Posted by: patenttranslator | November 7, 2012

The Looming Retirement Income Crisis and Freelance Translators

At least once a month I see an article somewhere which has in its title the words “retirement, income and crisis” or something to that effect. According to conventional wisdom of financial advisers here in the United States, retirement income should be a three-legged stool supported by three sturdy legs: 1. Social Security, 2. Private Pensions, and 3. Investments.

But Social Security is on the chopping block whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, because otherwise the cap on payroll taxes would have to be lifted for those who make more money than the great majority of us, which is simply unthinkable as this would mean that rich people would have to pay the same percentage of their income in payroll tax as those who make thousand times less than they do. Neither party will even dare to mention such a horribly unfair alternative. Instead, a “bipartisan” commission dubbed “The Cat Food Commission” has been created to study the ways how best to accomplish the great chopping act, which is just around the corner.

From what I see and hear on German and French TV, similar or worse chopping acts are happening also in European countries, some of which are hit very hard, especially Greece and Spain.

Private pensions now exist in the United States mostly only in the public sector, as most private employers have already eliminated them or are in the process of getting rid of them.

And if you have been putting money aside for retirement, your savings can disappear after scrimping and savings for decades within a few weeks if you invested them on Wall Street. Although this does not seem to be a major problem anymore as most working people make so little and are taxed so heavily that they can’t afford to save anything anyway.

So instead of a sturdy three-legged stool, we are left with a really weird piece of furniture with one short, wobbly leg that nobody can sit on at all.


Call me naive, or even a fool, but the sad state of affairs described above doesn’t faze me much. I accepted the idea that unlike my parents, I will not be able to retire before my seventies or even eighties if a long life is in cards for me, which is probably not very likely.

My stoic acceptance of the disappearance of two legs of the three-legged stool is based on the fact that as a freelance translator/translation agency, I can work for as long as I want to as long as I remain reasonably healthy, and it so happens that I mostly like what I am doing.

Freelance translators such as myself thus have a few of advantages in the new, predatory economy. They have a lot of flexibility because they are not tied to one employer, or even to one location. If you are not an employee, you cannot be fired. You may have less work during major economic disruptions which must not be called depressions, but you will probably have some work no matter what happens.

And if your business is conducted through the Internet, you can move to a less expensive part of the country if you want to, or even to another country. Unlike for example plumbers, boxers or car mechanics, translators are likely to be healthy enough to keep working at least well into their seventies.


And as far as I can tell, that is exactly what they seem to be doing.

Last month I was contacted by one septuagenarian and one octogenarian to do some translating for them. Mark, who is 74 and has been running a one-man translation agency since 1977, sent me a Japanese translation. George, who is 82, had to move with his wife to an “assisted living facility” recently because he can’t handle even relatively simple tasks such as shopping and cooking on his own very well. But he can still both translate and manage translation projects just fine.

If you are a translator, your brain still works, your eyes can still see and your fingers can still type, you don’t have to retire.

It looks like most of us will not be able to do that anyway. So why not make a virtue out of necessity and insist that we work because we like working?

General Douglas MacArthur once said: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. I am not sure what exactly he meant, but I do see old translators sort of like old soldiers. They may have to slow down a little, but otherwise they just keep on working … while slowly fading away.

It is not like we really have a choice: the one legged stool with a really short and wobbly leg is not for sitting anymore, it will support us only if we just hold on to it while standing up.

If somebody asks me 10 or 20 years from now, I will tell them of course that I am still working because I like to work.

But by then it will probably be a logical part of the new normal and nobody will be asking much old people, I mean senior citizens, why is it that they are still working.


  1. Loved this piece, it mirrors my own future extremely well!


  2. So sorry.


  3. I wish there was a more straightforward answer to this issue, but sadly I have reached pretty much the same conclusion you have…


  4. Thanks for your comment.

    Fortunately, when somebody asks you 30 years from now why are you still working, you can say, proudly, that you like being active and the money is just the icing on the cake.

    If we keep saying it to us, eventually we will start believing it.


    • My worry is what happens when I lose my mental acuity and can no longer work at a pace that pays the bills and keeps myself and, more importantly, my wife, in the style to which we have become accustomed…


  5. I was tired of my sales activities (Long Day’s Journey into Night) and got retired. I became a translator and I like working as a translator despite of the problems with some agencies and some colleagues. The money is indeed just the icing on the cake, I’d say.

    However, I wouldn’t imagine my future as a TM post-editing hamster.

    At the moment, I am editing some technical manuals translated by humans. It makes more sense than editing MT spews. It is fun to recognise the styles of different translators and try to harmonize them.

    Steve, I don’t think we need to worry too much about our future, retirement income crisis and that, so long as we stick to the works that we like.


  6. Our world has definitely gone global: the professional Brazilian translators’ reality is the same. Personally. I think I’m nuts: I translate for a passion that has become a sort of addiction so I should but I don’t think about retirement. I’m translating until my last sigh, at whatever the age I’m blessed with (hopefully to repeat the beautiful history of the two translators that you mentioned). And I realize that I haven’t run into any translator who does not like translating, yet. Finally, I highlight your emphasis on the translator’s independence. This is unvaluable. Right on the spot, Steve. Again.


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