The Curse of the Freelance Translator: lack of self-esteem?

The Curse of the Freelance Translator: lack of self-esteem?

In our continuing series of guest posts by eminent bloggers on translation, we are thrilled to publish this post by Claire Cox, whose blog Lines from a Linguist is a favourite for us. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Cox16.

I can’t help noticing that a good many freelance translators seem to suffer from a lack of self-esteem. Forgive me generalising, as I know this doesn’t apply across the board, but it crops up time and time again in my dealings with other translators and I can’t help wondering why this should be. Perhaps it’s a translator’s innate tendency to be more on the introverted end of the spectrum, as I’ve written before, on a number of occasions, or perhaps it’s just the fact that we tend to work in isolation and thus get out of the habit of promoting ourselves… Either way, it does us no favours when you consider that we are all, each and every one of us, trying to run a business.

I’ve come across a number of examples of this problem only recently. A couple of weeks ago I had cause to contact a number of colleagues about their rates for a contract to be outsourced for a direct client and was amazed how many people simply left their rates the same as they had been before, and the time before that, and so on – some of these rates haven’t changed for getting on for 8 years! If you look back over an 8-year period, to what you were paying for electricity bills, or haircuts, or even food or petrol, I can guarantee that there will most definitely have been an increase! I don’t understand why a freelance professional should not feel sufficiently confident in their abilities to moot a price rise!

Then again, I was contacted only last week by a colleague of a colleague who I’d helped out with some specialist terminology, seeking contacts in the opposite language direction to my own. I duly passed on the names of a couple of translators, some of whom I’ve worked with, but others who I merely know by reputation. In thanking me, the colleague once-removed (!) commented that he didn’t understand how these particular translators made a living, charging half of what he regarded as a going rate… I don’t either, especially as I’ve seen samples of some of their work and I know it’s quality stuff!

Then again, many translators are reluctant to take up new technology, such as CAT tools, or speech recognition software, hiding behind the excuse that they’re not tech-savvy and will get into all sorts of problems. As for going out into the real world and meeting other translators, or even clients, that’s also often perceived as a step too far.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not intending to be patronising or arrogant or über-critical. I too wouldn’t have said boo to a goose in my younger days, but with age comes experience, and it’s only by doing things and believing in yourself that you can start to change how you perceive yourself, and how others perceive you.

I think it’s so important to recognise that we have a really useful skill, one that increasingly few people have, and that we really need to value ourselves, so that we can ensure others value what we have to offer. I recall saying to a friend once that, whilst I knew I was a good translator, it was hard to persuade other people to value what we do. She looked askance, as though I shouldn’t have had the temerity to blow my own trumpet – yet she is a medical consultant and would automatically expect me to accept that she is good at what she does!

I personally have been able to change my level of confidence in my abilities by getting out there and meeting other translators, whether virtually or in the flesh. Twitter and Facebook offer great opportunities for keeping your finger on the pulse of the world of translation and finding out what fellow professionals are up to. There are a number of excellent groups on Facebook where translators discuss all matters under the sun, from client problems to what to charge for an urgent job to how to deal with new challenges. Standing Out and Watercooler are two that come to mind, but there are plenty of others, supportive communities of like-minded professionals facing the same day-to-day issues as each of us and offering support and morale-boosting words of encouragement. Sometimes you just need someone to say that they’ve experienced the same thing; sometimes, those words of encouragement can give you the impetus you need to stand your ground and insist on a higher rate for an urgent job, or for working over the weekend; and suddenly, you find that you feel better about yourself and what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.

Attending translation events or conferences is another brilliant way of boosting your confidence. It’s an ideal opportunity to discuss your world with other people who really understand the issues at stake, and who may well suggest solutions you hadn’t thought of. I love it when people tell me that they’ve invested in speech recognition software after reading my blog or chatting to me at a workshop, just as I know I’ve learnt so much from attending industry events and learning from fellow professionals. Online offerings such as webinars or ITI’s SUFT course can be a great way to dip your toe into the external translation market too – less daunting than leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself out there, they can nonetheless keep you up-to-date with a whole range of business, technical and specialist areas of interest that might otherwise have passed you by.

I’m sure, deep-down, that we all believe that we are good at what we do and take pride in our work. What we need to do is to gain the confidence to show that to the world, and boost the image of the profession as a whole.



  1. Gabriel Figueroa

    That’s good Claire. But rates currently depend on the country. Different countries, varying rates. I personally think that there should be an international rate. I think you speak about Mexico, Am I right? I’m in Peru, and see how this activity is increasingly turning into a borderless professional one. It would also be good to provide some numbers to be able to better understand your point.

  2. I think that almost everyone asked himself the question – ” What I deserve ? ” at least once in a lifetime. And I believe that optimism in this case has to win, because if you ask yourself this question – then you are not useless.

  3. Rania Filfil

    Interesting article. I am a translator/ interpreter working in three active and one passive languages. Sometimes, I feel humbled by technical people (doctors, engineers, etc.) who know their field thoroughly and can speak about it in all of these languages. But, they still come to me to do professional translation. I learned that what mattered in addition to the exactitude is the styling. They know their field sometimes too well to write for ordinary people. I also combine translation and interpretation and adapt skills accordingly. We have a problem with rates here in Palestine since we do not have a syndicate/ union to organize the profession. So, many people sit for the ‘certified translator’s exam’ and get the ‘stamp’. The differentiation is really in the subtitling, translation of books and other “to publish” material.

    But, people without our skills are also intimidated by ‘how we do it’. Thank you really for this article.

  4. This is a very interesting blog Claire. I couldn’t agree more when you said ” really need to value ourselves, so that we can ensure others value what we have to offer.” It really is true, if you believe in your work, people will believe in it to.

    When i joined SDL, I was new to the translation industry so whenever I attend events I always make sure that I’m networking to understand the industry more. In my opinion, getting your face out there and networking is vitally important not only to boost your confidence but also to ensure you are getting noticed.

    I couldn’t comment on here without mentioning about social media, as this is what I live for. Maybe you are a bit shy at first, so social media is a great way to network online before meeting your fellow translators or clients face to face. As you said Claire, online communities are supportive, so don’t be afraid to throw yourself in at the deep end.

  5. Claire, yes, you are generalizing and I can’t forgive you. Half tongue-in-cheek, of course. You see, we are writers in foreign languages, not psychologists, therapists or mental health professionals to make that unsubstantiated assumption (okay, an assumption is, by definition, an unsubstantiated opinion) that there’s a problem of low self-esteem.

    All things being equal, to even consider that a group of professionals who may shun the latest technologies or who express reluctance about self promotion is suffering from low self-esteem is, quite frankly, patronizing and even insulting. It’s such a personal judgment to pass on people!

    So you’re espousing this low self-esteem theory without supporting data, only anecdotal evidence. That doesn’t speak well about your research methods.

  6. Aizaz Baqir

    This is a good analysis of the translators plight, but the cause is that publishers mafia is exploiting the translators skills (at least in Pakistan, where I live) and most of the assignments are not received directly through clients but through publishers. These publishers offer very low rate and often are willing to compromise on quality to make fast buck. The main problems are as follow:
    i) Every book that has been once published in any original language can’t be translated by the translator on the offer of the author (if they both are able to establish a direct contact with each other and author is also willing to get the work translated) because translations rights are always with the publishers who decide the rate on the basis of making maximum profit by paying less and less to the translator. I had had that kind of experience many times when some authors showed their willingness to get their work translated by me (from English into Urdu) but asked me to contact the publishers for translations rights (who sell these rights and don’t give a free right)

    ii) Publisher also don’t sell these rights to individuals and only to publishers.

    iii) There is no standardisation and certification criteria to know and establish the skill of a translator. I have been in this profession for nearly 12 years (full time) and have also been issued a certificate by National Language Authority of Pakistan and have very good reputation with regard to my skills, but in vain as publishers are paying the same rates since the last ten years (One dollar per 300 words average page).

    I think that this profession or trade needs governmental patronage and regularisation and there should also be translators’ associations and societies at international level to address the important issues of wages and standardisation as well as of establishing the prestige of translators.

  7. What a fantastic article, I agree with so much of what you say. I have been a technical translator in 9 languages since 1970 so I know what you are talking about. In the near future I am thinking of moving to France whilst continuing my freelance activity, but I was wondering whether you know of any possibilities of physically joining forces with other fellow freelancers who actually live in communities to combine language skills and pairs for companies and clients. I know of no such communities in this country but perhaps they exist in other countries. I would be grateful for any information on this.

    • Thanks, Roger. I’m afraid I don’t know of any groups of translators in the physical sense, but there are a number of online communities which serve the same purpose in this virtual day and age. The “Standing Out” Group on Facebook has an Exchange where people can post jobs and seek revisers/proofreaders or look for colleagues to collaborate on large projects. There are also language networks within the professional associations (I’m thinking specifically of ITI, but the ATA has these too) that serve the same purpose. By getting yourself known on these groups, and possiblY attending local networking events or even conferences further afield, it’s perfectly possible to create your own virtual community of trusted colleagues.

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