No Regretsby Diane Di Biasio
Life is what happens to you, while youre busy making other plansJohn Lennon
Eleven years ago, newly divorced with two children, I was faced with choosing a way to make a living that I didnt hate, that would bring in enough money to support my family, and that would leave me time to be at home with the kids. After a few career orientation seminars and several months of weighing the pros and cons of a multitude of career choices, I signed up for a three-year Daycare Technician programme.
Luckily, the people at the Ministry of Education had included an internship in the very first year, so that students could find out right from the start if the work suited them. Much to my surprise, it did not. I hated the noise, the smells, the mess. I found out that other peoples children are not that cute when they need their diaper changed. My internship supervisor was kind. She didnt flunk me, but she strongly recommended I explore other options.
I was totally depressed at the prospect of having to make another laborious choice. A friend came up with a simple solution that appealed to me mainly because it would require no additional soul searching. She said: You speak French and English, why dont you go into translation? There happened to be an introductory course given the next semester with room for me, and I happened to like the teacher, so I did well. I got unexpected personal satisfaction out of riffling through dictionaries in search of just the right word, discovered that (some) grammar books could be fascinating reading, and found that analyzing ambiguous sentences to figure out what the heck the author meant was a lot of fun. Plus I liked the idea of becoming a translator, so I signed up for the BA.
Though ten years their senior in many cases, I was no different from my classmates in that my dreams, hopes and expectations were somewhat unrealistic. I would finish school with straight As and land a wonderful job two days after graduation. I would work in-house for a few years until I gained experience and built up a decent customer base, and then I would strike out on my own, be my own boss, maybe even break into literary translation and become rich and famous (I was prepared to settle for famous).
The universe did not have quite the same itinerary in mind. For the record, I did graduate with wonderful grades, but thats where the dream ended and reality kicked in. With no more loans and bursaries to live on, I had to make money, and right away. So I started the rounds of all the agencies and translation departments, calling, sending CVs, hitting the publishers too, why not.
The results were less than encouraging. I did get heartfelt sympathy from many an in-house translator, and some even took the time to share valuable advice. (If you were one of them, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.) However, mostly what I got was dont call us, well call you. One out of ten calls resulted in a request for my CV, and I sent over 500 of those, so needless to say the long-distance bills were going up and up, while the bank balance insisted on going in the other direction.
Then one morning, as I was agonizing over the deplorable state of my finances, I received a call from a publisher who needed someone to do a first draft of a book for half price in no time at all. I pounced on the offer, did the sample and got the contract. Ill never forget the feeling. I was so excited. My dream was coming true, and truer than I had ever dared hope.
No sooner had I committed to doing the book that I got a call from an agency offering me a full-time job. When it rains it pours. Unfortunately, they wanted me to start right away. I was high on the prospect of going freelance right away, and even higher on the idea of becoming a literary translator. So I respectfully and regretfully turned the agency down, assuring them that I would be glad to work for them on a freelance basis. Ive often had the opportunity, since then, to wonder if that was a mistake.
Slowly but surely, mostly slowly, other contracts came, not literary but work is work. I took anything and everything that I could get my hands on, working late into the night with inadequate tools at starvation rates to meet ridiculous deadlines, living on practically nothing, but spending crazy amounts on revision, dictionaries and office supplies. I was home all the time but I hardly ever got to see my children. Sorry, have to work, have to rest, have to look for work. For better or for worse, I was a freelance translator.
With every contract, I moved up one notch in experience, efficiency and confidence. I called upon all the resources imaginable to get the jobs done. Most people think translation means spending all your time with your nose in dictionaries and books. I do lots of that too, but translation, for me, is far from a solitary occupation. Im on the phone with revisers, civilian experts and former teachers, anybody who can help me make the translation as good as possible or better. My people skills come in handy for that, as well as for negotiating rates and deadlines and handling revisers, not to mention for telling the client in a nice way that nobody could possibly manage to type those 100 pages in English by tomorrow morning.
Slowly but surely, I upgraded my equipment. Mostly surely because, as every freelancer knows, computer equipment only breaks down when youre in the middle of an important job and all the computer technicians in the world have gone home for the week-end. And with each acquisition of new equipment came new technological challenges, causing me to spend many a night tearing my hair out trying to figure out which button to push so I could finish the contract.
As the customer base increased, I had to revise my administrative strategies. (This project is still under construction.) This means learning how to do all those lovely non-translation-related, non-billable, unavoidable tasks that come along with being self-employed: billing, book-keeping, tracking expenses, tracking down non-payers, tax returns, and making ends meet.
In those first lean years, the nights were the worst. If I wasnt up at my desk to meet a deadline I was lying in bed worrying about meeting payments. During one particularly long lull without a contract in sight, I even considered applying for a job as clerk at a local hardware store. It was then that I made the most important decision of all. I would quit worrying and start thinking positive. I would lose no more sleep over money, and I would put my trust in the universe.
I swear, it worked like magic. Within a few days, the phone started ringing again. Return customers and new clients, everybody seemed to need me. I got big contracts with relatively reasonable deadlines, leaving some time to get the smaller lucrative rush jobs done, if I worked like mad. Just as I would be finishing one thing up, I would get a call for another. If I really couldnt squeeze another job in, I farmed it out, giving me an opportunity to pay back some of the favours I owed and even build up some goodwill for the future.
After two years of working day in day out, it became frighteningly obvious that I could not go on like this forever. I had to take some time off, to be with my family, to do a little exercise, and just to sit and watch a sunset every once in a while. I started managing my time better, making mealtimes and evenings no work zones (most of the time), making family the priority during week-ends (sometimes), and making going outdoors once a day an (almost) sacred obligation that should not be neglected, no matter what (except for real emergencies). Much to my surprise, the sky hasnt fallen on my head, I still manage to meet my deadlines, and the quality of my work has actually improved.
I still work very, very hard, but I am my own boss. The problem is, Im the meanest, most demanding boss Ive ever had. To me, being a freelance translator is no different than any other self-employment. You have to be driven, by a passion for your work or by sheer hunger and the need to survive (or both), but making it has to be the most important thing in your life. And if you are clever enough, or lucky enough to find ways to make attaining that goal a little easier then, by all means, go for it.
All things considered, although the result still needs quite a bit of fine-tuning, Im pretty happy with how things are turning out. Sure, I wish the public at large had a better understanding of what is involved in the translation process. Of course, Id like to manage to get top rate for everything I do. And I would love it if clients could write full sentences that make sense every time. But all in all, when things are going well, when Im ahead of schedule and I can take a few minutes during the day to sit in the garden and chat with my children, or even to pop a load of laundry in the washer, I catch myself feeling quite content, and then I know I was right to respectfully and regretfully turn down that full-time job.
For the Little Prince in you, this is the door to your office. The freelance translator you want to be is behind this door.
© Copyright 1997 Translation Journal and the Author
Send your comments to the Webmaster