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Working as translator/interpreter for life
Thread poster: Thomas Castagnacci

Thomas Castagnacci  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:23
English to Italian
+ ...
Dec 28, 2008

Dear everyone,

I am an italian translator, who has worked hard to achieve his current situation. I am a freelancer, like most of you. I live in Berlin and every now and than I like to go back to Italy to see my famliy and my girlfriend...
I actually love my job, despite some bad sides of the coin. However, hearing about the crisis to come and the hard reality of the translation market, I was wondering if this job could last for life. In Germany is hard to get a position as in-house translator and therefore I had to try the freelance way.

Well... Now I am 24 and can afford not to work for a month, but...Since I would like to settle down and make a family one day, I was asking myself whether this job could provide me a stable future and a constant income.

I was also thinking about becoming a conference interpreter.... But my question is:

What if I cannot find a stable situation? Shall I insist or simply give up and find something else?

Thank you all and enjoy your time!

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Stephanie Wloch  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:23
Member (2003)
Dutch to German
Since when and how exactly? Dec 28, 2008

Hi Thomas,
first of all 24 years is very young for a freelancer.
So I think it's more difficult unless you have
- a very good network or/and
- excellent education
- considerable hands-on experience
- some good marketing strategies

Would you like to tell more about your efforts and experiences in the world of freelance translations?
I guess I'm not the only one here who needs some details in order to give you a valuable hint.

Bytheway: why do you stay in Berlin? Long-distance relationships can be rather hard.

Saluti dall'Olanda

[Edited at 2008-12-28 17:25 GMT]

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Taija Hyvönen
Local time: 18:23
Member (2008)
English to Finnish
+ ...
This has been on my mind too Dec 28, 2008

Stability and steady income would be great, and I can't see them happening any time soon at this point of my freelancing career.

That said, I don't know about Germany/Italy, but I can say that in Finland "jobs for life" are few and far between. I can't think of that many jobs with a guarantee of not getting reduced for reasons not dependant of how good a job you do. I do feel that as freelancer, losing a client here and there certainly can put you under pressure, but it is still nothing compared to getting fired and having nothing to do.

[Edited at 2008-12-28 19:10 GMT]

[Edited at 2008-12-28 19:11 GMT]

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Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:23
Flemish to English
+ ...
Get out if you can. Dec 28, 2008

Once a freelancer, not always a freelancer, but there have to be opportunities.
No job is for life nowadays. cfr. Lehman Brothers.
Only at government and international institutions, there is such a thing as jobs for life. Government: for example in multilingual countries such as Belgium, Canada and Switzerland the government employs translators in various government departments.
However, the demand for inhouse translator/interpreters into Italian is almost 0.

The EU is the Mecca of translation, but like with Dutch, you will get one chance to participate in a concours every 5 years or so and you have to be qualified among the xxx best among + 1000 candidates in the preselection tests to move on to the actual selection tests (translation into Italian). Last time, I saw a concours with Italian as A language was somewhere in the beginning of this decade;
At the UN, Italian is not an official language. In other words, if you are an adherent of "native only" or i.e."Italian only" forget the public market.

You are only 24. Not to old to work for a year or two and then study something else like law, management or I.T. + heed in a different direction.

One of my acquaintances is a programmer working as a freelancer but with contracts of two to three years. He is the only employee of his own company and pays himself a salary.
After three years, he changes of "job"= another contract for two or three years. He has been doing this since 1995.

[Edited at 2008-12-29 14:11 GMT]

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KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:23
Member (2003)
German to English
I've got news for you... Dec 28, 2008

Thomas Castagnacci wrote:
I actually love my job....

It's not a job, it's a business. Get that straight now and things will work much better for you in the future.

... I was wondering if this ... could last for life. In Germany is hard to get a position as in-house translator and therefore I had to try the freelance way.

Well, translations will still be done by people long after you and I are dead. Whether you want to keep doing it is up to you, and whether you can will depend largely on your ability to make a go of it by organizing your business properly and delivering results that keep the customers coming back. Don't worry about the scarcity on in-house positions. I have an old school friend with an "elite" position as an in-house translator in the economic ministry here in Berlin, and I wouldn't trade with him for a day. I make more money and can spend my days as I choose, not deal with useless office politics and egos. For me it is much nicer to work alone or in a small team of my choosing and not deal with the rest. My dog prefers this arrangement too

Your future viability will most likely depend on your own flexibility and ability to learn. The parallel with LEHMAN Bros. drawn by our Very Own Wet Blanket Williamson is nonsense, because you are NOT employed. You are an independent businessman. Having had nice corporate jobs and struggled sometimes in the early days and at other times in my activities as an independent business person, I can say that the worst day on my own is, on the whole, no worse than an average day working for someone else.

I do hope that within my lifetime I will see the end of all "jobs for life" in government institutions and elsewhere, because I see the laziness these foster very often when I have to deal with public agencies. If these people can't perform, they should be pushed out, but that is a subject for another day....

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Amy Duncan  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:23
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Freelancing isn't for everyone Dec 28, 2008

I think to be a freelancer you have to be a certain type of person, the type that doesn't need the "security" of a "steady" job. I put those words in quotes because I honestly feel that type of security and steadiness is an illusion. To be a happy freelancer, you have to be an optimist and have faith that things will always work out. This, of course, in addition to being a go-getting and being well-organized with your business.

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KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:23
Member (2003)
German to English
Optimist? Not really. Dec 29, 2008

Amy Duncan wrote:
To be a happy freelancer, you have to be an optimist and have faith that things will always work out.

I'll agree more or less with your other points, Amy, but I don't think optimism really has much to do with it. I am by no means an optimist - I've seen things go to Hell too often in too many ways to have more than a very cynical view of most of the world. Nor do things always work out. I've got a list of failures to match most.

The important difference for me with freelancing (or with other independent businesses I've had in the past) is that I have a lot more control over what happens. I might choose the wrong course and sometimes do, but I can choose to change my direction at any time. I don't have to kiss anyone's rear end to do so or engage in any long discussions about it. I don't have to tolerate any petty tyrants thinking that they can manipulate me or my future.

It's been just a bit over 20 years since I cut the mental cord to the corporate research world and ditched a very "promising" career in which I had achieved a lot of recognition in a fairly short time. I've been on various payrolls from time to time since then for different reasons, but I've always considered those arrangements strictly temporary until I could get back to the real business of running my own life without interference. As an independent, I've done a number of other things, most of which show up in one form or another on my CV. Most of these things were a lot of fun, but even the most fun and lucrative of these lacked the variety and the opportunities for risk management that I have as a freelance translator. For years, I had the "security" of research consulting contracts that I knew would be renewed as long as I wanted them and where I could work and earn pretty much as I wanted, but the limited client base in that and other areas of activity made me vulnerable to occasional pressures from new research directors with different ideas or other political winds.

A freelance translator with a diverse clientele not only enjoys a great variety of topics and the opportunity to get paid to keep learning; s/he can also easily spread the risk among clients in such a way that any client can go out of business, go elsewhere, etc. and it won't make much difference. If I don't like a proposed project, I just say "no" and turn my attention to the next one immediately. That's not optimism. That's reality. I know that not every project will work out exactly as I envision it every time; unexpected problems arise, sometimes lots of them. I have a real nightmare of negotiation to deal with early tomorrow morning, which ought to add a few thousand gray hairs to my head. But I'll go into the negotiations with my head high and a smile on my face, because in the end I know that I am the only one I have to consult to decide what terms are acceptable. How many other activities offer that kind of real security even to relative neophytes?

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Soonthon LUPKITARO(Ph.D.)  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:23
Partial member (2004)
English to Thai
+ ...
In Asian fiancial crisis of 1997 Dec 29, 2008

I remind fo the Asian financial crisis in year 1997.
The situation may not be applicable globally but I could countinue my freelance working business.
Yes, translation or interpretation jobs became rare because many translators appeared but most clients still seeked my service. They said they want good quality jobs, unavailable from novice freelancers.
I spent my spare time to study new subjects or to get trainings. I still devoted time for my physical preparedness [I was not able to afford when I was very busy with the jobs.]
I took recreational activities and travel.
I found the life became easier but without much anxiety.
Economic crisis now may be different even to me, however...
It is a global crisis, and we all the freelance translators must be prepared for it.

Soonthon L.

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United States
Local time: 17:23
Italian to English
+ ...
Risk Management Dec 29, 2008

I may be a bit late to this conversation, but my general response echos that of Kevin. To put it somewhat philosophically, we can delude ourselves for a while with such niceties as social security and so on, but the reality is that life is risky business, it is largely a question of risk management, and you apply that principle also to your career.

Yes you can manage to be a successful freelancer for life.

One of the paths for achieving this is to gain experience in a niche area. As mentioned, you are young and you have time to sharpen your experiences. For example, Italy and Germany have world class engineers and manufacturing industries in niche areas that export all over the world. If you do not already have a technical specialization, pursue one or two - even if that means more schooling and/or actual work experience (both is better) - and if you do have one, keep up to date.

The bottom line is that you have to manage yourself and your business in such a way that you and your skills are useful to people who pay.

If, after taking stock of your personality, skills, experience and potential going forward, you feel that you cannot best handle this type of risk, then maybe you should move into an area where you perceive the type of risk that you can better handle.

[Edited at 2008-12-29 12:21 GMT]

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Arnaud HERVE  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:23
English to French
+ ...
Not optimistic Dec 29, 2008

Hi Kevin,

after reading some of your posts in various threads about economic difficulties, I think that you replace statistical relevance with an algebraic "I".

Let me explain: it's a bit like people talking about the very few chances to win at the national lottery, and you reply "Oh but you can win".

Of course, you can say that to one individual, and you would be perfectly right, but you cannot say that to the crowd.

In my opinion this is also a bit destructive, in two senses:

First, it prevents the emergence of a common culture. To build a common culture we must agree on various basic values. For example in the housing industry, that could be "Houses should not be too expansive". And if you reply that you personally you found a cheap house, and that individually we all could find cheap houses that the others won't get, this is not very constructive. Or it prevents conversation, if you wish.

It might be my own temper but I am a bit surprised to observe the many negations of economic difficulties on some forums.

Second, it can easily lead to a sort of esoterism of the personal willpower. If you really want it, you can make it. But that prevents the general discussion of objective external factors, like the fall of prices of translations, local price of living, local taxes...

In other words, if you live in a country with high taxes and high prices of living, and if at the same time you are challenged in your language pair by people with lower taxes and lower prices of living, who also get more numerous, more educated and more connected every year, I would be surprised if personal willpower alone could make up.

In other words, I have some experience of sailing, and despite my almost supernatural willpower and genius, I still don't master the waves, wind and tides. It seems they continue moving without paying attention to my efforts.

As far as I know, the culture of the algebraic "I", or personal opportunities, and of reliance on personal willpower was valid in only one historical circumstance: the United States, around 1860 - 1960 approximately. In those circumstances you found at the same time and place all the positive economic parameters:

- Conquest of new natural resources
- Appearance of new technologies
- Shortage of workforce
- Safety of investment
- Not competition from abroad.

Of course you could discuss that those parameters appeared earlier or continued later, were not so strong in various sectors, that there were crisis, etc., this is why I say the United States of 1860 - 1960 approximately.

But what is important to retain is that the optimism on individual willpower appeared only when all parameters of objective national economy were fulfilled. Which means that, to a certain, this optimism was almost an illusion.

In all other circumstances, people had to gather, to discuss what was wrong in the objective collective parameters, and to agree on possible changes.

I don't deny that there is a huge difference of value between translators. Of course there is. Nevertheless there are few people who would deliberately deliver a bad work if they had the necessary tools, time, income, experience, choice...

However to come back to the first post by Thomas. I think our profession is structurally fragile, and that is not going to change soon.

The structural reason is that the tools we use, anyone who is not a professional can use them at home. My brother works in climatization factory, but his neighbours cannot have a climatization factory at home. My neighbours have a computer and an Internet connection.

Then the fragility occurs at two levels:

First, you are challenged by people from lower costs countries. That is very obvious.

But if you think a bit more deeply, you are challenged by people for whom it is not the main income. For example by engineers who translate at night in order to buy their new fancy motorbike or whatever, or by educated housewives who mainly rely on the income of their husband.

Therefore our rates are slowly evolving, not towards a sufficient household income in low cost countries, but towards the level of pocket money for low cost countries. For example, the money that a highly educated student needs, while living at his parents', to buy himself an ipod.

And even worse, we are challenged by people who have lower costs, who rely on another income, and are not even subjected to taxes, because it's on the black market for them.

Therefore, I at least am very pessimistic.

I don't see freelance translation as a future, except in some niches.

And when I see people like Kevin who abandoned the prospect of a successful career and yet achieved a successful career, I know that I will never be able to compete. At least in one life.

[Edited at 2008-12-29 14:41 GMT]

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KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:23
Member (2003)
German to English
Yes, let's return to the topic Dec 30, 2008

When working on a dig in Luxembourg many years ago, some of the people in my group encountered some Belgian grave robbers who threatened to kill them and put them in a hole in the forest if their activities were hindered. Shall I use that as the basis for judging Belgian business practices in general? I was informed at the time that grave robbers from Belgium were a particular problem, so maybe this is indeed a part of the national culture about which one must be concerned. I don't know - the only thing in BE I care to judge is the beer, which I prefer to any other except the micropubs in Oregon.

I'm sure that most of our colleagues who translate in pairs involving Italian and who work with Italian customers get by nicely without resorting to an alliance with criminals, organized or otherwise. Automatically associating anything Italian with various crime organizations is about as accurate and useful as tagging anything German with right-wing associations or claiming that all Russians are drunks. It's a pointless exercise that accomplishes nothing useful and does a lot of harm to good, honest, hardworking people.

So the initiator of the topic has Italian as one of his working languages? Good for him. If there are any particular risk issues involved with the pairs he works in or the legal/business environments of the countries he deals with, that will have to be researched objectively and factored into his planning as would be the case with anything else. No big deal. Moreover, there is a considerable market for pairs involving Italian that can be tapped in countries outside Italy, just like my pair is asked for in a number of curious places where the laymen might not expect it.

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