Translation was not my vocation. In fact, I didn’t want to be a translator. It’s not that I had anything against the profession, but more to do with the fact that I knew nothing about it. In my final year at high school, before going to university and deciding on the course my professional career would take, all I knew was that I wanted to do something involving languages. But as teaching was not for me, I had decided against studying them at university. This didn’t leave many other subjects to choose from, but my English teacher happened to mention a new translation and interpreting course that had started at Vigo University that same year. The entry requirements involved passing a test and achieving a good grade in the university entrance exam as places were limited.
With few other options open to me, I let fate take its course, thinking that if I passed the test it was meant to be. And that was what happened. At the time, back in September 1993, English was not my strongest subject, and nor were Spanish and Galician (the languages I sat the exam in). But I was able to think about some of the qualities that a good translator or interpreter should have, although I didn’t realise it until some years later.
I was pretty nervous when I handed in my final year project in a small office at the university in March 1998. But after finishing the course and receiving my results, my worries were by no means over. Although I was pleased with my good results and that the effort had been worthwhile, I also felt surprised, confused and unsure. What now?
Like many other students, I went back home. I took on whatever work I could – a lot of private classes and very little translation – to save money and travel abroad.
After spending time working and studying in the UK, I went back home. My savings had grown but I still felt a lack of direction where my work was concerned. How do you start to make a living from translation? Do you need to work for someone else? I sent out numerous CVs far and wide, to translation companies I found in the yellow pages (internet was still only used by a minority), export companies, friends of friends…
In the end, I was taken on by an export company in an administrative role. As a result I decided to go back to studying and took courses in business studies, economics and finance. It was while I was working there that I received my first translation commissions via the list of sworn translators and from other colleagues. Gradually the number of commissions grew. It was just over a year later in 2000, while I was juggling translation work with my job at the export company, when I decided to start working fulltime as a freelance translator. Back then I was working long days, with no fixed hours, for low rates. But little by little I was learning more both about the industry and about how to manage my own business.
I carried on studying too, taking courses to update my translation skills and computer skills, a course for women in business, English for business, etc. And for those first few years of my professional journey I also relied on the services of a tax advisor, and other essential tools such as a good computer, a fax machine and an extremely slow internet connection.
Another constant at the time was maintaining a close working relationship with other translators. There was always someone at the other end of the phone I could ask questions to or talk to about my concerns or doubts (at the time I had quite a few, and on the whole, I was not alone). This is one of the most reassuring aspects of my profession; a travelling companion makes the journey easier.
In the early stages of my translation career, I only had a few (three or four) clients who used to send me huge amounts of work, but paid low rates. I had very little free time to relax at weekends, at night or on bank holidays, but I was happy in the knowledge that I was doing what I liked and I was convinced that this was the norm in this industry.
Significant changes in my professional life have always coincided with moving relocating. The change of scene and chance to reorganise my personal life must have prompted me to re-assess my working situation and lifestyle. Whatever the reason, in 2005, fed up with working long hours and a life that consisted almost entirely of work and barely acceptable working conditions, I decided to concentrate all my efforts on reorganising my client portfolio, and to raise my rates and work more reasonable hours.
I spent a lot of time researching the market and the competition, and prepared all the appropriate documents (CV, certificates, references). I contacted potential clients and made an effort to follow up with them, which proved worthwhile as I am still working with some of those clients. The leap in terms of quality, both for the business and for my private life, was huge. But above all, I realised that working as a freelance translator did not have to mean interminable days spent translating huge amounts of words for very little money. I also noticed that the improvement in my working conditions meant I enjoyed my work much more and was able to deliver translations of a higher standard.
At the time, when I was still learning, I continued to send out CVs (over 300 one year). By keeping detailed financial records for each commission, I was able accept the jobs that were more profitable and reject ones that were not financially viable, and my turnover in 2007 was one of the best so far.
Between 2008 and 2012 there were a series of events in my personal life which affected my availability to accept translation work. In 2008 and 2010 I was on maternity leave for several months and then in 2011, realising I was not in a position to provide an adequate level of service to my clients, I decided to take a sabbatical for the final three months of the year. It may have been due to my personal circumstances, but I recall that, at the time, certain routines or normal scenarios (which we should be able to deal with, such as urgent requests, clients who try to negotiate lower rates, highly complex projects) would leave me feeling unduly frustrated and annoyed. I felt under huge pressure to show that I could deal with every request, and what is worse, occasionally I projected my frustration onto my clients or someone else. As a result I decided to take a break from work for a few months to reduce the impact on my personal life and rekindle my enthusiasm for my career.
As freelancers we tend to be afraid of not being available, but my clients accepted the fact and when I returned after my break, I started to receive work again. I had, of course, given them advance notice and I contacted them when I started working again. Some clients told me they admired me for having the courage to take a break before the quality of my work began to suffer. Others even mentioned they had missed me. I believe honesty and the ability to take into account what is best for all concerned is a mark of professionalism.
The one thing I learned during that period was not to be afraid of taking a break, because happy clients will remain loyal. Also, it is better to take time out and come back feeling refreshed than run the risk of providing a second-rate or sub-standard service. Our personal lives can impact hugely on our work, so sometimes we need to stop and take stock of things to achieve the right balance.
The two constants during this work-free period were my firm intention to return to work with renewed energy, and using my “free time” to carry on researching the market, look for opportunities, improve my professional profile and approach potential new clients.
I am a great believer in reflecting on your professional career in order to plan for the future. During this stage in my professional journey, I began to draw up an annual plan, setting concrete goals for each year. My aim was to be able to work practically exclusively in the specialist areas that I liked, i.e. business, legal, financial and international institutions. So in 2012 I was gradually able to stop doing translations in other subject areas by referring clients to colleagues, or, if that was not possible, I rejected the project and explained to the client my reason for doing so. This was the start of a new stage in my professional career, and although at first work levels fell, over time the volume of commissions increased considerably, as did my level of personal satisfaction.
I stopped working with clients that did not fit my profile, recommending instead other trusted colleagues who would be able to help. I learnt how to approach clients who could send me the type of texts I wanted to translate and updated my professional profile (new website, logo, etc.) to one that fits my ideal client profile. When I attended events, I was able to communicate successfully what it is that I do and my field of specialisation. All my efforts paid off, as 2017 was another very successful years in terms of turnover.
Focussing on my specialist subject areas also meant that I had to extend the group of translators with whom I worked for a number of reasons. Firstly, legal translations often contain technical content, or financial texts may be needed for marketing purposes, so I needed to be able to call on translators who specialise in these areas for help. Secondly, as some financial and legal texts are highly complex, I prefer to use an external proofreader, which means I can provide clients with a high standard of service. And lastly, during the busiest periods of the year when workloads increase, we need to work with colleagues who can help us to deliver a quality translation on time.
Consequently, I began to work with those colleagues with whom I had a good working relationship.
Over the years, this method of working has allowed me to meet financial targets, achieve a better work-life balance, streamline my working processes, improve the quality of the services I provide, and, in short, be really happy in the profession.
I am extremely fortunate to have a job that I enjoy and a working relationship based on trust with professionals who work well as a team and take pride in their work. On a personal level, my job satisfaction is very high thanks to clients who value the quality of my work, and colleagues who contact me whenever they need to and who I can on rely when I need their help. I am still learning from the whole experience, but above all, I am enjoying work.
The last 20 years of my professional career leave me with a sense of responsibility towards the translators of the future. I think we need to teach and communicate with translation and interpreting students, and other translators who are just starting out in their career, to encourage them to continue along this path and guide them until they find their own way in an industry in which it is possible to live without being stressed, earn a good salary and achieve a good work-life balance.