Monday, August 21, 2023

Different roads to Rome – multiple paths to a successful freelancing career


[bird's eye view of highway and side road*]

If you ask most adults over forty how they entered their chosen profession, especially freelancers, a rather high percentage of them will admit that it was serendipity. Rare are those that knew what they wanted to do at 18 or younger and actually made a career of that ambition. By contrast, today it is far more common for people at the beginning of their professional life to immediately strive to open their own business, whether that is being an attorney, freelance translator or any other form of entrepreneurship. The need to first work for someone else is no longer assumed.

Thus, there seems to be two ideal types of freelancers active in translation now: those that “fell” into the profession later in their life and those that had no doubt that they wanted to be their one boss from day one and trained for that goal. Each path carries its own strengths and weaknesses and shapes the learning experience of the freelancer. Of course, individual tendencies also influence the nature of the professional growth. However, regardless of the initial approach, circumstances require all business people, including freelancers, to constantly learn and adapt.

Many older translators began their freelancing life later in life. Due to technological limitations, in the not-so-distant past, translation, especially technical translation, was largely in-house or local and thus difficult to enter. Freelancing often began as a source of second income and capitalized on years, even decades, of experience and knowledge of a certain industry. Thus, such accidental entrepreneurs brought with them a rich background of subject knowledge but often much less of technical knowledge of translation and business management, especially marketing, which they had to learn on the fly.

By contrast, the last decade has seen a growing number of people at the start of the professional life choosing the path of freelancing in general and translation in particular. Consequently, even before earning any significant money, they seek detailed knowledge and take courses, both free and paid, to prepare themselves for the challenge. This focus, fueled by ambition and the need to make a living, gives them a huge advantage in grasping trends and applying technology. On a technical level, they are off to a flying start. The issue sometimes is the depth of knowledge of the actual area of technology, e.g., medicine and law, as compared to their more experienced colleagues. Of course, both paths are legitimate.

Clearly, personal traits influence how people approach a profession. Elements such as income, technical success, comparative performance and life style balance have a varying impact on how people run their business. For me, money beyond a certain amount has never been a great motivator. (Otherwise, I would have never become a teacher first.) I also have a tendency to not ask questions and try to figure things out by myself. The reason for this stubborn insistence is that I enjoy the learning experience as much as  the actual result. The charm of working in translation is the joy of constant learning, whether in regard to content, business management or marketing. It is the complement of teaching, whose main variable is the students, not the process. Thus, I, maybe peculiarly, feed off the process of running a freelance translating business as much as the income. I freely admit that many freelancers have neither the inclination nor the luxury of relishing the road and must focus on making a living. Circumstances and tendences are very individual.

Regardless of the initial approach of freelancers to the business, incredibly rapid changes in technology, marketing, communication and business structure, to name a few, render any lesson learned today obsolete in five years. It is extremely difficult to find anybody whose client body, business practices and work  volume have not changed radically in the past few years, for good or bad. In practice, all freelancers, for that matter all businesses, must both plan for an uncertain future and learn by trial and error. Since nobody can accurately predict the future beyond the fact that much of life, including business, will be quite different in a decade, people, including freelancers, are left to the heuristic approach, ideally striving to learn from the experience of others, if possible, but mainly from their own experience, including mistakes. No business, small or large, is protected from constant change.

 It turns out that the roads to Rome, regardless of their classification, today have an amazing resemblance to the random staircases of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. The most efficient route is never quite certain. Thus, in my opinion, whether labeled the express route or service road, the road of a successful freelance translator is filled with surprises, which adds spice to it, at least in my opinion.

* Picture captions allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

Picture credit

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