Linguist in the Spotlight – John Milan
There is much to be learned from our colleagues, but it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with the “pros.” For that reason, we at Savvy have done the work for you in our Linguist in the Spotlight interview series, where we pick the brains of experienced translators and interpreters and bring their stories right to your screen. We hope their stories and sound advice will inspire and encourage you as you forge your career in the translation and interpretation (T&I) industry.
In this interview, John Milan, an economist, business consultant, ATA-certified translator, copy editor, and lecturer specialized in economics, finance, banking, contracts, labor disputes, international trade/development, and law, shares the key to choosing specializations that will provide you with financial stability over the long term and what a day at the office looks like for him, as a translator providing more than one service offering.
Q: Are you a freelancer or do you work in-house? If you work as a freelancer, why have you chosen this route over working in-house?
A: I am a freelancer. I became a freelancer, first and foremost, to have control over my work schedule, allowing me to manage my time and seek a healthy work-life balance. Freelancing lets me adapt to projects and clients across time zones and countries. I find that I’m much more productive working remotely, which I have been doing for more than 20 years now. As a freelancer, I’m also able to offer an array of services, including consulting, translation, editing, interpreting, and lecturing, which keeps my work dynamic and engaging.
Q: How did you land your first T&I project or assignment?
A: My very first assignment came well before I considered myself a translator. I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Madrid and teaching English part time at a hospital. One of my ESL students was a Spanish doctor at the hospital who was working on an article to submit to a medical journal in the United States. He asked me to work on the English version with him, to prepare it for publication. So, in that case, I was really an assistant translator.
My first truly professional assignment, however, came a few years later, when I was working as an adjunct professor of economics in Brazil. It was a word-of-mouth process that entailed some networking, but eventually I got a call from a company that had a financial document they needed translated into English, and they were looking for a translator with my background. It was a good fit that turned into a decades-long professional relationship.
Q: How did you choose your areas of specialization?
A: I specialized first and got into language services after the fact. As an undergraduate, I majored in Spanish and was introduced to translation/interpreting while simultaneously pursuing a second bachelor’s degree in international political economy. When I studied abroad in Spain, I not only focused on language skills but also took courses in Spanish that fostered my economic/business background. This pattern continued during graduate school, where I studied Portuguese and took translation courses while earning a master’s degree in applied microeconomics. My specializations have expanded over time, as I have gained professional experience in other fields, most notably working with numerous law firms and government agencies.
In terms of specialization advice for newcomers, the important thing to bear in mind is that it all starts with demand. You need to identify a field or fields that are in demand and growing, to ensure your own long-term financial stability. Then, you can narrow down the specialization by thinking about what you are willing and interested in learning about and working in, long after you’ve completed your schooling.
Q: Does T&I work make up your entire source of income, or do you teach, write content, provide consulting services, or have other side businesses?
A: From day one of my career, I have worn many hats. Over the years, in addition to working as a translator, interpreter, and editor, I have been an adjunct professor of economics, a lecturer (online and in-person), and a management consultant. The percentage of my income from these pursuits has varied from year to year, depending on the projects that come my way. Early on in my career, translation and interpreting provided a relatively small percentage of my earnings. As my language-service client base grew, I began allocating more time and energy to developing higher-paying direct clients, allowing lower-paying income streams to fade away. I try to focus on projects with the highest return on the time I invest in them. We often spend too much time on things that don’t pay enough to justify our efforts. A skill that people new to the profession should develop is determining whether a project is worth their time. That can be tough, especially when assignments are few and far between. That is why it is so important to diversify your income, to avoid having to accept every job.
For the past 20 years or so, I’ve worked 40-50 hours a week. Language services have accounted for anywhere from 50% to 95% of that time, with consulting, lecturing, and advising making up the rest. I try to ensure a steady flow of projects by constantly seeking out new clients. Every year, I try to develop at least one new client. I research companies I’d like to work with and spend time trying to find out how I can assist them. Once I have a proposal in mind, I’ll start the (often long) process of reaching out to people to try to find a decision-maker at the organization who can evaluate whether my services make sense for their organization.
Q: What is your typical day like?
A: The short answer, of course, is: It depends. If I’m in the midst of a multi-day translation project (my typical week), then it goes something like this: I work from home, so I start my day by taking my laptop into the kitchen and checking/responding to emails while waking up and feeding my dogs. I eventually move into my home office and start invoicing jobs I’ve recently completed and taking care of administrative things on my schedule. After that, I’m ready to go, and I typically set aside three to four hours for uninterrupted translation and research, taking occasional breaks to stretch, walk around, and refresh my morning beverage.
Around midday/early afternoon, I take a break to exercise and forget about work. When I sit back down in front of my laptop, I’ll answer e-mails again, then spend two to three more hours translating and doing research. When my eyes start to glaze over, I know it’s time to call it a day, so I finish up by checking e-mails, following up on potential leads with new clients, and working on my website/online presence.
When I have consulting assignments, I’m either in Zoom meetings with clients or at their place of business for a few hours a day, working on their respective projects, and I’m often able to fit in some translation before or after.
This interview was prepped and conducted by Emily Moorlach of The Savvy Newcomer team.
John Milan is an economist, business consultant, ATA certified translator, copy editor, and lecturer. Since 2005, he has provided services in Portuguese, Spanish, and English to hundreds of clients in a dozen countries from his home office in Chapel Hill, NC. From 1996-2005, he worked as an adjunct professor of economics, consultant, and translator/interpreter in São Paulo, Brazil. He has served on the ATA Board of Directors as Treasurer since 2017 and was on the Board of Directors of the Carolina Association of Translators and Interpreters from 2009-2016, including four years as President. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org