“What are the pros and cons of being a professional translator?”

Freelance translation work can be something of an emotional roller coaster.

The downsides

The biggest downside for me is the isolation. My days are spent sitting at my computer on my own, battling distractions of every sort – from a retired husband to Whatsapp messages from friends – and an assortment of minor middle-aged aches and pains. Contacts with colleagues are almost non-existent and my own work-related contacts consist almost entirely of terse agency project leaders and verbose university lecturers, the only clues to whose personalities are often their holiday-snap profile pictures. You need to be happy with your own company and have oodles of self-discipline to make this work. And an ability not to let the niggling insecurities this type of work can spawn get on top of you, especially given the very little feedback on their work most translators get.

Next in the list of cons is definitely the tight time frames. Agencies trying to win over clients take on impossibly tight deadlines and then pass the buck to translators. University lecturers with writer’s block between the publisher-in-a-hurry rock and the research-intricacies hard place need your translation yesterday. Sleepless nights can be the result.

Then there’s the irregular income. One minute you’re turning down several jobs a day and the next you’re twiddling your thumbs wondering whether you should get out and do something else… or perhaps that email is just about to come in. It’s difficult to foresee when the work will come in, and so difficult to take time out.

The upsides

But there are pros and they’re big ones. For me the greatest positive about freelance translating is the freedom it gives you to work from anywhere. These last six months alone have seen me beavering away from a Greek seaside flat, a Tuscan hotel, a train and the home of my elderly mother. There aren’t many jobs that give you this degree of freedom of movement.

Another very personal one is the astonishing range of insights it gives you into other people’s lives. I’m sure I would never have learnt so much about the most incredible variety of subjects and sectors if I hadn’t gone into translation. And for an inveterate people-watcher and sociologist-manqué like me, nothing could be more fascinating. Friends are sometimes amazed by the apparently random – and generally rather useless – facts occasionally, and unpredictably, springing forth from the recesses of my memory.

There’s no doubt that translation is also a great component in what now seems to go by the name of ‘portfolio career’ and can be fit in around other work commitments, too.

My own second job is in hiking tourism and it’s a great combination – one active and people-focused, the other solitary and sedentary. And then there’s the teaching ‘third’…

So all in all, I’m glad I got into it and grateful for the lifestyle pluses it gives me. It’s a job which keeps you on your toes in more ways than one.

Isabelle Johnson (MA History Oxon, PGCE, Dip Trans) is a freelance translator/proofreader, hiking tour guide/organiser and teacher living in the Italian Dolomites.