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The Benefits of a Translator Collective: Staying Sane as a Freelance Translator

Freelancing can be isolating. Forming a working group with trusted colleagues can provide tangible and intangible benefits, including support from colleagues to avoid burnout.

Every freelancer must struggle at one point or another with balancing independence and solitude. I chose a career as a freelance Spanish>English translator in part due to this independence and to avoid a traditional business hierarchy and office politics. But 18 months after finishing my MA program, I found myself struggling with the solitude of being a freelancer working in a home office in a new city in Ohio where I had few friends. After a process of consideration, negotiation, and discussion, three colleagues and I decided to establish the Black Squirrel Translator Collective (BSTC), a working group that provides many tangible and intangible benefits, including helping each other avoid burnout.

How BSTC Got Started

ATA President Corinne McKay has written posts and presented on finding a “translation partner.”1 This person is someone you trust with whom you can work, bounce ideas off, and refer your clients to when you’re unavailable. When I heard Corinne present about this topic at an ATA Annual Conference, I immediately thought of several fellow graduates of the MA in Spanish Translation Program at Kent State University’s Institute of Applied Linguistics.

I already shared various interpersonal connections with these women. Victoria Chavez-Kruse was one year ahead of me in the MA program and connected me to an in-person translation internship in Spain after she completed it. Elizabeth Nelsen and Jamie Hartz were one year behind me, and I referred Elizabeth to the same internship in Spain after I completed it. Kent State University’s translation student organization paired me with Jamie Hartz as her “second year buddy” when she was an incoming first year MA student. Jamie had also met Victoria through a medical interpreting elective that Victoria took as a continuing education course.

After the four of us graduated, we often worked for the same clients and were sometimes paired up by agency project managers to edit each other’s work. We had also joined forces when we had job offers from direct clients. We spent long days in our solitary home offices in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Washington State. Emails would often fly back and forth when we had particularly difficult translation issues and wanted help. It seemed I already had some potential translation partners, but how to formalize the arrangement?

The seed planted by Corinne McKay grew into a full-blown search for a way for me to feel less alone while continuing to be my own boss.

I was inspired by Localingua, a translation agency founded in 2006 by Kent State University graduates, but decided I didn’t want to focus on translation management. I also interviewed a woman who had started a partnership translation agency and explored that idea with Victoria, but we decided it wasn’t the right path for us. Finally, forming a group where we could share work while still maintaining independent businesses seemed like the best route. So, Elizabeth, Jamie, Victoria, and I decided to create an informal collective with a recognizable name but no formal legal structure. This would make it easier to market ourselves, collaborate when necessary, and stay in contact with each other.

In October 2016, the Black Squirrel Translator Collective was born, named after the unofficial mascot of the city of Kent, Ohio. We provide either translation only, or translation, editing, and proofreading for Spanish>English projects, and each project has a designated project manager.

The Benefits 1

How BSTC works

We all continue to have our own clients, accept jobs as individual freelancers, and run our own separate business entities in our respective states. But we now use Slack, a group messaging platform, to hold asynchronous discussions on various topics on a daily basis and contact each other quickly if a multi-person job comes up or we need help. We schedule occasional “do it days”2 (another Corinne McKay suggestion) with video conference check-ins throughout the day as a means of holding ourselves accountable for crossing tasks off our to-do lists. In terms of promotion, we’ve inserted references to BSTC on our personal websites for search engine optimization purposes. We also pooled funds and hired a graphic designer to create a unique logo for use on BSTC business cards. We hand out these BSTC-branded business cards in addition to our own personal cards at ATA’s Annual Conference and promote the team to agencies, emphasizing that we can provide a small one-stop shop for translation, editing, and proofing services.

After the ATA Annual Conference, we each follow up with a few agencies, making that process much faster and easier than if we had to follow up individually. When we accept projects from a client for translation and editing, or translation, editing, and proofing, the designated project manager for that project is in charge of communicating with the client, calculating payments for the translator/editor/proofreader, submitting an invoice to the client, and paying BSTC members for their contributions. Each member involved in a project completes their part, raises any questions for others working on the project to discuss, and invoices the BSTC project manager for that project.

Advantages

Co-founding BSTC was by far the best business decision I’ve made in my translation career. The specific and measurable benefits from belonging to the collective are reflected in the additional money I’ve made from projects that I’ve participated in through the collective as a translator, editor, proofreader, or project manager. I’ve gained at least three new clients through no effort of my own because one of my fellow Squirrels, as we fondly refer to ourselves, brought a new client to the collective.

Since we share project management duties, our geographical dispersal allows us to be available to our clients for a wider chunk of the business day because we can hand off communication to someone in an earlier time zone. Several of us use Xero for our accounting software. Since we’re still individual business entities, we save time by submitting invoices to each other for BSTC jobs directly within the software, thus eliminating the need to manually enter this information. When one of us is on vacation or maternity leave, the other BSTC members step in to maintain the business relationships with our joint clients so we won’t lose them.

The less measurable benefits of BSTC are also numerous. I feel much less alone because when I need encouragement or want someone to share in my joy or frustration, I can count on one of my fellow Squirrels to be available within a few minutes via Slack. (In fact, all three other Squirrels are offering support and suggestions as I write this article.) We have a built-in community to weigh in on ethical conundrums. We can also offer each other feedback on new website copy, personal business card fonts and layouts, and whether or not to cut loose clients that have been causing headaches.

We even have fun message threads for non-work banter such as might occur around the water cooler in a traditional workplace: #furryfriends, where we share photos and silly stories about our pets and children; #latestjob, where we describe our most recent assignment in just five words; and my personal favorite, #haiku, where we describe our lives or work with short (and terrible) poems, such as “I love you so much / You’re the reason I function / An ode to coffee” by Jamie.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Working with the collective has been extremely beneficial to me, but involves a certain amount of interpersonal politics. To keep it running smoothly, we must be able to bring up potentially tough topics, including money issues and taxation. This was difficult for all of us in the beginning. We’ve held several rounds of discussion and negotiation to reach rates that are acceptable and fair for everyone, and we keep track of these and our projects workload through a shared Google Sheet that everyone can edit.

It can sometimes be difficult to find time for BSTC projects when our individual schedules are already full, so we’ve learned to let each other know when we’re unavailable. We sometimes bring in other trusted translators for projects, if permitted by the client, but sometimes have to turn down group projects because no one is available. Though our geographic dispersal is usually a benefit, deadlines can be a challenge if they are too late or too early for someone’s time zone. At the beginning, we took the time to write and approve job descriptions for each role in the translation process so that everyone knows what is expected when they step into a particular role, which has resulted in much smoother interactions. In short, despite the sometimes silly exchanges that take place within the collective, we make sure to act in a professional manner to ensure that the collaboration can continue smoothly.

Final Thoughts

I still love my solitary freelance life and my quiet home office, but working with my fellow Squirrels at BSTC has made my life much more balanced and sustainable. My office features a clipping from March 11, 2016, of a favorite comic by Sandy Bell-Lundy, “Between Friends.” This particular strip pictures a freelancer thinking to herself, “Sometimes I think being a freelancer working from home hasn’t been a good thing. My life is devoid of hustle and bustle and personal interaction and the synergy of office hoopla.” In the next two frames you see the character sitting with her feet up on her dog, cradling a mug of hot coffee as she sits back down to her computer. She says, “But then again . . . my life is devoid of hustle and bustle and personal interaction and the synergy of office hoopla.”3 Thanks to Elizabeth, Jamie, and Victoria, I feel I have the best of the hoopla without being overwhelmed by it.

Notes
  1. McKay, Corinne. “A Translation Partner: Why You Need One, Where to Find One,” Thoughts on Translation (August 18, 2015), http://bit.ly/McKay-partner.
  2. McKay, Corinne. “Getting It Done: Managing Your Time as a Freelancer,” Thoughts on Translation (December 3, 2012), http://bit.ly/McKay-time-management.
  3. Bell-Lundy, Sandy. Between Friends (March 11, 2016), http://bit.ly/Bell-Lundy.

Mary McKee is a freelance Spanish>English translator based in Seattle, Washington. She serves on the Editorial Board for The ATA Chronicle. She also serves on the board of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society, an ATA chapter. Contact: mary@mckeetranslation.com.

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