Month: September 2015

Translating Parenthood

Being a Translator and a Parent

Translating is generally a pretty solitary occupation. Even if you are sharing an office with people, you spend most of the time in your own head, reading, thinking and writing.

Amazingly though, we sometimes venture out to socialise, even managing to find partners and produce kids. In turn, having kids leads to a whole new level of socialising, whether we want to or not. It takes a very special type of misanthropist to avoid any kind of interaction with other parents at the playground. And especially if you are a single parent these are opportunities not to be missed. During my many years as a largely single parent*, I ventured out to parties and social events as much as I could bring myself to (I much prefer one-to-one interaction) knowing that they were vital for networking and for my children.


At social events, once you got the teething/sleeping/teenage tantrum topics out of the way, people at some point would ask what I did for a living, and the responses to the words “I’m a translator” could be quite unexpected.

Ranging from: “Can you make a living from that?” (Err, did you see the great bottle of wine I just walked in with, and the designer Lala Berlin suit I’m wearing?) to: “Oh, like in the Nicole Kidman film?” (Nope…that’s why the film is called ‘The Interpreter’!) Some people would just draw a blank and say “Ahhh…interesting!” before heading to the bar. But sometimes I’d get asked why I chose translating as a career.

I don’t know about you guys, but I think most people don’t actually sit down after college and PLAN to be a translator. It often seems to happen by default when you find yourself in a foreign country and need to find a way to pay for meals. Having acquired the host language and being bombarded with requests to translate CVs, job applications, and song lyrics for friends for free, it simply makes sense to turn your hobby into a money-making venture.

But that’s a long answer unsuited to party banter so I tend to stick to Confucius’ quote about finding a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.


But if I am completely honest, the reason is: I needed a job where I could be at home when my kids got home from school, and a job where, if needs be, I could lie next to them with one arm around their hot sticky fevered body, while I typed one-handed on my laptop so I could hand in my copy on time.

I was interviewed by my first “proper” client while a friend pushed my 6-week-old daughter round the block 20 times, and I was so exhausted I thought seriously about telling them I couldn’t take it on. But I did, because I knew this would be a way to have a more flexible life. Love for the job came later.

So that’s not the answer most people want to hear. Probably not the answer my clients want to hear either! But, when you are a mother of two, you get to stare reality in its puke-stained face quite often, and you kind of stop getting scared of looking at it.


So here are my top ten tips on working as a (single) parent:

  1. Feverish kids are usually really low-maintenance
    I used to panic when my first daughter was coming down with something. But being freelance means you don’t have to call in sick. As long as I had enough water, flannels and storybooks nearby I could get plenty of work in while she slept. Bored kids are far more demanding.
  1. A laptop is great for impromptu emails or working on the sofa in the kids’ bedroom while they are falling asleep, but before you send off that document, sit yourself down at your desk, upright, with a clean T-shirt on and read through it once more. Also, the kids need to know that your laptop is not a toy: it’s their meal ticket. I cried once when my daughter accidentally dropped my laptop on the floor (it survived). After that she treated it with the respect it deserved.
  1. Just attached the doc you translated and about to click send? My blooper-radar always makes me open the document again, in the email programme, just to make sure it really is the version I thought it was, and not the one full of highlights and notes that I was working on while the kids were played bowling games in the corridor. That instinct has saved me from many embarrassing re-sends and apologies.
  1. We’ve all done it: taken a phone call from a client by accident while we are in a queue for ice cream with our kid in tow or while pushing a screaming pram in the park. And that should be the most normal thing in the world. I don’t know who invented this idea that we (women!) have to somehow keep our reproductive abilities under wraps. Isn’t it enough pressure on women to be “doing it all” without having to keep half our lives secret in order to keep our clients feeling what we assume is more comfortable? I am not suggesting we bring them up to speed on our children’s education in every email but sometimes it’s time to simply tell it like it is and explain that you have a childcare emergency and you will need to send something later, or that you will call back AFTER you bought your kid the ice-cream. Nine times out of ten the client turns out to be human, and will completely sympathise. We are not machines and even our clients like to know that we are not infallible at all times.
  2. Use the Village
    After a night with a vomiting kid, or spent in hospital because your daughter jumped off a 2-meter-high bed at her friend’s house and broke her collarbone, it is really good to have either someone who can drive you and/or look after your kids for a few hours, or a colleague who can at least do a rough draft of the translation project you were working on, so all you have to do is polish and shine.Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 20.12.08
  3. First quality time then TV.
    I learnt the hard way that if I stick the kids in front of the TV first, to try and get some work done, they will hassle me for all kinds of things and be all grouchy afterwards and we all end up getting very annoyed at each other. On days where I know I have to work, I do the “quality time” first, and tell them I need to work this afternoon so they get to watch a film. That way they have something to look forward to, we have time to prepare snacks together, and I feel content that I have also been a “good-enough” mother.
  1. Put the guilt monster in the corner
    Sometimes when I do something like a) work b) have fun without my kids, c) take an evening course to further my education or to do some sport, the GUILT monster comes up from behind and grabs me. I have to tell myself that I am paying for their food with my “selfishness” and that I am also allowed to enjoy my free time. I did a personally funded study** which proves that the joys of parenting increase the more fun you have in your life.
  2. Skill trading
    There are some things I am not very good at— like sewing, or cleaning. So as often as possible I do a skill-trade. For example, translating a small website in return for three wonderful hand-sewn animal costumes that I could never have made or bought. Another time I looked after a translator friend’s dog (which my kids loved) and in return she took on some translation work while I took a holiday. Even if it’s just being treated to a meal and a glass of wine in exchange for working on someone’s song lyrics with them, it’s a fun way of keeping your job varied.
  1. Don’t commit to too many evening things and always have emergency food in the freezer. I don’t know why, but a lot of my jobs come in at 4pm just when I am knocking off for the day. The plus side of being free for my kids in the afternoon is balanced by the minus of spending a few evenings a week working.
  1. Don’t be disappointed if your kids don’t want to follow in your footsteps. My eldest said she would rather have a job where she can call in sick, instead of working from bed even though you are ill. She also said she wants to know ahead of time how much she will be earning every month. (Always trust your kids to tell you the hard truth!)Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 20.11.32
  2. And the bonus point as always: Keep laughing! At the latest when I am sitting at the table with my daughters for dinner and laughing about something or other, I know that I made the right choices for us all.

*I have two very dedicated “baby-daddies” for whom I am very grateful, so although I always had to support myself and the kids, I did also always have childcare which is/was invaluable.

** It was a very objective study called the “Let’s see what happens if I enjoy myself a lot this month study”.


Cooperation not Competition: Finding the perfect translation partner

In this fast and competitive world it isn’t easy being a freelancer, and it isn’t easy to get your foot in the door as a translator, especially when you are young and inexperienced.

I was very lucky in that I got to “learn on the job” when Berlin’s alternative magazine culture was exploding in the mid-90s and you could still count the number of English native speakers on one hand. I soon became the “go-to” girl in my network of friends and literally learned where to put apostrophes as I went…No, my local comprehensive school education didn’t even stretch to explaining what a relative clause or a collective noun is.TTR_postkarte

When asked to take on the translations for a new fashion magazine back in 2006, I was told that the workload would be split 50/50 (which was fine with me, as it was always deadline-life-on-hold kind of work, racing to that all important print date) and they added, by the by, that all my work would be proofed by another translator, based in Cologne, Paula Hedley. My blood ran cold as I envisaged an older dame, with scraped-back hair and commas for eyebrows slashing away at my flawed work with her lethal red pen.


Every translator is fearful of having their work criticised (I imagine), and let’s face it, no one is perfect. And we translators are not exactly a bunch of team players either, very much used to working alone, and relying on no one: we often work without backup; if the schedule is tight, we often toil late into the night, with no one to offload on. If we’re lucky, we might have understanding partners who bring us cups of tea, or older children who pat us on the back on their way out, saying “Oh mum, don’t worry, you’ll get it done in time.”

So I was overjoyed to find out that my new compulsory partner in crime was a svelte but cheeky Newcastle lass with a great sense of humour and an ability to give and take criticism or corrections in the loveliest way possible. It was a match made in heaven. She has the down-to-earth language of a true Northerner, with the humour to go with it, and is a dab hand at creating catchy, punchy headlines that make us a hit in the corporate/commercial world when it comes to selling or making an impact, while I sometimes have the la-di-dah vocab of a professor emeritus and can dissect the most slithery of nested German sentences with the exactitude and grace of a skilled chef wielding a sharp knife. She talks me down per WhatsApp if I want to use the word “excoriate” too often, and I adjust her “made of’s” and “made from’s” with a motherly stroke.images

In 2011 we founded Trend Translations together, with the aim of appealing to a wider commercial spectrum, enabling us to take on larger contracts and expand our business as well as giving our fruitful cooperation a face and a professional corporate design. We are now in a position to turn down jobs, or pass them on to others. One key to our success, I am sure, is the fact that we both proof pretty much all of each other’s work. Instead of translating, it is easy to transmogrify instead, producing a babbling stream of verbiage, losing perspective with complex academic sentences (do you see where I am going with this…?) or overcomplicating what should be a punchy title for a watch ad or fashion article. And that’s when it is worth its weight in gold to have an honest supportive business partner on hand via Skype, email or WhatsApp to let you know when you are overthinking something, or using jargon no one but Stephen Hawking will understand.


It is probably the savviest decision both of us made, reciprocally proofing each other’s work (whenever possible) and finding someone to confide in when a particular project is proving difficult, or some nightmare client hits you with some negative feedback. (Yes, this happens to us all at some stage!) Not only is it nice to be able to send someone your evening’s efforts and exchange a few words over your morning coffee, but it will improve your work immeasurably.

So here are my tips on how and where to find that person and how to deal with translation partnerships:


    Online platforms like, or Facebook groups like Standing Out and Parents Who Are Freelance Translators, or Watercooler are a great way to meet people online and exchange thoughts. It’s nice to have some business banter, and an excellent source of information for CAT tools, but often these people are based far away in other countries and time zones.
    Ideally it’s nice to meet people IRL, especially if you are looking for a long- term working partnership. Somehow it is always easier to get a feel for someone and their working methods face to face. Having said that, I only met Paula after we’d been working well together for a few years. She lives in Cologne and I live in Berlin. The old-school Translators’ Stammtisch (based in Berlin), or groups aimed at expat writers and translators like those organised by The Reader or Transfiction, or bookstores like Curious Fox or Another Country, are all great places to find like-minded folk if you can pluck up the courage to get out from behind your screen and go out into the big, wide world. (I know, I know, it’s really hard…)
    It’s no good trying to team up with someone who loves to sleep in till eleven and thinks deadlines are for fun rather than a must, if you are at your desk by eight every morning and like to hand work in a day early. Someone who translates only part time and spends most of their day out dog sledding somewhere without phone reception or Wi-Fi is not going to make a good emergency backup. If you are a bit of a workaholic, then find someone equally committed. I know with Paula, that in a pinch we can see things through over a tough weekend, powered by nothing but caffeine and amusing comments on each other’s proofed documents, and she won’t leave me in the lurch. And we can always cover for each other when we’re on holiday.
  4. TRUST
    is a must. Especially when you are earning money together or sharing clients. You need to know that you are on the same page when it comes to pricing and make decisions about how to divvy up work if too much comes in. We both have our own personal clients, people we were recommended to directly, but when our agency is approached in a more general way, we share the work, or figure out who is the best fit. Luckily, we tend more toward the “No, you do it if you want to, no you, no YOU!!” style of cooperation than being greedy about it.
    It’s probably advisable to find someone with similar or at least overlapping areas of expertise. Beware those who say they can work across the board! We have a good network of people specialising in areas we don’t have a clue about (legal or medical texts) and Paula and I overlap on fashion, our main focus, with me specialising more in the direction of textiles, architecture and history, and her veering more toward marketing, tourism and lifestyle.
    It’s important to communicate clearly, especially when business is on the line. Telling someone exactly when you expect a piece of work back is so much better for all concerned instead of saying “Some time next week would be good,” and assuming they have the same “I’ll-do-it-right-now” work ethic as you, and then getting pissed off when they send it to you Friday night at 9pm. Paula usually writes something like “Please send back by 2pm” in the header so that I can keep track of her requests during a busy day doing other work. I am often quite random in my “desk time” being a mother of two and fond of heading out to the country, so I try to check in with her regularly and let her know roughly when she can expect me to be around.
    Sometimes you have to be nudged into being a little more assertive on the market. I was toddling along quite nicely on our tiny prices, living in Berlin with cheap rent and low expectations, so it took Paula’s cool business nous to suggest (gently) that we could start charging more. I almost fell off my chair when she suggested the new pricing, but now I am enthusiastically charging healthy prices that make me even happier to be working in such a fun job, and our clients still get a good deal because being a small agency we don’t have high overheads or a large bureaucracy to feed.
    It’s important to appreciate the person you are working with, even if you don’t see them. Being Brits a long way from home, we share a love of British food, a good pie and chips, or a chicken jalfrezi (living in Berlin that counts as British food!) and so on our birthdays or after a particularly hard slog Paula sends me little care packages filled with goodies from Marks & Sparks like biscuits and tea bags. Just another reason why having a partner makes working more fun.Now, who could ask for more from a business partner?! What are you waiting for?


Useful Addresses

Parents who are Freelancers

Standing Out



Another Country Berlin

Curious Fox:

The Reader