Six Survival Techniques for Translators during a Slump


Since freelance translation came into existence, there has been no recurring topic than surviving during a “slump” or a “dry spell” in the life of a freelance translator. Since the beginning of my career, I have been challenged by many people to find a suitable way to escape from this problem, and I have always said that “you have to go through this throughout your career.” I have always read translators having more than 15-20 years of experience going through this too. It doesn’t mean they are any less efficient or effective than others. Neither it means they are poor in business skills or are unable to attract new clients.

Like any other businessman or self-employed professional, a translator also has his “highs” and “lows”. The idea is to change your paradigm. I have always seen this period as an opportunity to make the best use of my time by following some simple techniques:

  1. Keep learning: Having fewer projects means lesser confidence in yourself. As the period extends, you may also feel bored and may resort to idleness like unnecessary TV watching or unwanted sleep or never ending useless phone calls. This is the way most of us deal with the stress of having no work. Instead of doing this, you could learn a new software which could help you later in your business (like software related to DTP which is a value add skill for a translator) or any other skill which could add into your existing repertoire and help in attracting new clients and retaining the old ones. The idea is to always be a student.
  2. Feed the mind: If we want our bodies to remain healthy, we have to eat good food. Similarly, if we want our minds to remain alert, healthy and active, we have to feed it with “good thoughts”. A dry spell could really affect the nutrition of your mind. You may feel “no longer required” in this industry. This is the right time to feed your mind with some inspiring literature like reading biographies or people who have gone from “rags to riches” in their life such as Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, Harrison Ford, etc. Though these people were not in the same profession, but you will observe that they have also faced many hardships to reach to the top.
  3. Revisit your mission statement: At the start of the career, everyone develops a mission statement or goal statement which defines the self-made path of a translator to achieve success. But in the midst of generating leads, landing on potential clients, adhering to client’s deadlines, doing projects continuously for months, one may tend to forget to think long-run and just gobbles up the opportunity right in front. Having some time off projects provides you the opportunity to revisit your mission, your goals and measure up your success so far. Furthermore, it may give you some great ideas to take your career further, to diversify yourself, to challenge yourself, etc.
  4. Spending time with your loved ones: When we are feeling low about ourselves, opening up to someone who loves you, who believes in you not only helps but also makes the bond stronger. I always discuss with my brother during these times because I know he always believes in me, even when I do not. It’s time to have a friend or a family member by your side to help you stay on track.
  5. Diverse your interests/income streams – Although freelancing is quite an enjoyable and lucrative business in itself, but in order to make the most out of your slump period, it is good to develop diverse interests. I personally teach French language at some institutes near my place at a very reasonable price and I blog too. Not only these activities are useful alternatives to mindless activities, these also develop your language skills and give an opportunity to meet new people.
  6. Go on a vacation: May be this slump period is here to remind you that it has been a long time since you have gone for a vacation. Go to a nice place with family and friends and rejuvenate your mind and body.

Managing life

I do not like the concept of time management. It is foolish to save precious minutes when we are wasting our life away doing many things we should not do. Time management is like damage control. It only solves  urgent problems which need quick-fix solutions, it does not alter anything in your life and does not even guarantee that you won’t get stuck in the same situation again.

That is why for the past few years I have been using a life management approach which I have found to be very useful and effective – especially for translators like us. As per my perception on the life of a translator is concerned, it is very unpredictable. When a project comes to an end, I do not know from where my next project would come, holidays are never planned; whenever I get time, I take the week-end (and some more days) off and head to a place where I am far away from my laptop, e-mails, etc. My only objective at that time is to just discover the place and enjoy. And when the project comes, my life revolves around it with an objective to complete it successfully.

Sometimes, I feel that our lives are more like those of “fire-fighters”. Whenever the alarm rings, we have to be there, no matter what. It becomes the most “urgent” and “important” thing at that time. Therefore, when this tug-of war between “urgency” and “importance” occurs (and it often occurs), I follow the approach read in a book by Dr. Stephen R Covey, A. Roger and Rebecca R. Merrill.

Every activity we do in our lives falls into one of the following four quadrants:

Q1: Urgent and Important: Important, significant activities which require our urgent and full attention. For e.g.:

  • Rush hour projects
  • Last minute changes in translation, suggested by the client
  • Sudden shift of deadline by the client
  • Urgent client meeting on site

Q2: Important but Not urgent: Important activities which, when carried out effectively, would help us stay out of problems 90% of the time. For e.g.:

  • Further studies for improving our mental abilities and skills
  • Terminology building
  • Lead creation
  • Network building
  • Taking backup of our work
  • Reading (in our Source and Target language)
  • Spending quality time with friends and family
  • Effective blogging

Q3: Urgent but Not Important: Activities which do not foster growth in our life, but still we are inclined to do them out of a sense of urgency. For e.g.:

  • Answering unwanted phone calls
  • Other distractions coming our way like unnecessary e-mails, going to a friends’ house to delivery a CD, etc.

Q4: Not Urgent and Not Important: As the name suggests, not a useful quadrant.

  • Unnecessary TV watching
  • Unproductive relaxation

As a translator, one should always try to strike a balance between Q1 and Q2, for living a quality of life.  I know that Q3 and Q4 cannot be completely avoided, but can be minimized to a great extent in order to achieve our goals.

I know that the above-mentioned matrix is not something I invented, but used and found really useful and life-saving. Although it would not completely prevent you from getting stuck into a new problem, but it would make you armed and ready so that you can tackle it immediately and solve it quickly and ensure that it never comes back to haunt you again.

Beyond language learning

“So you have learnt XXXX language. Wow! That’s great. You can become a translator now”  

“It’s so easy, learn XXXX language. Somebody told me that there is a two year diploma in XXX University, and then you will be a translator”

“You have a great job. You get XXXXX rupees for just typing 4000 words. That’s awesome. I should be a translator too”

These are some of the statements I have heard during my last seven years of translation (although there were many more, but they are not worth discussing). It is weird. People in general do not know the difference between translation and language acquisition. Sure, language learning is the first step towards building a career in translation but that is it. This is just the first step. There are several other steps to be taken, many concepts to be learnt before one can call himself/herself a translator. To name a few, here it goes:

  1. Specialization: “So you have completed a Masters in French from XXX University. Now you are a translator. You know everything about this language. Build a business.” …..No! This is not how it works. Language specialization is one aspect. Knowing French, for example, does not mean that you can translate all that is written in French. From my experience, I can tell you that a Rack and pinion linear gear specifications document (Automotive domain) is very different from a toy manual about Rattles and Cuddly toys (Toy manual), though both of these may have been written in the same language. You have to target those sectors in which your interests lie and learn about those sectors, how they function, their assembly lines, the terminology they use daily (for e.g.: If you want to specialize in Automotive sector, you should know at least the working knowledge of gears, clutch, steering wheel, hubcaps, fenders….etc.).
  2. Learning on the job: Translation is a very new industry in India. This is why it is often called as a sunrise industry. It has not reached its boom yet. Although hearing this gives me a great deal of satisfaction that the best has yet to come, but it also hits me that as we are new, we still have a lot to learn. Also, we have only a few mentors. As you will agree, there are not many courses in translation taught in universities in India. The Indian Translators Association has only 10 translators registered in French<>English domain. Mr Sandeep Nulkar, CMD, Bits Pilani Limited has said “Presently, the translation industry is quite disorganized in the sense that there are immense job opportunities in the corporate as well as government sectors but the supply of skilled and efficient manpower to fill the vacancies is lacking. The novice translators with inappropriate training and partial understanding of language do more harm than good in their field of work”. The term novice translators refers to those translators who have just come out from language schools and claim to have all the knowledge required for translating any document, without even having the slightest idea that what this entails. We must not forget that it is our responsibility to make this industry organized and to lay the groundwork for us and our future colleagues. A lot of work has to be done. But is a not a futile endeavor. As I have said earlier, the best is yet to come.
  3. Target Audience – Being a translator is more like being a writer. A writer writes his work keeping the audience in mind. It is the same for us. Translation does not mean we put the English (Target Language) sentence in place of a French (Source Language) sentence and the work is done. We have to keep our audience in mind. For e.g.; In case of manual of a washing machine, the target audience will be consumers; common men and women who are more likely to have no knowledge of the specifics of a washing machine, its parts, the connection between them, etc. So the language has to be very lucid along with clear diagrams explaining its working so that they can properly operate it themselves in compliance with the company’s standards. A document of a software program, which will most likely be read by fellow developers, must be in a language that is straight, simple, with less use of idioms and proverbs and more detail should be given to the translation of the coded language (in many cases the codes are not even translated).
  4. Sharpen the saw – Dr. Stephen Cover, in his bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effectively People”, named his last habit sharpening the saw which serves as the base for all other habits to function properly. I think it is an important activity if you want to be best in your field. A translator’s learning never stops. He is continuously learning; about new software, new words and idioms in their respective source and target languages being added every year, new ways to market themselves…etc. In a nutshell, you always remain a student with your mind always active to grasp new concepts.

A competent translator is not only bilingual but bi-cultural. A language is not merely a collection of words and rules of grammar and syntax, but it is also an interconnecting system of cultural references whose mastery is almost a lifetime job. Hence it is a misconception that a person fluent in two or more languages can easily become a translator. Language is a road map to a new world, translation is the journey.