Posted by: patenttranslator | April 5, 2018

To Retire or Not to Retire – That Is Not the Question

For many people who work for a living in blue collar and white collar occupations, most of whom not so long ago had a fairly generous pension guaranteed by their employer, retiring or not retiring in their mid sixties as their parents used to is no longer an option.

As the pensions evaporated courtesy of Wall Street and corporate greed, a higher percentage of Americans than ever now neither has a defined pension plan, nor significant retirement savings. The unfortunate result is that the new retirement model for too many people is today … no retirement.

I see it around me all the time. At the grocery stores where I do my shopping, there are mostly just two types of cashiers scanning in the bar codes, taking money from customers and handing out change from the cash register, for which they are paid a minimum or sub-minimum wage – youngsters who appear to be in their teens or early twenties, or much older folks like myself who must be in their sixties or seventies.

Fortunately for us, translators, or at least those of us who have been able to find relatively well paying direct customers during our most productive years when we were in our thirties, forties and fifties, are in better position than most other workers who retire when they reach retirement age, only to then have to compete with teenagers working cash registers in supermarkets for minimum wage if their retirement income is not sufficient to pay the bills as is often the case.

We are better off because as long as our brain is still able to process information in at least two languages and we can still type with our fingers, we don’t have to retire. We can simply continue working, for our existing customers and for new customers, because generally speaking, nobody gives a damn how old we are as long as we still have a pulse.

The decision whether we want to continue working, until the moment when we keel over and our head hits the keyboard so that for the first time in our life, we miss a deadline (because we are dead!) will depend on what we want and what we still can do with the years that we have left.

There is a world of difference between having to work because we have to pay our bills, and working because we would otherwise get bored, and also because we can use the extra income.

I have known and still know several translators and owners of small translation agencies who have been working and are still working well into their sixties, seventies and even eighties; I have worked for some of them, and some of them have worked for me.

I think that most translators continue working when they are already past the age of retirement, even if they have some savings and their income would be sufficient to cover their expenses – which is true in some cases, although probably fewer and fewer cases now – because they need to do something and because they enjoy the intellectual challenge of their work.

A big financial burden falls from our shoulders as we get older when we no longer need to support our children financially. And as we no longer need the big house for the whole family with the complementary menagerie of dogs, cats, hamsters and other pets for our offsprings (in my case it was also an Australian bearded dragon lizard), we can sell our house and move to a smaller house, or a condo or an apartment.

Because we work through the internet for far-flung clients, we can move from an expensive area to a cheaper area, or even to another country with a lower cost of living. We translators are better positioned for something like that than most people because we have a keen interest in other countries and cultures, speak several languages, and we know how to learn another language faster than most people.

It is not clear how many American “expats” have chosen to live abroad, mostly in the countries of Central and Southern America, especially Mexico, Panama and Belize, although the most frequently cited number on various websites is “at least two million people.”

According to the Social Security Administration, about 400,000 of these American expats living in different countries are senior citizens, many of whom are able to live quite comfortably solely off their Social Security or pension income, not only in a number of Latin American countries, but also in other countries in Asia and even in Europe.

Of course, moving is a big hassle and most people, including seniors, will probably decide to live where they are, especially if it means living close to their family. But it’s good to know that translators generally have options when they reach retirement, options that people working in other professions may not have.

So to come back to where I started with my post today, I don’t think that “to retire or not to retire” is the right question for translators who are close to or who have already reached retirement age.

Most of us will probably continue working for quite a few years (and some of us will do that until we drop dead!) But we will be usually working less than we used to because the financial burden on us is diminished if we play our cards right, especially if have a retirement income that in some cases may be sufficient to pay all the bills.

And if the income is not sufficient, there are things freelance translators can do as small business owners to make sure that it will be sufficient, some of which I outlined in my post today.

Our ability to continue working while saying no ridiculous rates and demeaning and untenable conditions that the “translation industry” likes to offer to hard working and highly experienced people who do the actual translating work,  will of course depend mostly on what kind of customers we have been and are working for.

If we treat our small enterprise as an actual business and are very careful about the kind of customers that we will work for, we do have quite a few options when it comes to retiring, not retiring, or partially retiring once we reach retirement age.

But if we mostly work for the Leviathan called for lack of a better term the “translation industry”, we may be in the same situation as the senior citizens cheerfully working for low wages cash registers next to teenagers at supermarkets, because they have no other way to make ends meet.


  1. I agree with the entire content of your article. The beginning of the last paragraph (“But if we mostly work for the leviathan called for lack of a better term the “translation industry”, we may be in the same situation as the senior citizens cheerfully working for low wages cash registers”) reminded me of one, what will I call it, one principle I suppose, which I’ve been holding for many years now: if – God forbid – I had no other option as a translator than working for the Leviathan with its ridiculous fees and wages, I’d definitely prefer to work as a cashier or any kind of attendant, and save my brain for other, more rewarding pursuits. Thanks for your article. Kind regards.


  2. Very thoughtful comments, Steve. We are in that space too being empty- nesters. But we can’t downsize because although our three children have gone, their junk hasn’t.
    We travel quite a bit to see relatives in Australia or to lie on a beach somewhere like Cape Verde and our business is completely portable – or at least portable to any location which has decent internet. Sometimes in a quiet period (because of the nature of the feast or famine world we translators live in) we start relaxing and congratulating ourselves on being ably to semi-retire. We hang around reading your blogs (and those of others), writing our own blog, Facebook and Twitter posts, tidying out cupboards, walking the dogs, having leisurely lunches etc.

    In spite of this show of enjoyment, when a client gets in touch with a large and urgent French translation leading to a spate of 12- hour days, it puts a spring in our steps… we are sad people who can’t contemplate not being economically valued, I think.


  3. Sounds like a semi-retirement most people would envy.

    But why not tell the kids take their stuff with them … or else …. it’s Goodwill and garage sale.


    • We have and much of it is gradually going to charity shops – the problem is that our kids don’t have space for their junk – two thirds are renting small flats in London and the other one has a relatively small house. My brother has downsized twice and has been very determined (well my sister -in -law has!) about getting rid of stuff


      • I see.

        “Flat in London” says it all.


  4. I also wholly agree with your posting and am planning a similar kind of semi-retirement for myself. The good news I would add is that – with the emergence of ever improving voice recognition software – we may soon not even need the fingers for typing anymore, although a functional brain will of course always be essential 🙂


    • For translation into English we have used dictation software and I think you have to allow for a)getting used to how to do it yourself (think what to say – plan sentence – then say it fluently and clearly. b) recognising that the software does learn common words you use that may cause problems early on. The dictation facility on my iPhone/iPad is almost 100% accurate – but we don’t use it for client’s work as we don’t know how secure it is…


      • I know a few translators who use dictation software and swear by it.

        But I prefer typing.

        I guess the saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks is true in my case.


      • In part this is true for me as well, as I have been training my Dragon (Naturally Speaking) only in my spare time for the eventuality that I may succumb to arthritis or something like that as I get older and I like to think I will then have an alternative. So far it comes nowhere near my 120+ touch-typing speed per minute, but I am willing to humour it, as it is very obedient – so far.


  5. Ha, ha, ha …


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