99% of other, normal people commuted to and from work, on average about 30 minutes each way if you lived in San Francisco, about 90 minutes each way if you lived in Tokyo. You really had to believe in yourself to ignore somewhat arrogantly what everybody else was doing back then. Current freelancers are probably a little bit better off in this respect.
If you did know something back then and believed in yourself and persisted, eventually you would line up a number of translation agencies as customers who would keep you busy most of the time at reasonably high translation rates. And little by little, as you were becoming more specialized and better at what you were doing, you would be able to graduate to better paying clients, and even if all of them were just translation agencies, most of them understood that they had to pay reasonably well if what they wanted in return was good work.
That was how the world of translators who called themselves “freelancers” used to work in the pre-translation industry age, before the corporate version of “the translation industry”—which is less than two decades old—was invented.
Two or three decades ago, there were no demeaning and illegal NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) yet. And when translation agencies started sending NDAs to translators to sign them, they were only very short agreements in which the translator simply had to promise not to disclose confidential information.
Two or three decades ago, translation agencies were not creating databases of “freelancers” with hundreds or thousands of people calling themselves translators in them so that they could figure out which ones are willing to accept lower and lower rates.
Two or three decades ago, there were no mega-agencies and most translators who were working as true freelancers for translation agencies were working for very small companies run by people who were usually former translators and understood what translation was about and identified with translators, at least to some extent.
But because the status and working conditions of “freelancers” now are very different in the era of “the translation industry”, I think that translators worth their salt should make up their minds whether they want to call themselves “freelancers”, or something else, such as owners of a specialized business.
Very different rules, and a lot of them, now apply to “freelancers” who these days are anything but free. After all, the main reason why I became a freelancer all those years ago, despite all the risks that came with the territory, was that I wanted to have more freedom to live my life the way I wanted.
And it is really hard for me to think of people who are currently called “freelancers” and who work for “the translation industry” as independent professionals who have the kind of freedom that freelancers used to have when they were still freelancers.