Mental Health in Freelance Translation: Setting Boundaries
This post is a reblog, originally published by Zingword on November 5, 2020. It is reposted with permission from the author.
I recently had a brief discussion on mental health with an acquaintance who also works as a freelance translator, and they said something that really stuck with me: “No one ever taught me that you can say no to a translation project.”
This phrase really got me thinking about why freelance translators have such a hard time setting boundaries. For many translators, this often has to do with the way our local market works or the way many of us perceive it to work— if you won’t do it, and if you won’t do it at the offered rate, someone else will surely swoop in. Also, your clients can’t afford higher rates. Then there’s the additional anxiety-inducing perception that, if you say no just this once, you will lose the client entirely, which goes double for those of us who suffer from imposter syndrome. Adding on to the whole thing, many freelance translators are facing uncertainty at this very moment — so how can they allow themselves to say no to things when there’s no clear indication that they will receive translation projects in the future?
Oftentimes, this means that a translator might:
- accept more projects than it is feasible for them to do well,
- accept low-paying projects in fear of not being able to make ends meet,
- accept working with disrespectful clients,
- start feeling dissatisfied with their work, as well as quite helpless,
- fall prey to burnout, or
- fail to grow their business.
While our job, by virtue of its freelancing nature, does require us to take on a lot at certain times, this shouldn’t be the cardinal rule of our work as self-employed translators. Not only can it damage the quality of our work, it can also take away the freedom we were aiming for when we chose this path. As freelance copywriter and author Sarah Townsend put it in an upcoming episode of the Driven Female Entrepreneur Podcast, “we become our own boss, and then we lose sight of that expression.”
This attitude that many of us take on is not a healthy one and, while financial pressures might make crossing our boundaries necessary at times, there are no long-term benefits to doing so.
What are boundaries and why do we need them?
As I suppose any translator does, I like to define what I’m covering before I delve into it. In simplified terms, boundaries are the lines we don’t want other people to cross, be they physical, emotional or work-related. They help us identify our own needs and capabilities, and clearly setting them helps us gain some control over how we’re perceived by the people we’re surrounded with — clients included. Here’s a graphic from an article by PositivePsychology that sums it up quite nicely:
When it comes to work, therefore, setting healthy professional boundaries can help us gain a sense of autonomy, achieve a better work-life balance and avoid burnout. In more general terms, setting boundaries helps us increase our sense of self-worth, leading to a higher degree of confidence and feeling like we’re living in a way that is authentic to ourselves.
If you’ve chosen the freelance translation path, you have most likely done so out of an intrinsic need to work independently and in a way that fits your drive for authenticity. However, and at the same time, it is entirely possible that setting boundaries is not a skill you’ve acquired, due to personal issues you’ve come across throughout your life, or simply the circumstances of your job described in the introduction.
Luckily, freelance translators are masters at gaining new skills, and the ability to say “no” when we need to can help us change the way we perceive our work, and ourselves as professionals.
How to set boundaries as a freelance translators
Understanding your individual circumstances and capacity should always take primacy over any and all freelancing mental health strategies suggested by a blog post — even one on the Zingblog.
However, here are some suggestions you might benefit from in creating a more authentic outlook, workflow and professional relationships as a translator.
Take control of your work & comm flow
First off, grabbing the reins of the time you spend working and finding ways to manage your energy is key in establishing healthy boundaries for your freelance translation work. Here are some steps you can take in that direction:
- Establish your working hours. This includes time you spend on actual translation, but also the time you spend communicating with clients. If feasible, try to answer emails and inbox messages regarding your current and future translation projects during the working hours you’ve set for yourself. This will help your clients understand when you are available, and allow them to respect your free time. You could let them know when you’re available to talk via email, put the hours on your website, or include them in your Zingword profile.
- Be realistic when setting or accepting a deadline. We often let our clients’ needs precede our own capabilities, but a client worth your while will understand that, as a freelancing professional, you are not always available to take care of their project in the allotted time. If they don’t, try to get that point across in a direct, yet respectable way. This will help them understand where you’re coming from and manage their expectations for future projects.
- Make your prices known. Your clients need to know what they’re paying for, so make sure to let them know the rates you work for, and the conditions under which those rates might go up. Be it urgent deadlines or any other factor we translators know will cost us more time and energy than a garden-variety project (if there even is such a thing), make sure your client is clear on the fact that your work does not come for free — even if it is “just a minor detail.”
Request all the info you need
Translation clients are also not always aware what exactly translation entails and may neglect to mention important details in their brief. Having to check with them every two days takes up both of your time, so try to pose all the important questions from the outset. If the project you were asked to do is not confidential and/or is relatively short, ask them to allow you to review the text (film, website, etc.) so you can gain some perspective and figure out what kind of information you need to ask for before beginning the project.
Some clients may not understand why this information is important or might respond with “oh, just do X the same as in the source text.” If this happens, try to communicate the importance of the information and the effect it will have for the client in the long run. In short, don’t spend unpaid time on seeking out info you should have been given in the first place.
Take no disrespect
I.e., do not allow yourself to be treated unfairly, as an afterthought, or as if you were an employee, not an independent professional. Clients ask a lot of freelance translators, and some of them can act like they have the right to ask for even more, and talk down to you while doing so.
Remember that you’re the professional here. Your client might be the one paying, but you’re the one providing your expertise — it’s their project, but it’s your business. As a professional translator, it’s only fair that you get treated with the same respect you give your clients. Zingword will soon include a feature we’re currently calling “flag punks” that will allow you to remove those types from your work life, but until then, stick up for yourself, and fear not — the clients you want will understand this.
Seek out the type of client you want
Speaking of which, there’s a great tactic many freelance translation experts use in improving their business and getting rid of the less than favorable circumstances of their work, and that is creating a buyer persona. Also known as the ideal customer, customer avatar or target client, this concept helps you identify how to gear your marketing towards the types of people you want to work with, and help you seek them out. With time, you might find that you don’t really have to deal with disrespect or unreasonable deadlines to earn your money. Here are some great resources for creating your own target persona to get you started:
- Creating a customer avatar for your freelance translation business by Tess Whitty
- How to Define your Target Clients and Land your First Translation Assignments by Chiara Grassilli
- Content Marketing for Translators: Creating your buyer persona by Maeva Cifuentes
Be honest and consistent
Lastly, and most importantly, be consistent with your boundaries. Being flaky about where you stand and how far you allow yourself to be pushed can make your clients think they can just pop in with whatever, whenever. So be honest about the way you want your freelance translation business to work, and, if exceptions have to be made, make it absolutely clear that they will not turn into common practice.
Bonus tip: Take your time
You may be looking at our suggestions and thinking, “Wow, so with all I have going on, I also have to invest energy into explaining stuff that should be straightforward anyway?”
And my answer is, pretty much. But also, not exactly. Setting boundaries is a gradual process and you can’t just turn the tables from one moment to the next. So be patient with yourself and your work while you’re learning what your boundaries are and how you can keep them in place. With time and consistency, you’ll get to where you want to be, and you’ll find it less and less difficult to say “no” when you need to.
And remember: your work is in your hands.
About the Author
Julija Savić is the resident wordsmith and content manager at Zingword, an innovative platform for freelance translators that modernizes and facilitates translator-client collaboration. She is also a freelance Croatian-English audiovisual translator, specializing in independent cinema. She holds a BA in English and Portuguese, and is currently pursuing an MA in Anglophone Literature and Culture. She strives to create positive change in the translation industry through helping develop Zingword, knowledge sharing and mental health activism. Check out her other writing on translation at the Zingblog.
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