Freelance Diaries: Part 3 — Lost in Interpretation

February 25, 2016 in Freelance by pacejmiller

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To interpret it not to interpret: that is the question.

When I first went full-time freelance I had no intention of doing any interpretation. I was perfectly content to stay at home and take my time translating everything from movie subtitles to corporate documents. It was what I knew and what I was comfortable with.

Over the last three months or so, however, things haven’t quite turned out the way I expected. While I still do text translation mostly, I’ve also taken on a bunch of interpretation gigs of various shapes and sizes. I’ve interpreted for a couple of Q&A sessions at a film festival; I’ve interpreted for a couple of concert productions, one big and one small. I’m typing this part of the post at 9pm on Thursday night after a marathon 11.5-hour day where I interpreted for more more than 7 hours in three separate sessions lasting at least two hours each. It was one of the most brutal work experiences I’ve ever had (more on that shit later).

These are my stories.

Types of interpretation 

As an intro, I just want to offer an intro into what interpretation work entails. It’s not just translating from one language to another — it’s doing it orally, within a limited time frame, without any outside assistance, and with all ears on you. In other words, it’s a whole different universe of pain.

The reason why I love translating text is because I get to do it at my own pace. There’s no problem if I don’t know the word because I can take my time to think about it or look up other resources (Google Translate is actually a fantastic resource at times when you want a precise definition to a single word or phrase).

When I translate text, I like to make sure I get my shit right. I can go back and forth for ages to ensure the shit is perfect. You throw all those luxuries out when it comes to interpretation. All you’re doing is hoping you can remember what was just said, hoping your brain can process the words, and hoping something that makes sense spews out of your mouth before the people in the room start getting embarrassed for you.

The difficulty of the interpretation varies depending on the type. The easiest is probably sentence by sentence — dude says a sentence (sometimes just a word or part of a sentence), and you translate it into the relevant language. Provided each segment is relatively short, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem.

If that’s too fragmented (as I have found that to be), you might go with a whole block of speech — be it a paragraph or a few sentences. This often becomes a memory challenge more than anything else, so it’s always a good idea (as I discovered the hard way — more on that later) to have a notepad ready to jot points down.

The hardest absolutely has to be simultaneous interpretation, which is when you have the interpreter talking at the same time and over the voice of the speaker (usually into a microphone that broadcasts into headphones worn by members of the audience). This means the interpreter needs to be able to listen and talk at the same time — in two different languages. And that’s just insane.

The pay of course also varies wildly. Corporate gigs tend to pay more, while those related to the arts — such as concerts — tend to pay less, apparently because a lot of people are willing to take less money for the opportunity to be close to celebs. Meetings are considered different to lectures or forums. Sometimes you just need to follow people around at all times and provide assistance when needed. Other times it might be a combination of a bunch of different duties. Sometimes the interpreter even becomes the errand boy. It’s all part of the job.

I’ve found that if the client asks you what you want you should never sell yourself short. They won’t make a deal that breaks their budget, so don’t be shy — just make sure you can back it up when the time comes. And you must get the terms and conditions straight before inking the deal, especially if the event goes beyond specified times.

The main reason I took on interpretation cases is the pay. One day of interpretation work could equal a week of pay or more as a text translator. One week of interpretation work could equal a month of pay. One of the cases I took that lasted two weeks paid me as much as three months of what I earned in my old day job.

It sounds fantastic, but honestly, it evens out a fair bit when you consider the two things I want to discuss next: preparation and exertion.

Preparation

It’s easy to look an interpreter and think — that guy is getting paid a lot for the amount of hours he’s doing. I used to think that too. What people don’t see is all the work that goes on behind the scenes. I’m talking hours and hours, sometimes days or even weeks of preparation. You never know what will be said or how things will turn out, so you must always be ready for whatever comes your way.

If there is a script or rundown you need to study it. You have to research the people or company you’re working for/with. You have to research the industry if you’re not familiar with it. You have to look up common terms and phrases used in that industry. Sometimes you might have to read/listen/watch a bunch of related documents, songs or movies or video clips. Above all, you gotta practice because it sharpens your mind. Whatever it takes, really. On the one hand it is about being competent enough to interpret on the spot, though for me it is probably more about being mentally prepared so that I can be confident. Because when you stress out, you blank out, and when you blank out, you freak out.

Preparation is essential; it might not always help, but occasionally it could save your butt. One of the first interpretation cases was a post-screening Q&A with a documentary filmmaker. As part of the preparation I watched the film, but I also did a bunch of research about the background and also the director. Lucky I did.

On the night of the Q&A, while we were backstage, the director told me she’d  keep her responses short and sweet — I believe her exact words were “one line at a time” — so that it’s easier for me. I was so relieved I didn’t even take my notepad up with me. But as it turned out, “one line” was 3 minutes of uninterrupted monologue. First question — 3 minutes. Second question — 2 minutes. “Oh sorry, was that too long?” said. Third question — 3 minutes.

I should have been shitting bricks, but I only shat pellets instead because I came prepared. During my research I had read a couple of interviews with the director about the making of the film, and fortunately most of the questions were about the production process, so I already knew what the answers were going to be. It saved me from turning into a stuttering beetroot on stage in front of hundreds of people.

Exertion

By exertion I am referring to the mental exertion required for interpretation. It’s the stress of being put on the spot in front of other people and the laser focus you need to maintain so you can preform an incredibly difficult task.

Situation plays a big part in the stress and focus levels. The rule of thumb is more people, more stress. Interpreting for one person is less stressful than interpreting for a meeting; interpreting for a meeting is less stressful than interpreting in front of an audience; and interpreting on TV is…well, I’m about to find that out in a week or so.

On the other hand, the amount of focus you need to have as an interpreter is incredible. Normally when I have a meeting or listen to a seminar or whatever, I’m selectively focused. I can zone out momentarily, think about how the Indiana Pacers are doing in the standings or what I’m going to have for dinner that night. When I translate, I can take mental breaks (and often physical breaks) every few seconds and end up spending hours on YouTube checking out film trailers. With interpretation, you need to be locked in at all times. You never know what’s going to come next, and sometimes you won’t know when it’s coming. Your brain is churning constantly, listening, processing, translating, talking. You can’t take any time out. You can afford to.

It’s such an intense and draining experience that I feel like I’m totally burned out after, but at the same time your mind is buzzing so much that it becomes impossible to relax immediately afterwards. It is why simultaneous interpreters are typically hired in pairs so they can rotate in 15-minute blocks. The focus and concentration required is so high that you can only sustain it for 15 minutes at a time.

When I used to sit in sessions with an interpreter I would put myself in their position and try to interpret everything that was said to see if I could handle it. And I used to think it’s not THAT hard and occasionally I would think I’d probably be able to do a better job. But that’s because I’m an idiot. When you’re in the actual interpreter’s chair it’s a whole different story. When you’re practicing on the side while someone else does it, you can take short mental breaks, you don’t have any of the pressure, and you don’t actually have to speak out loud. It’s apples and oranges. So next time, spare a thought for the poor red-faced interpreter struggling to get the right words out — he or she is likely much more capable than you think.

Peeing

This is probably the most important issue for interpreters. When you’re fully focused and trying not to screw up the interpretation, the last thing you need is to be busting to go to the toilet. It makes an already difficult situation a living hell. It’s tempting to drink the water or beverage they offer you because you’re so parched from talking non-stop, but it’s really an evil trap. The interpreter can’t excuse himself/herself to go take a leak. The show cannot go on without you. You’re being paid to hold it in. So my advice is that it’s always better to be dehydrated than feeling like you’re bladder is about to explode when you have more pressing concerns. Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way.

Every case is different

It’s a great thing to gain more experience, because with more experience comes better skills and vocabulary, and that in turn creates more confidence. But the reality is that you can’t think that every case will be the same, and that if you’ve done one well you can handle them all. You must assess each case on its own merits when deciding whether or not to accept because they’re all so different.

For instance, I once took on a case as the interpreter of a foreign production team staging a concert for local performers. That turned out to be exhausting because that consisted of consecutive 16-18 hour days but also a lot of fun. I became the go-between for every unit, from the producer to the stage set-up crew to the lighting people to the video crew to the talent to the venue staff. I was doing everything from interpreting meetings to general discussions to translating work schedules. I learned so much about concert production in just a week or so, made lots of great friends and thoroughly burned myself out for some very good pay.

More recently, I was invited to do work on another concert, a much smaller one that only required my presence for one night and a full day, and for less pay (and less hours). I was fully prepared to be helpful and super busy, but also for some fun and learning. Instead, it was mostly a very boring experience. Instead of being the only translator for every unit, we had three interpreters for essentially three people — ie, the three of us were assigned to a foreigner each. They needed a little assistance but not much at all, and all the work could have easily been done by one person (of course I do realise it is better safe than sorry). However, all we did was stand around and follow them everywhere while they figured out how to solve their own problems. Standing around in my opinion is the worst — it was a waste of our time and made the people we’re supposed to be assisting uncomfortable. I’d rather spend that time doing something meaningful and I’m sure the foreigners would have preferred to be left alone.

Another major difference between the two experiences was that for the larger concert, I was a direct hire by the boss, whereas for the smaller concert I was hired by the translation company assigned to provide all the translation and chaperoning services. In the first case I was given autonomy to try and help out in any way I can, even in capacities that went beyond my job description. It was tiring but it was fun, and it made me feel like I was part of a team where everyone was working towards a common goal — to deliver the best show possible to ticket-buying audiences. In the second case, the boss was always hanging around with panicky and untrusting eyes, making everyone feel really uncomfortable. I understand it’s her business and she’s trying to make a good impression to her client, but it just made everyone really tense even when there was absolutely nothing to do, and it sucked the joy out of the experience. It felt like everyone was just covering their own backsides and didn’t care about the bigger picture and purpose.

So I guess that’s just a long-winded way of saying: There are good cases and bad cases. Never assume; expect the unexpected.

When it’s all said and done, I don’t regret any of my interpretation cases. As exhausting and stressful as it is, I think they are all valuable experienced that build not only competence but also character. While I still prefer — by far — the comfort of translating in my own home, I do look forward to taking on more interpretation projects in the future to expand my horizons.

PS: For the record, the best interpreters I’ve ever seen are the ones working for the Communist Party of China. I saw these nuts in action when I went to cover the 18th National Congress in Beijing  in 2012 and they were seamless. I don’t think I could have done as good of a job had I sat down and took my time and had all the resources at my disposal. These guys were machines, I tell ya. Probably machines that have been trained since infancy and terrified that they would “disappear” if they disappointed the government.

Making things happen in 2016

January 1, 2016 in Blogging, Freelance, Misc by pacejmiller

2016

I’m writing this post as we count down the minutes to 2016.

2015 has been an interesting and somewhat tumultuous year for me, with the usual ups and downs but with higher than usual highs and lower than usual lows.

As usual, I started off the year with big ambitions, though it didn’t take long before I sunk back into laziness and getting sidetracked by excuses. The first three-quarters of the year was not particularly eventful. I sleepwalked through my job, stayed fit for the most part, did some reading and not as much writing as I wanted to. I watched TV shows, loads of movies, and spent a lot of time with the family and the kids. I was content with my situation but not content with my usual lack of motivation to move forward. The most eventful change was probably the decision to switch my movie reviews to http://spoilerfreereviews.pacejmiller.com/.

And then, as often is the case, life threw me a curve ball. The website where I had worked for nearly four years suddenly got shut down, and I had a big decision to make: to be transferred to a group like everyone else, or venture out on my own to be a full-time freelancer. I chose the latter. In many ways, the decision was made for me because the powers that be were so incompetent that I lost all faith in the promises they were making about the transition. As far as I know, those suspicions turned into reality.

Around the same time, family things — like death and health problems to loved ones — put my life in a bit of a tailspin, and for the first time in a very long time I fell into a mini-depression, albeit one I knew was temporary.

Once the smoke cleared, things started to turn around, and I haven’t looked back. When bad things happen it puts things in perspective, and the last couple of months have been super busy but also really fantastic. I feel like I’ve finally found the passion for my work again because I actually care about what I’m doing. The amount of effort I put into my work actually affects my income, which hasn’t been the case for years.

Business as a freelancer has been surprisingly good right from the get-go — perhaps a little too good because I haven’t found time to write at all — but obviously I shouldn’t complain. I’m looking forward to staying busy in a spectacular 2016 — settling into a routine, growing more efficient, reading every day, writing every day, getting back into fitness, watching a lot of awesome movies and TV shows, and spending plenty of time with my family.

That’s all for now. I’m going to let my actions do the talking.

Happy New Year!!!

Freelancing Diaries: Part 2 — Pros & Cons

December 8, 2015 in Freelance by pacejmiller

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Well, the time off between my last post and this one is indicative of how much less free time I thought I would have when I first embarked on the freelancing journey.

Every time you think you’re going to have a block of time to do something like read or do a blog post, something else inevitably pops up. Case in point: I had just finished a couple of projects last week and still had an easy one I thought I could take my time with, but on Monday I received an urgent call asking me to be an interpreter for a foreign production team in Taiwan working on a big concert over the next couple of weeks.

I initially declined because, as a freelancer, I wanted some “free” time. My family had already planned a weekend away with friends during the days of the concert and was planning a birthday party for my little boy. But then my wife and other family members convinced me I had been an idiot and that I shouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. Holidays can be rescheduled and kids parties aren’t that important in the scheme of things (they don’t even know what day it is anyway), but great cases like this one don’t come around very often.

It’s not easy — 14 days of interpretation and translating documents on demand, attending meetings and being around for the entire set-up and testing process as well as all rehearsals and playing an integral part in the actual concerts (I’ll be interpreting the video director’s commands to the cameramen throughout the shows). It means consecutive early mornings and late nights (I had a 16-hour day yesterday and had to be back by 7am this morning), which would have been fine 10 years ago, but now, after having worked in the cruisiest job known to mankind for four years, I’m really starting to feel it.

That said, it’s an awesome gig. You get to meet a lot of great industry people (personally I don’t care much about meeting the artists and celebrities and what not) who can open up a lot of doors for you in the future. You learn a heck of a lot in a short amount of time. You get to experience a major production and see everything close up. And most of all it pays very very well. In hindsight it should have been a no-brainer, and I would recommend would-be freelancers to never reject a case outright — say you need to check your schedule or some other excuse and you’ll get back to them soon. Then sit down, have a good think about it, speak to people and make some calculations if you have to. Then make the decision. I was just lucky I still had a chance to get the gig back this time.

Accordingly, I thought now would be the perfect time to discuss some pros and cons of the freelancing life. So here goes:

Pro: Be Your Own Boss

This is probably be biggest difference between being a freelancer and working for someone else. It changes everything when you are working for yourself.

When you work for a company like I did, for instance, you might want the best for your company, but ultimately you still put yourself first. And of course that should be the case. But often your personal interests and the interests of the company aren’t necessarily always aligned. You might want to go out for a long lunch, start work late or leave work early for whatever reason, and as a result your work will suffer. But if it doesn’t affect your pay or your performance review, you probably don’t really care that your company’s productivity is affected.

When you work for yourself, you’ll naturally want everything you do to be the best it can be, because your interests and the interests of your business are completely aligned. It no longer becomes what you can get away with — it becomes genuine compromise. And it’s compromise that has real consequences you care about.

Pro: Flexibility

What I love most about being a freelancer. If the new Star Wars movie comes out, I can catch the first session in the morning. I can go to any movie or restaurant when there aren’t as many people. I can go shopping, spend time with my kids, go to the gym — basically do whatever I want, whenever I want. In theory.

In reality though, it’s still about compromise. Yeah, you might be able to go watch a movie during the day, but if you have urgent work on you might have to cancel — sometimes at the last minute. Or you might have to work late into the night or even all through the night instead just to maintain that flexibility. Alternatively, you’ll just earn no money and you soon won’t be able to afford going to the movies.

Con: Can be hard to get motivated

Freelancing is a double-edged sword. You can work really hard and make way more than holding down a day job, or you can be really lazy and stare at the wall all day and find yourself in financial strife. It’s up to you, really, and I think I’m lucky in that I’ve been highly motivated in my first 6 weeks or so as a freelancer. I want to get more work and I don’t mind doing more, even if it’s just for the money.

That said, I can definitely see the other side too. I was very unmotivated at my previous job because there was zero accountability and productivity had no correlation to performance. That is rare though, and I’d imagine in most regular jobs people would do their best to earn higher bonuses and pay rises, etc. More importantly, you’ll probably have some authority figure or supervisor making sure you do your work and do it well. As a freelancer, the whip cracker is yourself, so you might end up being really unproductive if you just can’t get the motivation to do your work. This happens a lot especially if the deadline is not urgent. I had the same problem as a student, leaving everything to the last minute. You get tempted to surf the net and watch what Jordan Schlanky is up to on YouTube or check out what’s on TV or in the fridge every two minutes. Anything but work.

If you fall into that category you need to fix that mentality or stay in your day job. I have a feeling I may have to battle the motivation demon eventually. Things are just too fresh and exciting and busy right now for me to get lazy. And besides, I need all the money I can get right now.

Pro: Do what you want and enjoy

This is another major reason I chose the freelancing life. As much as I didn’t mind my old job, I didn’t love it. I liked the hours and some of the people and the cruisiness and being up-to-date with world news, but I didn’t like a lot of the actual articles I was translating. Plus I hated the company and the disgusting office and the way the organisation was being run.

On the other hand, I love translating movies and TV shows and songs. It’s fun and varied and I enjoy doing it. Makes a whole world of difference if you have to sit in front of a computer anyway.

Of course, I don’t love every case I get (even so, when the work is directly linked to your income you don’t mind it as much), but by and large it’s a much better situation for me and my family than it was before. And I still get to keep in touch with my old colleagues.

Con: Can’t say no

I mentioned this in my last post about freelancing and I believe it is true. As a freelancer, saying “No” to a case that comes knocking could be a fatal mistake. It’s particularly true for clients who are not regular or repeat customers.

We’re all creatures of habit: all things being equal, those who employ freelancers will tend to go back to the last person they used, so if you say no, you might lose that client forever. Most of my clients these days have come from friends or colleagues who couldn’t do a case for whatever reason, and since then I’ve become their primary source of translation cases. Even this lucrative concert deal I am on now came from a friend referral; I originally translated an album for the band, and then a month later some old songs for the upcoming concert, and now I’m suddenly interpreting for the production team.

Conversely, there have been a couple of cases I’ve turned down in the last couple of years (either because the money was too low or I didn’t think I could do it) and I never heard from them again. In fact, this includes a friend who wanted me to translate something for them for free.

So if you’re going to be a freelancer, you better be prepared to say “Yes” to everything, no matter how impossible it may seem — until you can afford to say “No.”

Pro: Make a lot more money

Though you could also make a lot less money, I still say this is a “pro” because you have the “potential” to make a lot more. If you’re in a normal job you can only hope for pay rises and bonuses, but if you freelance you can, theoretically, make as much as time permits.

Granted, this involves having enough cases and cases that pay well, but once you get that stream flowing and you maximise your efficiency, the freelancing life can be much more lucrative. More money and less work hours. Who doesn’t want that?

Con: Flat out or starving

I’ve been mostly flat out thus far, but I hear the freelancing life is one of extremes. One experienced freelancer told me that you’re either flat out with work and stressing out over deadlines or bored out of your mind with no work and stressing out about paying the bills.

So yes, freelancing can be stressful either way, but as this same freelancer told me, it’s really about managing your time and making compromises. That way you don’t have to be flat out or starving — you can be reasonably busy or enjoying your free time instead.

The Freelancing Diaries: Part 1 — Getting Started is Rough

November 27, 2015 in Freelance by pacejmiller

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As followers of this blog will know by now, I’ve quit my day job to pursue the freelancing (and writing) dream. It’s a beautiful dream, but also one that can potentially turn into a bloody nightmare. I’ve decided to chronicle this adventure in a new series of posts, starting with, naturally, what life is like when first taking the plunge.

Technically, I’m now in my third week as a freelancer, but I still don’t feel like one. Apart from finalising shit from my previous job, I’m still trying to get used to the lifestyle, the self-discipline, and the pressure and fear of the unknown that comes with freelancing. I’ve had days off where I’ve gone out to watch movies, take the kids out on day trips and shop around aimlessly like a socialite, but I’ve also been fortunate enough — or unfortunate enough, depending on your perspective — to have cases to keep me busy already. I translated some songs for an upcoming concert, I did an episode of a TV show, some usual corporate stuff and transliteration work, and even took on my first nerve-racking interpretation cases (I’ll have to write about that experience in another post). There have been days where I’ve felt a bit of pressure and had to work much longer hours than I did as a company employee, but it’s all part of the package.

What this means though is that I haven’t done much work to lay the necessary groundwork to be a full-time freelancer, let alone do any of the stuff I had fantasized about doing with all that supposed free time, such as writing and exercising. Taking into account the amount of time I still require to complete outstanding cases and other odds and ends, I think I need about one more week or get my affairs in order. This involves sending out “feeler” emails and making cold calls to potential clients, completing tests for freelance outsourcing websites and really setting up my “system” properly.

Anyway, here are some things I have already learned for those in the same boat or are thinking about venturing down the same path.

1. Starting out is rough

When I first started informing people — especially other freelancers — of my intention to freelance full time, the vast majority were highly encouraging, but warned that the beginning will involve a very difficult adjustment period. For me, in particular, having been practically a bum for the last four years at my last job, it was going to take some time getting used to it.

However, the adjustment is much more than getting used to something new. Freelancing brings with it an inherent and immediate pressure because your income will no longer be stable like it used to be. Some clients might take weeks or even months to pay, so if finances are tight you will have to factor in the delays. For instance, I recently had to chase up a client who hadn’t paid for work I did more than three months ago (I contacted him last month, actually, and he assured me that it would be paid within three months). First the client ignored my emails completely, but when I called him on the phone he said the money had “come down” and would be paid in the next few days. And really, there’s not much you can do.

Secondly, you need to be instantly better at organising your life. You need to set aside time to do work, preferably on a regular schedule, but you also need to be prepared for things that pop up, as they inevitably do. And unlike before, when you can use “I’m at work” as an excuse, you may have to drop whatever you’re doing and attend to it. You need to have a system for your accounts, so you can better track your clients and payments. I used to just dump files all over the place and lose track of them, but now I’ve had to set up a spreadsheet containing the details and contacts of each case and use Google Drive to file documents away systematically.

Thirdly, and most importantly, you need clients, otherwise you’re not going to get paid.

2. Finding clients — the right clients — is the key

Finding enough clients to sustain the your lifestyle is usually the biggest obstacle to being a freelancer. The best thing is regular clients who can feed you stable work every month, but in the beginning anyone will do. But clients won’t just come to you because you’re a freelancer — you need to go out and track them down.

But how does one go about it? Honestly, if you’ve never done any freelance work at all or don’t have any pre-existing contacts, the task is virtually impossible. I’ve discovered the painful truth that in freelancing it is often all about who you know. I would have never been able to be a full-time freelancer had I not slowly built up a small network of contacts over the last four years. One of the first things I did was to contact my freelancing friends and clients I’ve done work for and tell them I was going to freelance full-time and to send any work they have my way. There are still a few outstanding ones I haven’t been in touch with for a couple of years I’ll have to get to next week.

The other way is to go out and look for clients through other channels. Before doing that you will of course have to fully update your CV and have it ready to be sent out at any time. You can look up the companies doing the sort of work you can help with and email them or cold call them to really sell your services. Most are unlikely to respond, but sometimes all you need is one that does, and that may end up opening doors to more opportunities. You can also try through updating your LinkedIn profile or search for freelancing agencies or websites that post freelancing opportunities — but more on that in my next point.

And even when you finally find a client who is willing to give you work, sometimes you’ll still have tough decisions to make because they’re not always necessarily the right client. What if they are paying you too little for it to be worth your time? Is it better to work for peanuts or have no peanuts at all? What if you happen to be too busy when they decide to give you a piece of work? I’ve heard that one of the cardinal sins of being a freelancer is to refuse work from anyone you would like to work for in the future. If you’ve turned them down once they’ll just go to others who won’t.

I recently turned down a regular freelancing job that seemed ideal on paper. Two to three hours a day, five days a week, and I’d make close to three-fifths of my previous salary. The work was similar to what I was doing before and would be relatively easy for me. I even did a sample translation test and all that. In the end, however, I decided it wasn’t worth it. Though it was only two to three hours a day, it was always the same fixed hours of the day (2pm-5pm), taking away the flexibility I wanted as a freelancer. The rates weren’t horrendous, but they weren’t great either, and I’d have to work my way up to the maximum pricing and volume over a number of months. So in reality, I’d probably be making a fifth of my previous salary for a couple of months, then two-fifths for another couple of months, and so forth, with no guarantees I’d actually get to the three-fifths mark. Not good enough to sacrifice my flexibility for.

3. Be wary of agencies and freelancing websites

As noted above, one of the avenues to look for work is freelancing agencies and websites. Examples include established enterprises such as Freelancer, or the newer WritePath. I’ve also been looking at a Japan-based one called Gengo. In Taiwan, a lot of people use freelance job aggregators such as 104case or 518case, which are similar to Freelancer in that people post freelancing cases for people to bid on, though you have to pay a subscription fee to be able to gain access to the case contacts. As a translator, there are also plenty of translation agencies that will get the work for you in return for a percentage of your earnings.

Personally, while I’d recommend trying them out, I wouldn’t get your hopes up about being able to get sustainable work from such options. For starters, most of these gigs will require you to take a free-of-charge translation test, which can be time consuming and a waste of time. A lot of them are old cases that closed ages ago but people just haven’t bothered taking them down. I’ve also heard of horror stories where some a-hole companies will split their case up into say five parts and then send them to five applicants and tell them it’s their translation test. That’s basically their entire case done for free.

Most of the time, however, it’s just a company looking for ways to push prices down as low as possible. When you have desperate people fighting for work, the rates gets lowered to appalling levels, and they almost always tend to be urgent cases. In the translation industry, they often don’t even care how good or bad the quality of the translation is, as long as it’s cheap. To be fair, there are some awful translators out there who don’t give a shit if they get paid low because it matches the time and effort they put in, but what it does is ruin the market for everyone else. You also have to remember that if the market is international there will be people in say India or China who are willing to work for a lot less.

Translation agencies are the worst because they don’t respect you at all. It’s always urgent cases at basement rates, and they end up taking around 50%-75% of the earnings for doing nothing.  I remember one instance where I did a translation test for free and later received a call on a Friday afternoon asking me to take on an urgent case due the next morning, for less a quarter of the rate I normally charge for standard cases. I said no and never heard from them again.

4. Pricing sucks balls

Negotiating your rates is one of the most annoying things for me as a freelancer. I’ve read around and it seems the general consensus is to never sell yourself short when in discussions. But what constitutes selling yourself short is such a tough question. You don’t want to rip yourself off, but you don’t want to price yourself out of the market either. Most of the time you’ll probably be wondering if you’ve done one or the other. I’ll have to do a full post on this some day after I’ve generate a bit more experience on this point.

5. You never have as much time as you think you do

The most sobering revelation from my three weeks as a freelancer is that you never have as much time as you think you’d have. When I was working a full-time job and doing freelancing cases on the side, I thought to myself that if I were doing freelancing full-time I’d have endless hours of free time on my hands to do all the other things I’d want to do. That’s not the case, at least not in these initial starting-off weeks.

Freelancing cases take time, often a lot of time, and you probably end up spending more time on the same cases as a full-timer because you care more about building up your reputation so you can win more work. Plus, in the past my freelancing was extra cream on top of the cake, whereas now it’s the actual cake. As a result, I actually feel busier than I did before. Just a couple of months ago I was still wasting hours a day zoning out in front of the computer wondering why I wasn’t being more productive, and now I’m working hard but wondering where all my time has gone. It’s more stress but it’s also infinitely more rewarding doing stuff you care about.

Oh well, better get back to it.

The Freelancing Life

November 20, 2015 in Best Of, Blogging, Freelance, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

There hasn’t been much activity on this blog for a while, and for that I apologize. The last few months have been one of the most tumultuous periods in my life for a long time, with a lot of things happening both personally and professionally.

Life update — the end of an era

Apart from the usual grind of looking after two young kids, a close relative passed away unexpectedly, which hit me very hard, and there were three additional incidents where other family members had to visit the emergency room for various reasons. It was one scare after another, and each time something happened it took a little out of me.

Professionally, I once again find myself on a different path, and it’s turned out to be a bit of a dream come true. For those who don’t know, I had been working at an online newspaper writing and editing mostly semi-translated articles for close to four years, and mid-September, we were suddenly called to an impromptu meeting one afternoon by the editor-in-chief.

It is a place where meetings are rare, and nothing usually ever comes out of it. Just a month or so prior we were told that there would be a restructuring, with our paper moving from under one unit to another. It was painted as an administrative issue only and some staff members were privately assured that nothing would change. So naturally it was concerning that a meeting was being called again so soon, especially when friends outside of our company had been messaging some of us that very morning, asking, cryptically, whether we were okay.

And this is no joke, but every time we had a meeting we would joke that the paper was probably being shut down. We knew it wasn’t the most professional or stable of places, and often I felt like we were just a bunch of amateurs mucking about and were somehow getting away with it. So of course we made the same joke again before this mid-September meeting, and it turned out that this time the joke was on us. The editor-in-chief kicked off the meeting with a description of how wonderfully our paper was performing, which I knew was a bad omen. Sure enough, the next thing he said was that the paper would be shut down “temporarily” due to the fact that the conglomerate had been hemorrhaging money at a rate much worse than they had expected.

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. The company was built on a culture of schmoozing and sucking up to superiors, and few managers were really putting in any effort into driving the business forward. My own superior, for instance, promised many things — some even as early as when I interviewed four years ago — and none of them ever came true. He said he would rearrange our work days so that we’d only have to work on weekends every now and then (fail), that we would have regular seminars to teach us how to be better writers and journalists (fail), that we would have regular meetings to keep everyone up to date (fail), that we would create sub-groups to specialize on certain areas (fail), that we would start marketing our paper and build relationships with other papers (fail), that we would start publishing advertisements so we’d actually make some money (fail) — the list goes on. That’s right, in four years, he didn’t make a single one of these promises come true.

The one that did come true, eventually, was updating the look of the website. That was a promise made during my first interview, and for the last two years we were told it was “imminent.” And do you know when we updated the website? Two weeks after he announced that the paper was shutting down in six weeks. Yes, we finally updated to the long-awaited “new” website a month before it was shut down.

Another hilarious sequence of events took place when the chief decided that we were going to buck the digitization trend by creating a paper version of our online paper. A monthly digest, if you will. We hired a designer and reallocated one of our writers to manage the new magazine. That’s right, two people to create a 100-page magazine every month. Even bought a brand new Apple computer and a color laser printer and everything. As it progressed, this monthly magazine somehow morphed into a “semi-annual” magazine, and then a “yearly” magazine. And then one day, poof, the entire project was called off. Four months of work and the hiring of a brand new staff member for this sole purpose, all for nothing. And there wasn’t even a “WTF just happened”? There was more or less a collective silent shrug, and everyone went back to work pretending it never existed.

Anyway, the outcome of the meeting was that the paper would be closed down by the end of October, but that most of us would keep our jobs and be relocated to join the Chinese-language newspaper in the same building. A few of my ex-pat colleagues were shown the door with just a two-week notice period. As for who will get to stay and what work they will actually be doing in their new roles, the chief told us we’d find out by the end of September.

Naturally, the days turned into weeks, and nothing was said. A few of us managed to individually corner the chief on separate occasions, but the answers were always vague and non-committal. The only assurance I received was that I would be safe, and that everything would be sorted out “shortly.” Later on, we pieced together the fragments of information we each received and basically understood that: (1) whoever hadn’t already been shown the door would probably get to stay; (2) we’d be moved from the comforts of our current floor to join the other media losers in the depths of the basement (literally); (3) our workloads would be reduced towards the end so we could start testing out the new roles on the new systems; (4) we’d work on firm-issued laptops instead of our current desktop computers and sit together on long tables in open plan; (5) we’d have freedom to choose to write whatever we want to write; and (6) if we didn’t like our new roles we’d be able to apply for a redundancy package within the first 45 days.

Initially, I kind of wanted to stay. It was a safe job that paid well considering how easy it was, and the work hours were stable and normal. And I salivated at the idea of being able to write about what I wanted to write, a stark contrast to the existing situation where I got tossed most of the longest and hardest articles on the most difficult topics — and was still expected to produce the same number of articles as everyone else. The main concern was work hours — we were told there would probably be morning and night shifts — and with my family commitments it wasn’t something I was looking to accept. But the chief told me the new hours would be “flexible,” and it was suggested to me that I’d probably be able to keep my existing schedule, though as with everything else, it was “yet to be confirmed.”

Shit dragged on like this until late October. About 10 days before the official end of the paper, there was an update: even after we are technically transferred, we’d stay on our current floor (the top floor) until the end of November, and we’d get laptops by the start of the final week of October so we can start trying out the new roles to see how we like it. The 45-day cooling off period disappeared like a fart in the wind, and the redundancy application date was set in stone at the end of the first week of November. In other words, I’d have 10 working days to decide my future.

The decision was expedited when we had another meeting on the Tuesday of the final week. Needless to say, we had not received our laptops by then, and my workload was actually being ramped up as certain people had already left, meaning I was both writing and editing, sometimes at the same time. At this final meeting, we were told that: (1) the laptops might not come until next week or beyond; (2) we’d still have to work shifts, from 9am-6pm or 1pm-10pm, with everyone having to work a weekend day about once a month from 10am-7pm — and that everyone’s schedule would be different — but no final roster was set and that each person’s exact times would decided “shortly”; (3) we’d have to choose our own stories but with “guidance” from the chief to ensure we’re on the “right track”; (4) we’d be posting our own articles on the website and have no one to edit our writing, but there will be a fine each time someone spots a mistake; (5) everyone would have their own personal page with all their articles, the number of hits for each article, and its “star” rating from readers — this will be used to determine performance.

The meeting was a relief for me, because I had remained torn about whether or not to stay. Even if I were allowed to work 9-6, unlike everyone else, nothing else appealed to me. With the laptops not arriving until after the switch, it meant I would have less than five days to experience the new role. And though we were told that we’d be technically allowed to choose our own stories, I got the strong sense that it would not really be the case. The fines and the personal page — essentially for naming and shaming (another wonderful part of the firm culture) — effectively sealed the deal. I knew it wasn’t all the chief’s fault — it was clear that the firm was mired in bureaucracy and the higher ups couldn’t make up their minds because they were all desperate to save their own asses. That’s what happens when there’s zero accountability and no incentive to do anything until the shit hits the fan.

So immediately after the meeting, I went into the chief’s office and told him I was taking the redundancy. I did some calculations, and with the redundancy package and freelance income, I was actually better off financially in the short-term, at least over the next six months. The plan is to generate enough contacts and steady freelance work to make the arrangement work over the long-term, and if not, I’d have to find a proper job.

PS: In hindsight, I absolutely made the right choice. My former colleagues were booted to the basement in the first week of the transition as opposed to after a month, and as of now they are still yet to receive their laptops. They actually moved a few of the desktop computers in our existing office downstairs into open plan for people to share. And it’s apparently been hectic and stressful, with odd shift rotations, little choice to write what you want, and pressure from the chief to get more hits. Can’t say it’s a surprise.

The freelancing life begins

So despite the fear of instability and uncertainty, I jumped at the opportunity for a freelancing life trial. It was my dream before I joined my translator job to freelance exclusively, but it was simply impossible without the requisite contacts and steady stream of work. Over the past four years, however, I have managed to build up a small network and some regular clients, so it’s a good foundation to build on.

I think I’m going to have to do a series of posts about what it’s like to be a freelancer, because there’s so much about it that I never thought through before I embarked on this path. It’s been a bit of a rough start, to be honest, because there’s so much unanticipated random stuff when you leave an old job for a new one. After a week of rest, movies and expensive food, I started dealing with the post-employment paperwork, updating CVs and LinkedIn, chasing up the company for stuff (typical), communicating with government agencies, dealing with insurance issues — all while trying to finish off existing cases I already have and trying to find new clients, as well as establishing new systems for more efficiency. And when you have more free time in theory, guess what? You end up getting asked to do more stuff, with family and the kids in particular.

On top of everything, I took on my first live interpretation cases for a film festival, which basically wiped out an entire week because I was too nervous to focus on other stuff and had to make sure I was well prepared. It’s been a bit of a wild mess for the last couple of weeks, and I still have cases outstanding that I really should have gotten to already, which makes me feel terrible.

The days have just gone by super quickly and I feel like there is not enough time in a day to get to all the things I want to. And I really need to build up my efficiency and motivation after working at a place that not only encourages but cultivates inefficiency and laziness. I am 100% serious about this. For four years, any hard work I put in was rewarded only with…more work. Basically, if you finish an article, you get another one. There’s no quota or maximum daily number of articles you must do, and you can’t leave early, so there’s no incentive to work fast. So if you’re super efficient and diligent, you could end up doing six or seven articles a day. If you’re completely lazy and unmotivated, you could do two a day. It makes no difference. No one says anything. There are no performance reviews. Maybe your end-of-year bonus will be affected a little, but we’re talking about a maximum difference of about half a month of salary. Even if someone started off in this job by coming to work on time every day and working really hard all throughout the day, what do you think will happen to them when they start seeing that their colleagues are always coming in one or two hours late, taking three or four hour lunches plus afternoon naps, and doing less than half the work they’re doing — with absolutely no consequences? Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. And this was the type of work environment I was in for four years. I did my fair share of slacking off like everyone else, but I’m glad to say I maintained some dignity by at least ensuring that I did a certain amount of work at a certain quality every day, which made me a rarity.

Anyway, I’m hoping next week will be a new week where I can start sinking into a bit of a routine. Once that happens I’ll be able to focus on systematically punching out the existing cases and prowling for new clients and projects. Still, I’m already enjoying the freedom, the nature of the work, and the sense of being my own boss. Makes me want to do the very best I can every time.

What about the writing?

I’ll be truthful: one of the main reasons I wanted to have a go at the freelancing is because I want to free up time to finally finish my two books, and perhaps a screenplay I’ve had in my head for a while. I realized this was an opportunity that will never come around again, and I wanted to grab it by the balls.

So far, I’ve had even less time to work on these things than when I worked a full-time job. This blog post is the only writing I’ve done in months apart from a few movie and book reviews that were mostly composed on public transport. Again, this is something I hope will change. My ideal day once the dust settles would be half an hour to an hour of reading every morning and at least an hour to work on my own writing. Perhaps one day a week I’ll be able to write a blog post or two instead, and another half day I’ll use to catch a movie or go out and about. Not sure if I’ll ever get close to this dream, but I’m going to start doing everything I can to reach it.

Wow, that was some rant. Sorry.