Best laid plans

This year has not been going the way I planned.

In January, I had a clear vision about how I wanted the year to pan out. I would continue to grow my business and work on those endless (and seemingly useless) agency applications.

I had moved past the wide-eyed, optimistic stage. I had realised how hard freelancing really is, but I was determined to keep going and excited about what would happen.

When I ended up teaching French for the first half of the year, I was less than enthusiastic about being diverted away from these plans. The French teacher in a local school suddenly left after the Christmas holidays and the school asked me to fill in. I reluctantly agreed.

But I have to admit I learnt a lot from the experience. Patience, mostly. I realised every experience is what you make it.

Planning and marking are the two things teachers dislike the most. But once I knew my students, I enjoyed planning for them and thinking of ways to help them progress. Marking was still boring but I got faster and found ways to make it bearable.

I seriously considered changing professions and teaching full-time. What put me off is that teachers, in this country at least, are overworked and struggle to find a work-life balance. Their holidays are often spent planning and stressing, and they are constantly subject to new policies and schemes.

I knew I would no longer have time for the things I enjoy, the things that fulfil me and keep me going: language learning, writing, and translation.

I am very grateful for the lessons I learned as a teacher and for the people I met. As a freelancer, it’s useful to have several strings to your bow. I know that door is open for me should I wish to change paths.

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Beautiful leaving flowers from the school

Since completing my teaching spell, I have renewed energy and enthusiasm for my freelance activities. Juggling teaching, translation and other activities was exhausting. I initially loved the variety in my week but quickly got tired of it. I craved stability and routine.

Now I’m back to freelancing for a content marketing company and I’ve been doing more copywriting than translation; this was another unexpected development – not that I’m complaining. This position allows me to set aside time for Spanish lessons and for developing my Gujarati. And I hope to finally set a date for my driving test some time soon!

In a recent blog post, Lucinda Brooks of eCPD Webinars talked about the unexpected turns in her life that brought her to where she is today. She traces back her experiences to her grandmother’s love for swimming in the sea – a love that took the family to Tarragona in Spain.

She asked other translators to recount how chance events created new openings in their lives. She notes that, a knowledge of other languages was the key to those new openings. And for me, that is the most important thing.

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‘The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.’ – Eleanor Roosevelt

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A recent day out in Bournemouth
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An update: teaching and a trip to Jerusalem

It’s been a while since my last blog post – I’ve been a on a hiatus from the translation world and working as a French teacher in a local secondary school. It’s a temporary position but it is nonetheless time-consuming, especially combined with my other commitments.

I was initially reluctant to take on the role as it is outside of my comfort zone, but then I decided to embrace it as a new experience and use it to expand my skill-set. After all, freelancing (and life in general!) is unpredictable and constantly offers fresh challenges. Teaching is simply a different way to apply my linguistic skills.

It is also an opportunity to persuade young people that learning languages has many uses. Many of the young women I’m teaching seem to think that learning French is pointless – ‘Miss, when am I ever going to need French?’. Picture my horrified face. Any suggestions on how I can persuade them otherwise are most welcome. In the meantime, I’ll be catching up on endless marking (Reasons not to become a teacher #1).

'I presume you're the substitute teacher?'
‘I presume you’re the substitute teacher?’

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I just got back from an Easter break to Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem, and the cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, are home to the three holiest sites in Islam. Travelling always teaches us about another language and culture, but making a pilgrimage to places of worship is an entirely unique encounter with different ways of life. For a start, the British penchant for queuing becomes particularly pronounced!

I found the people of Jerusalem to be friendly and warm. One morning, as we walked back from the dawn prayer at Al-Aqsa mosque (which was at 5 0’clock by the way), an elderly lady joined us, just to have some company as she walked back home. Foreign visitors are made to feel very welcome, and hospitality is clearly inherent to the local culture.

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The Dome of the Rock
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The Old City
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Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old City

Coming back to London always feels like a shock after a visit to Mecca and Medina, as there are thousands of people gathered there at practically all times of year. During the Hajj season, which falls in September this year, there are roughly three million pilgrims. It can be overwhelming, especially if it is your first time.

The pilgrims have one obvious thing in common: their reason for visiting. The rites themselves and the prayers to be observed are the same for everyone. However, it is interesting to observe the subtle differences between groups of pilgrims. It can be the way they place their hands during prayer or the colours they wear. In my culture, it is considered highly disrespectful to place the Quran on the floor, while in others it is completely normal. The pilgrimage is a lesson in tolerance, patience and understanding.

After a truly beautiful and life-changing journey, I feel rejuvenated and ready  to get back to work (yes, really!) with fresh perspective and the best intentions.

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The Grand Mosque of Mecca, known as the Masjid al-Haram, is currently undergoing a fourth expansion to accommodate two million more worshippers.
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A model of the Grand Mosque, including the new extension
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Masjid Al-Nabawi in Medina
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This model shows how the original Masjid Al-Nabawi would have looked in 622, with a roof of palm leaves supported by palm trunks.

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Dealing with stress

Sorry if the length of this post stresses you out. Apparently, when it comes to stress I have a lot to say.

Stress affects all freelancers, not just translators. Knowing that you alone are responsible for earning a living sometimes gets overwhelming. I feel as if I am always thinking about my business, even when I’m not working. I’m constantly thinking of new ideas and ways to develop and expand. This is because I am passionate about what I do but it is not necessarily healthy, as it can all get too much from time to time.

Becoming a freelance translator is not just about translating. Of course, your translation and interpreting skills are paramount, and you should set aside time to brush up on those skills. Then you need to make sure you continue to work on your languages too, which in my case are French, Spanish and Gujarati. It’s also a good idea to stay up to date with developments in the industry, by attending events and reading books and articles. And you absolutely have to stay on top of the administrative side of running a business. It’s a very long list of Things to Do.

The best way to deal with this is to be organised. I always have my diary open at my desk, and each day has two columns. One column is for jobs and appointments, and the second column is for things to do. (By the way, how great is this diary?) I try to keep my phone calendar updated too because I can access it wherever I am. I have a weekly schedule where I have allocated time slots for paid and unpaid work, so that I don’t fall behind on admin and professional development. For instance, on Mondays, I have allocated an hour for interpreting practice before starting work at 9. On Tuesdays, I would use this time to check my accounts.

The problem is that every week is different so it’s hard to get into a routine. I feel stressed when I can’t keep to my schedule but I have accepted that it won’t always be possible. For instance, if an interpreting job comes up at the last minute, I have to make this a priority. I have to be flexible and adjust to circumstances.

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As freelancers, we are very ambitious and we want to achieve so much. My schedule is a reflection of this. I have played around with it to make it more achievable although I’m not sure I’ve succeeded yet. It’s hard not to look at other freelancers and think, wow, he/she seems to be doing so many things, I need to be doing more. That is a treacherous path to tread and I’ve realised that I should focus on what is achievable for me. I can benefit from the advice of experienced professionals without necessarily comparing myself to them.

Surroundings impact stress levels as well. I need a tidy space to work in. If my space is cluttered, my brain feels cluttered. It doesn’t help that my office space is also my bedroom. I am very fortunate to have a big loft all to myself, but it is difficult to escape from work when I am always surrounded by it. One of my solutions is to have a bare desk, with only my computer screens, a diary and a lamp. That way, I feel like I have a dedicated work space.

It is important to be able to find a balance between your personal and professional life. Technology makes it so easy to be switched on at all times. It may be past 5 but you can still check emails, tweet or read blogs. It’s not necessarily work but you’re still thinking about work in your personal time. It’s one of the reasons why I love my weekly yoga class. I walk into the room and I know I’m there for one thing only, so I can switch off.

As a freelancer, you’re always worried you’ll miss out. 5 minutes away from your phone or laptop could mean you lose a job. It’s why I’m not a fan of job platforms. You have to watch them constantly and respond straight away. I can see the value of these platforms but it seems exhausting and stressful in the long term. Ideally, if you can build a relationship with a client, you’ll be the only one they want. So I’d rather focus on making myself stand out, even if I’m not making enough in the meantime. But of course, earning so little is another trigger of stress.

Regret:

I am lucky to have friends in the industry who understand the challenges I face, and they always offer a sympathetic ear when I am stressed. To be honest, I feel guilty complaining to them when I have so many positive things in my life! However, everyone needs an outlet to deal with stress and I prefer to talk about it (had you noticed?).

The key is to stay positive (sorry, I know it’s cliché). We are often too hard on ourselves. When I really think about it, I’ve done plenty of great things this year. Starting this blog for one thing. So I will leave you with some advice. First, write down your reasons for doing what you do. Why did you decide to become a translator? Why did you choose to go freelance instead of working in-house? Or vice-versa. Second, keep a log of your achievements, big or small. Sometimes it’s the smallest things which give me a buzz.

When you get stressed, go back and look at these two lists. It will remind you why you’re on this path and that you’re good at what you do.

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Finding ways to reduce stress and therefore, cortisol levels is beneficial to your long-term health - www.awakening-intuition.com:

When your native language feels like a foreign language

Although my working languages are French and English, my native language is actually Gujarati. Gujarati was my first language and it was all I spoke as a child. Once I started school, Gujarati was replaced by English, making brief appearances every time I visited my grandparents or went to community events.

Gujarati is native to the Indian state of Gujarat and it is spoken by over 50 million people worldwide.

I fell in love with French at school and it became an important part of my professional and personal life. But when I finished my studies, I realised that adding Gujarati to my working languages would make me stand out. Considering that it is my native language, you’d be forgiven for thinking that working with Gujarati is straightforward for me.

However, until earlier this year, I didn’t know how to read and write Gujarati. Initially, it seemed like a momentous task but once I got stuck in, with the help of a friend’s mum, I got through the letters fairly quickly. The difficult part is learning to read at a normal pace. Luckily, Gujarati is a phonetic language so everything is written as it is pronounced. My knowledge of French phonetics was indispensable as I knew how to use IPA symbols to distinguish between similar sounds.

Once you have mastered one language, learning subsequent languages becomes easier. This is true even when two languages are as different as French and Gujarati. Since I have studied French intensively for a long time, I have learnt about different aspects of language which I can now apply to Gujarati. In particular, I find it easier to grasp grammatical concepts like the difference between tenses.

An area that I struggle with is learning vocabulary. The language I use with my family is specific to our region of Gujarat so standard Gujarati, meaning Gujarati used in school or in the media, sounds very different to me. Even within my own community, I have found variation in everyday words like ‘kitchen’. This means that new vocabulary is often unfamiliar, whereas in my Spanish classes, I regularly spot similarities between French and Spanish words.

As I have always spoken Gujarati informally, it makes sense that I feel more confident in French. I know that I can speak French correctly and adapt to different contexts, both formal and informal. As I don’t yet feel this level of competence in Gujarati, I would rather work on my skills before adding Gujarati to my working languages. I hope I will then be able to offer the same high quality of translation and interpreting as I currently offer in French.

Other than the clear professional benefits of mastering Gujarati, it brings me personal satisfaction to reawaken a connection with my country of origin, le pays natal. I can now decipher my grandmother’s writing, mostly on labels in her kitchen. Instead of using Gujarati words, she often labels her jars in English but using Gujarati script. I was amused to discover that she had spelled ‘sugar’ as she pronounces it: soogar.

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My family’s home town: Tadkeshwar, Gujarat

What’s the point of doing a Masters in translation?

This is a big debate in the translation community and I’m going to add my two cents.

First of all, I did my MA in Translation and Interpreting at the University of Westminster. It’s a practical course introducing you to the main areas of translation and interpreting. The course is taught and run by passionate translators and interpreters, many of whom still work in the industry themselves.

The course teaches you about different types of translation. You learn that you can’t approach a contract in the same way as a newspaper article. You might realise that you prefer translating the article, and definitely don’t want to look at a contract ever again. You learn how to research terms and look for credible sources. You learn the importance of proofreading. You don’t finish your homework and hope you don’t get picked on in class to share your shoddy translation, regretting it later. You learn from your peers and admire they way they manage to grasp nuances that completely elude you.

In interpreting classes, you learn that there are three types of interpreting: public service, consecutive and simultaneous. You learn how to prepare for any of these and how to make glossaries. You figure out what to do when you hear a term you don’t know. You get used to embarrassing yourself in front of your peers during practice. You are totally intimidated in your first lesson of simultaneous interpreting and quake in your boots every time you get into the booth. Your teacher bluntly points out the tics in your speech so that you become a better public speaker (mine was ‘umm’).  You leave every lesson completely exhilarated and raring to do it again.

You also make wonderful friends that stick around once the masters is done.

Yes I know, my shoes are awesome.
Yes I know, my shoes are awesome.

Do I recommend it? Yes, absolutely! (If you can afford it of course.)

The course gave me a solid grounding in translation and interpreting as disciplines, while also providing me with tools and resources I needed to set up a translation business. I did an optional module called Developing Professionalism where we covered the practical aspects of working in the industry, such as writing CVs and managing finances. We also had guest speakers every now and then, including Marta Stelmaszak, who had us enthralled with her interpreting experiences, and Helen Oclee-Brown, who introduced us to a whole load of IT tools we’d never heard of! We also had workshops every Friday which were open to all translation/interpreting students, and covered general knowledge topics like the English legal system or the etymology of medical terms. Throughout the year, there were additional events, such as Meet the Client organised at Westminster with the ITI London Regional Network, bringing together agencies and translators.

To answer the question What’s the point of doing a Masters in translation?, I think it is a sound starting point for your career. For me, it was indispensable. I didn’t know much about the profession beforehand so everything was new to me. During my degree, I took to my language studies quite easily but the MA taught me that having excellent language skills is not enough to succeed as a translator. It was a challenge that I relished but it also taught me humility. I felt a sense of achievement when I completed the course and the MA qualification makes me feel like a credible professional. When I have moments of doubt over my abilities, it’s one of the things that reminds me that I can do this job. You have to remember though, that a Masters is only the beginning. It is only through experience that you can improve your skills as an academic and professional.

Mistakes:

Reunion Island – the beginning of my translation journey

I know it seems like I’m taking advantage of Reunion being in the news but it was always going to feature on this blog. It’s just that now everyone knows where it is! I spent my third year of university in Reunion studying on the Erasmus programme. Fortunately for me, my university had just set up a partnership with theirs, and since I have family there, it was an ideal choice for my year abroad.

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Before I left, I hadn’t done much translation at all. It seems strange to me now but my university course didn’t actually include any translation modules until final year, so my first proper introduction to translation was in Reunion. We had a class for translating into English (thème) and one for translation into French (version), so I didn’t realise then that professional translators only translate into their native language.

My thème classes stand out most in my memory. My teacher was all the way from Scotland; she’d been living in Reunion for many years and she had been one of the first (if not the first) English teachers on the island. I loved her classes because she was so passionate and I think some of her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. We mostly did literary translation – nothing like what I do now – such as excerpts from crime fiction by Fred Vargas or Georges Simenon.

In those days, I didn’t even know that translation software existed. I did all my homework by hand on that special ruled paper they use in France, and with a fountain pen no less. I’d find it hard to do a handwritten translation if I tried now, and I definitely wouldn’t have the time. What a luxury it was to have a whole week for a 250-word text. It makes me unbearably nostalgic thinking of those lessons, hot sun shining down outside and an ocean view not far off. A world away from my current work space!

Will I ever pick up a pen again?
Will I ever pick up a pen again?

I learnt in Reunion that translation skills are to some extent, innate. Speaking two languages is not enough to be a good translator; I am conscious of this more and more every day. Back then, I did very well in my translation exams and I could see I had a knack for it. More importantly, I absolutely loved translating. Of course, when I did my Masters two years afterwards, I met a whole bunch of other people with exceptional language and translation skills so I knew I still had so much to learn.

My Erasmus experience taught me a lot and it has marked my life in several ways. Even then, I instinctively knew I wanted to become a translator (and interpreter!) but I could never have imagined being where I am today. My experience even inspired my MA dissertation project, which was about translating from French into Creole, but that’s a topic for another day..

Arts & Humanities Building
Arts & Humanities Building
The ocean was never far away..
The ocean was never far away..

My first year as a freelancer

Firstly, hello and welcome to my blog!

So who am I? I’m a freelance translator and interpreter working from French to English. It’s been about a year now so I’d like to kick-start my blog by telling you what I’ve been up to.

My goal was always to work as a freelancer straight after university, despite the challenges. A lack of financial security can hold graduates back from freelancing but living at home has given me the freedom to develop my business. I also have a freelance position at a PR company, allowing me to pay for expenses, and invest in my business. I’ve used the flexibility of freelancing to make time for learning, learning, and more learning!

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One of the main challenges as a newbie is to gain experience. I think I’ve been lucky as I’ve translated a variety of texts over the last year. I found a mentor through ProZ.com (not a plug, I assure you) and she regularly sends work my way. In exchange for a discounted rate, she gives me feedback on my translations, offers advice and provides me with references. Ideally, every freelancer would have a mentor when starting out. I’ve read articles and forum discussions about mentoring so I hope it will eventually become standard practice. I don’t know how I would have gained experience without the help of a mentor.

Logically the first point of call to get work is agencies. I’ve managed to register with a few agencies and as this first year comes to an end, I’ve started to get a trickle of job offers too. It isn’t easy to get signed up with agencies; there are long application forms, requirements for experience or specific software, reference requests, and so on. It can be tough to convince an agency to take you on without previous experience. For instance, if an agency needs a reference from someone in the translation field, and you haven’t got previous translation experience, providing a reference is impossible. You just have to be patient and keep at it until someone gives you a break.

This brings me to one of the main turning points of the year: Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School for Translators. At the moment, I have to think hard about the utility of paying for courses or events. This is one investment I will never regret. Since the course, I’ve started to look at my work as a business, and Marta has given me plenty of tools and ideas to help me progress. I feel more confident so I’m trying out things I wouldn’t have done before, from tweeting to contributing to forums to starting this blog! The school’s alumni group is equally as generous with their support and advice. I also did Oliver Lawrence’s Clear Writing course so even as I write, I’m going back to reread my sentences and trim them down. It’s hard work, I tell you.

Finally, perhaps my proudest achievement, I learnt to read Gujarati. I am a native speaker but I’d never learnt to write. I’ve always wanted to, and now seemed like a good time as I can make use of it professionally. Of course, I read like a child but it’s so much fun and very satisfying! I also completed Grade 2 Spanish on the Polylang programme at the University of Westminster and I hope to start Grade 3 in September. I did my MA at Westminster and I can’t quite let go yet!

So there you have it – my first year. I’m excited to find out what happens next! Follow my blog and join me on my journey.