One of translation’s biggest trump-cards is the opportunity to work for yourself. Long before I started my masters, I decided that if I couldn’t work freelance I wasn’t interested in being a translator at all. This might sound a little extreme, but it has always been important to me to be able to pursue personal projects outside of work. After a couple of years in the workplace, I realised that a traditional desk-job was never going to give me the flexibility I needed to do this. So I assessed my strengths and weaknesses, researched a couple of options and identified a course I was sure would prepare me in the areas I needed. And here I am, give or take a stage, working for myself.
I know that not everyone entering the profession has gone about it in such a deliberate way. But I’m certain that the lure of flexible working is a huge part of what keeps translators, both aspiring and experienced, in the game.
The most obvious “personal projects” pursued by freelancers – although not the only – relate to family duties, specifically parenting. Yet it surprises me how little open acknowledgment there is of this, particularly within professional associations. There seems to be at best a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach, at worst vitriolic backlash at the suggestion of such plebeian concerns. Here are two examples of why I think this:
One of the requirements for Chartered Translator status in the UK is that your main source of income for the previous 5 years has to be derived from translation activities. The idea is that chartered status is awarded to full-time, experienced practitioners with a consistent professional track record. This consistency then has to be maintained for the duration of the chartered award. Fair enough. But I still remember the silence in the room at an information evening last year when I asked what the guidelines were for translators who might choose to decrease their workload for various reasons, such as to take on family duties. Obviously this would affect the requirements for consistency of wordcount and income – would chartered status still be appropriate? OF COURSE this would be taken into account, I was assured. How? Well, you would just submit your application, explain the situation and the committee would just… understand. Next question?! It was a pretty straight-forward query to me, but I was left feeling like I’d raised something incredibly inappropriate. (Or maybe they’d just spotted my flies were down).
My second example is the reaction to an article Ros Mendy wrote called The Translating Parent for the July-August 2005 ITI Bulletin. The article was well researched and rationally articulated. Ros surveyed a range of translators who were parents via the French and German Network e-groups, and referred to the experiences of no fewer than 10 different people in her article. Most importantly, she avoided clichés and stereotypes, raised some very interesting questions and offered some genuinely useful advice. Yet the backlash was nothing short of astonishing. Letters to the editor in the following issue claimed that it was not possible to be “professional” and raise a family too; that those who tried ended up neglecting both their children and their clients; some even suggested it was tantamount to child abuse. And I know that was just the tip of the iceberg.
So why these kind of reactions? Maybe it’s because translators have fought long and hard to be seen as professionals. Associations have had to combat images of homemaker-wives doing a bit of translation on the side to supplement a husband’s income, or harried mothers taking business calls with two noisy children hanging off apron strings*. Maybe it’s because I’m one of the first generations to have the option of combining professional translation with parenting. Whatever the reasons, they’re no longer an excuse to actively avoid this particular “life” element to our work-life balance. How can an association help to sustain our profession if they’re not addressing a significant reason behind many people’s decision to pursue translation in the first place?
To be fair, the personal lives of translators should rightly remain just that – personal. This is most definitely not an invitation for associations or other translators to comment on individual family choices, or indeed any individual’s marital, religious or sexual status. But it is a call for transparency from our associations around what they are doing to address an issue which impacts a translator’s work volume, and therefore status within the profession. It’s also an invitation to translators to openly acknowledge that our personal projects, regardless of what these may be, have a significant impact on our professional development and career planning. Only then can we truly address the issue of sustaining our profession.
* Not that I don’t think these situations occur, just that they’re hardly identifiable as the business models followed by the professionals I know. I’m serious.