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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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6 comments

  1. Love it! Really sums up the conflicting obligations of work and childcare as well as the need for leisure time in our hectic, deadline-determined society!

  2. Great advice for anybody who works from home and has kids. Times are more enlightened now. Wish I had a clearer plan like this when I was working freelance ages ago. In the UK mothers who worked where rather frowned upon in those times (70s), so rather than getting helpful advice I got reprimands and heaps of guilt !

  3. Thank you for the lovely advice. I feel the same struggle sometimes between kids and work because I love them both sooo much that it is difficult to please one and not the other. Your advice is well noted.

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