by Mark Stevenson

Hot Okinawan sun against the back of my neck dissolves the morning grogginess. A few too many island coffees last night. But who here’s counting? It’s a paradisial day in late September while Tokyo slips slowly, but irrevocably, into cooler and drearier months. I have to go home tomorrow, back to Tokyo. Back to an office chair and 6-am alarms and a damp concrete jungle. If I was still a freelance translator I could stay here as long as I wanted. Or I could go down under for the Australian summer. Or up to Hokkaido for some snowboarding. Something about working in-house, however, makes the sacrifice worth it.

Before I began working for investor relations company eAssociates in Tokyo a year ago, I worked for around two years as a freelance Japanese-to-English translator for translation agencies. Still nascent, I have yet to work for direct clients as a freelancer, but what I’m learning in house will make that a reality down the track. The leap from freelancing for agencies to freelancing for direct clients would have been much harder.

Freedom

Freedom isn’t the only benefit to being a freelance translator, but it certainly is the most seductive. It’s easy to be lured into a relaxed and downright unstructured lifestyle where waking up is easy because you only do so when you’re tired of sleeping. OK, so getting up at lunchtime and going out for a nightcap at 3 am might not be your style. But if you have children, a relative to take care of, or an allergy to riding the train during peak hours, the flexibility afforded by freelance translation can make life much easier. Commuting can also take a large chunk out of your day, and that’s time you can allocate to earning money as a freelancer—without changing out of your pajamas.As a freelancer, you can get away with not answering your phone or emails promptly. On the flip side, good translators can be hard to find, and it can be annoying when they don’t want to be found. Consistent vagrancy (or inconsistent work) may hurt your chances for continued employment. But there is a certain amount of leeway. Without that flexibility, it would have been difficult for me to get established as a translator to the point where the income justified taking it on full time. For some, the flexibility is vital to managing complex lives.

Income and workload

Depending on how productive you are and how much time you spend in front of your PC, freelance translation, even for agencies, can be fairly lucrative. But there are pitfalls, as discussed below. In-house salaries are generally fixed and less than what you could reasonably earn as a freelancer, although you may be offered a performance-based bonus and other fringe benefits. Stability of income is the obvious payoff in this regard, along with support for peripheral tasks.


That support is extremely valuable. Among other things, translators need to sell their services, prepare quotes and invoices, and fill out taxation forms. As an individual freelancer, you organize the whole business of translation yourself. In house, I’ve been freed from most of these tasks and can concentrate on translation issues. They aren’t huge tasks, but they add up and consume mental effort—mental effort that you can put into improving your work, doing background research, and extending your knowledge and skills.

The flipside to the limit on an in-house salary is the limit on working hours. As a freelancer, on the other hand, the freedom to work from anywhere, when, and to the extent that suits you comes with a catch. One thing that’s constantly on your mind is the question of where the next job is coming from and how much work you’ll receive that month. Given that uncertainty, it’s tempting to take on large amounts of work when it’s available. This can unwittingly lead to 36-hour translation marathons or strings of 14-hour days in a row. If you take on too much, or get sick, the agency won’t always help you out, despite favors you’ve done for them in the past. Managing your schedule and refusing excessive workloads is crucial to your health and your reputation. But it isn’t always easy as a beginning freelancer who wants to stay in the agency’s favor. Once again, in house I feel a great level of support and my workload is strictly managed. As a freelancer, you can feel terribly alone, and the stress can noticeably affect your health and wellbeing.

Responsibility and professional development

As a freelancer I was content (well, resigned to the fact) that the agency mostly took care of client expectations. I provided detailed notes with my translations, but once a job was sent in, I essentially washed my hands of it. Most questions and feedback from clients were handled by the agency. I had very little control over final changes and no opportunity to explain things directly to the client. That can be frustrating, particularly when you see a mangled version of your hard work on the client’s website the next week, and a natural response can be to distance yourself.

I’m now directly responsible for what goes out the door, I have the opportunity to explain terminology and nuances of language directly to clients, and when a manuscript needs a little deciphering, I can confirm first hand just what it is a client is trying to say. Clients also speak to me directly when they take issue with a translation, providing vital feedback that agencies may insulate you from.

Direct interaction also means that you can influence client perceptions and expectations. This can involve educating them on finer points such as the correct use of quotation marks and parentheses in English (which are notoriously misused) and advising them on specific issues, such as how to structure and word a press release.

All of this makes for a smoother translation process, boosts your skills and understanding, and ultimately leads to higher quality work. This level of involvement was not possible as a freelancer, and it makes the job extremely rewarding and satisfying.

In house, I collaborate with and edit the work of other translators. As a freelancer, I had little contact with anything other than my own work. The exposure in house to a myriad of styles and skill levels was a wake-up call. Suddenly it was clear that there were so many different ways of doing things. Many were better than my own. Discovering basic errors made by other skilled translators prompted me to look more critically at my own work. And when proofreading the work of veteran translators, I often feel as though I’m being schooled. In fact, just interacting with veteran translators via email and telephone, itself, is an education in professionalism.

As a freelancer I relied on a handful of resources—a few dictionaries and a style guide, and the Internet, of course. Good references can be prohibitively expensive for a freelancer just starting out, but they are essential if you want to develop your skills. In house, I have access to the resources that I need, and the company is paying for professional education. The opportunity to rub shoulders with investor relations professionals and visit clients when account managers make sales calls is also invaluable. I’m learning how to sell not only translation but other services directly. Such opportunities for development, going beyond translation skills, would not have been available to me as a freelancer.

Your mileage may vary

Every situation is different. Some freelancers have strong ties with agency coordinators that give them a good level of influence over the end-client. Some are diligent about professional development. And some translators I know have had poor experiences with in-house work that prompted them to return to freelancing. While some freelancers jet around the globe, others keep an office and actually answer their phone—from time to time. For some, not having to sell to or deal with direct clients may be an advantage. For me, the opportunity to specialize and develop skills beyond translation was worth foregoing the frolicking of freelance. For now, I’m content with my desktop wallpaper of an Okinawan sunset. For now.