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It's Only a Matter of Control

I have an issue with control, in fact I might even admit at some point in the future that I’m somewhat obsessive-compulsive (which, by the way, in my opinion is one of the greatest qualities you can have as a self-employed translator!). As a freelancer there are many things that I need to stay on top of; I want to manage my time properly so that I’ll be able to meet deadlines; I want to be available to answer questions or submit quotes to new or regular clients; and let us not forget that life is happening around us and as much as I would personally want (sometimes…) not to do anything else but work, I have a family and they deserve their quality time with me. And on top of all this, you have to navigate in uncharted waters most of your time. Being self-employed means there’s no certainty, even if you feel from time to time that your clients will always reach out and that your rates won’t change and that you’ve figured out what the best way to work is and that you already know whatever there is to know about the content that you translate for one of your clients; once in every few months reality taps you on the shoulder and reminds you that nothing is certain.

Here’s an example: I used to work with a large translation agency that would send me about 8,000 words every month. After a few months of intensive work, they told me that they were very pleased with my services because I was always on schedule and the quality was very good. They were so pleased that they offered to send me even more work If I gave them a 15% discount. I admit that they left me with my mouth agape for a few moments. I had worked with them for a few months and had been under the impression that things would continue uninterrupted. Well, I was wrong. I refused to lower my rates and eventually work stopped coming from them. Here’s another example: I was part of a team of four translators in a highly classified project for three years. I would travel to the client’s offices twice a week, 3-3.5 hours in each direction. The rates were very high and the work was very challenging. After three years they got into financial difficulties and asked me to work from home. After a few months there was hardly any work so I quit.

This can really be despairing; you spend years in this profession, trying to find some stability, believing that things will only get better if people know you and the quality of your work, but ultimately you come to the inevitable conclusion that most clients only look at the bottom line, that is your rate, and few clients appreciate good, professional, and expensive work. On top of all that you’re responsible for your own motivation and unfortunately from time to time there are those periods when you’re far from being motivated. But this responsibility and sense of solitude are an integral part of being self-employed. It’s a choice I made eight years ago and for quite a few reasons.

So what is there about being self-employed that can be encouraging and motivating? In my opinion, the best thing about being self-employed is the freedom to make decisions and decision making is very motivating (as long as it isn’t perceived as a threat by your amygdala:) – sorry, I’m translating a fascinating scientific article about the approach-avoid response). I make decisions everyday, whether it’s what I want to write about, what I want to translate first, what quote to give for a potential project, and even decisions that have long-term effect, such as starting a blog, specializing in a certain field, or taking a course somewhere. And I think that decision making also provides a certain sense of certainty. Going back to the amygdala, uncertainty is perceived as a threat and when we’re threatened we become less creative. And creativity is one of the best things about being self-employed. You can be creative as much as you want, because it’s all up to you.

So for me decision making is the pathway to certainty, but it’s not just about decision making; as a self-employed translator I can only control… what I do. I can’t control whether the clients will pay on time or not, if they’ll reach out again with more work, or if their reviewers will like my work or not. But I can decide how much time to invest in each translation task; how good I want to be in my area of specialty or how much time I want to spend reading and learning about the topics I translate. I can decide to take a course somewhere, look for new clients and try to raise my rates, or even manage my time differently to increase my productivity. This is my way to create a sense of certainty and allow my self to be more creative.

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