The (Dis)Comfort Zone II

In an earlier post I talked about how, if you want to produce optimal work or push yourself to be that bit better, faster, sharper, the optimal place to be is outside your comfort zone. It’s where the zingy ideas happen.

But I also know how hard it is to leave the comfort zone, especially if you’re not the most daring person. But the only difference between you, and the slouch on the couch, is that one of you just gets up and does it anyway.


One of the things that I used to be uncomfortable with was travelling. The absence of control over where you are going to get food, or a decent night’s sleep, or whether the Muezzin is going to lead his call to prayers at 6am, just freaked me out. But having forced myself to do it, and realising I was actually OK, I now also know that it helps me to prioritise better, to value my work, my free time, my friends. Travelling has direct knock-on effects on so many aspects of your life, as I mentioned in my last post, which make it an absolute must for anyone wanting to remain open to the world, especially for us translators.

So, without further ado, my travel tips on turning the fear into the fearless.

  1. Buddha nature

Cultivating your sense of childish wonder at each new situation is a great way of calming yourself. Instead of thinking “What if I miss my flight/train/don’t find my hotel…” take a look around and ground yourself in the details. It also helps to check out what children near you are doing. (Well, if they’re not in the middle of a tantrum or staring into a “device”.) Years ago, my children would be so busy figuring out and marvelling at the fold-down tables in the plane (or the ones stowed in the armrest), they didn’t have time to worry about “What if the plane crashes?” At least for the first five minutes…


(This was taken by my ten-year-old daughter, proving that her experience of Barcelona was utterly different from mine. Her photos were often shot from a worm’s eye view, and were often close-ups. They made me think about how everyone sees the world very differently.)

  1. Having a reason

I’m not very good at doing things that don’t have a palpable result. I’m a utilitarian kind of girl and perhaps I’m also a little scared of “free-form time”, worried it will swallow me up.

So when it comes to travel, one way of providing structure and results is going to language school or taking some kind of course. Not only does it mean you are learning something, it also means you have a daily rhythm and you’ll make friends without even trying. And if something better comes up, you can always pretend you’re 14 again and bunk off!

  1. Controlling the chaos

When I went abroad alone for the first time, my biggest fear was losing my key or having it stolen while I was wandering the streets. I didn’t know a soul in the city and preferred to leave my mobile phone at the apartment so that it wouldn’t get stolen. So I knew that if my key was stolen I would have absolutely no way of getting in touch with anyone (because the only phone number I knew off by heart was the one belonging to my best friend at primary school, Helen Bothleswick, and she might possibly have moved house since the seventies). Obviously, it is slightly irrational to worry about someone stealing a key (what would they do with it?) but regardless, my solution was to hide the second key in a plant pot on the roof. You will not believe how calm and safe this made me feel.


  1. Associations

You know the best thing about being a translator? They are EVERYWHERE. I don’t know if people have this with every profession, you know, secret little car mechanic clubs dotted all over the globe, where you get to talk about carburettors and turtle wax, or European hairdressing clans where they exchange favourite scissor-sharpening secrets and discuss and compare tipping rates in different European cities….but wherever you go, yes, even in South Dakota, you will find there are meet ups for translators. I joined a gang of about twenty very welcoming translators in a lovely little bistro in Barcelona where I ate the best pastrami sandwich this side of New York and got to talk shop and find out what it was like to live and work in the beautiful city. It’s nice to know you are never truly a stranger, wherever you go in the world. Especially as a translator.screen-shot-2017-01-05-at-21-29-07

  1. Getting lost doesn’t mean you’re going to die

Another concern I had was getting lost. Especially in the first few days with my children where I realised that maybe I am just not a map person. Initially I tried to navigate by the street names and avoided getting lost by poring over the map and boring my kids to tears. But thanks to them, I discovered that sometimes it really isn’t that important to know which street you’re on. And once you let go, it’s so much more fun. Barcelona’s old town is perhaps one square kilometre, so we’re not exactly talking Welsh hills in November. In fact, now I actually relish wandering around without knowing exactly where I am, as long as there are enough tapas bars along the way.

  1. The internet can be your friend

If, after taking yourself out of the comfort zone, you feel the need for a bit of company, it’s nice to know you can meet like-minded people anywhere in the world if you want to.

Back in the day, the only way to make friends in a strange place was by simply sitting at a random bar, preferably the same one night after night, or striking up a conversation with a stranger on a park bench. But these things happen less these days because everyone is of the “bowed head tribe”, engrossed in their mobile phones. If it doesn’t strike you as pseudo-modernist to be using social media to actually meet people IRL, then this is for you. There are a bunch of mobile apps beyond social tinder and bumble, like MeetUp, peoplehunt, and ATLETO if you’re looking for people who share your passion for wine or food, or for some sports buddies to go for a run with when you’re a stranger in town.


When it comes down to it, the desire for safety and security and instincts like fear are generally a good thing – they keep you from doing stupid things like jumping off cliffs and going home with strangers. But it’s knowing when the time has come to say “thank you primeval cavewoman brain, for worrying about me, but I think I’ll take it from here,” that keeps life special and exciting.

Translation Blues

Yes, we all have bad days. Even translators. We may well have the best job in the world, helping people to communicate across the globe using the tools we love, words. And if we are good, after a few years, we can work wherever we want, whenever we want, experiencing the digital nomad life that everyone seems to covet.


But the truth is, we often work alone, sometimes completely isolated from the outside world. Some days, my only face to face contact is with the DHL delivery guy who drops off packages for the whole neighbourhood with me because he knows I’m always home. He gives me updates on the weather, as clearly I am not in touch with how warm or cold it is outside, either swaddled in thick jumpers on a summer’s day, or wearing a T-shirt when it’s snowing out.

So, without the constant camaraderie of office colleagues, after-work drinks in the pub or morning breaks spent gossiping around the coffee machine, it’s not really surprising that, as freelancers, we sometimes find ourselves in the doldrums.


There are so many things that can kick it off: a random remark by a frenemy, bad feedback on a job, no feedback on a job, that sickly feeling in your stomach that you might have sent that document to the wrong person late at night, or a misunderstanding with a client…

I’ve been at the terminological coalface for a long time now, but I still get wordsmith burnout every once in a while. Days where you doubt your own skills, and wonder if it is even worth it. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of work that – how can I put it – ain’t exactly saving any lives. After translating brochure after brochure on how to look younger and banish wrinkles or keep fit with the help of various expensive items of sports equipment and makeup, I have had a few “put a paper bag over my head” moments.

And then, to top it all off, I had the frenemy experience: while out for a drinks I was discussing the debts being racked up by a mutual friend. I hated the fact that despite being a trained engineer our friend couldn’t get out of his cycle of debt because he simply wasn’t earning enough. Unprompted, a snarky comment followed about “people like me” (read freelancers in creative industries) earning “shedloads” translating “stuff no one needs or reads”.

I know I should have just walked away, and I generally don’t feel the need to explain or defend my work to anyone, but some days your bitch-shield isn’t as impervious as you’d like. And I suspect all translators have these days too sometimes. So here are my tips on how to deal with the translator blues.

1. Watch the world go by

Venture out into the world again for a couple of hours. Even if it’s just to sit on the next street corner, watching people bustling by, going about their daily business. Last week I observed some road workers from a café window and I found it strangely soothing to see them painting white stripes on the road and worrying about which sign to put where, ensuring our road safety. I wonder if they also sometimes keep themselves up at night, worrying they put that “Give Way” sign up upside down …


  1. Get in touch with nature

If I’m feeling really out of sorts, the only cure is to head out to the countryside and rustle up a good fire by the lake. I like to do this alone, crack open a beer and chew the cud for a while. Plants, animals, lakes, rivers and sky all have a way of tweaking everything back into perspective. Suddenly that press release doesn’t seem as “pressing”. After all, if the woodpecker is still pecking away and the ants are still busy, all will be well with the world.


  1. Recheck your values

It’s not always a bad thing to have frenemies to “poke your bear”, so to speak. It often helps us question things we have taken for granted. In fact, everyone should have a bear poker in their lives. Maybe you’re a little bit too comfortable in your rut or perhaps it’s time to branch out and find a new client whose content challenges you more, or do some pro bono work.

4. Reach out to your peers

This, for me, is when social media comes into its own. Whether it’s through blogging or just taking part in online discussions, it’s nice to know you are not alone and that your experiences, whatever they may be, are often universal, or at least more widespread than you may think. Yes, even if you’re a plant-loving, budgerigar-breeding translator, you too have your tribe!*

For me, the Facebook forum Standing Out has been a game-changer, as a place I can go for advice, support or mostly just a little virtual chat over coffee. It’s like having your very own gang at work.

But basically, what I’m saying is – a bad day can also lead to a productive rethink. In the middle of such a day last week I got a lovely comment on my blog from someone who had noticed I hadn’t written for a while, which, apart from comforting me and cheering me up, led to me writing this post! Someone took time out of their busy day to let me know that, in my own small way, I do make a difference.

So instead of hating yourself for being weak and having a bad day, despite having the best job in the universe, see it as a much-needed break, pull the blankets back over your head and go wallow. And as for tomorrow: them words ain’t gonna translate themselves!
Happy translating to you all!



*Shout out to a translator colleague in Syria who I “met” on Standing Out, a wonderfully upbeat, generous-hearted Facebook forum for translators all over the world, who gave me invaluable advice about buying budgies for my daughter. You never know where you will find support and friendship.



The Glamorous Life of a Fashion Translator Part II

(Boredom alert! For fashionista word nerds and wannabes only!)

IMG_20160603_124131Having established in Part One that translating fashion texts isn’t quite as glamorous as you might think and that fashion translators aren’t necessarily always sitting in the front row in Milano or being showered with gifts from designer labels, it’s time to run through the real nitty-gritty, the actual working process. Or at least the one that works for us, and by us I mean Trend Translations (www.trendtranslations.de), my long-standing partnership with my translation colleague and proofreading sidekick Paula Hedley.

We translate everything from press releases for designers and collection descriptions for websites to invitations to Fashion Week parties but one of our favourite fashion clients is a specialist magazine for the fashion biz. It’s an invaluable source for the latest in jeans and contemporary trends and is published four times a year. Here’s how we tackle this particular job:

  1. We start off by being sent a rundown of the coming issue (“Ausgabenplan” in German) from the editor-in-chief, stating the various deadlines for delivery of text for the journalists and our translations, and also the time slots allocated for the correction period, layout etc. For deadline read “Time from which the editor will start hassling everyone and getting frantic.” Inevitably the whole process is stretched out over a few weeks so it’s best not to book our holidays until the issue is flying off the printing press and our job is officially done. Sometimes the contributors send their texts directly, but mostly they are sent by the editor after being tweaked and fact-checked.
  1. It’s always a bit like Christmas when we start receiving the texts from the various editors and contributors because the magazines we work for are usually packed with interesting interviews and articles about leading designers and manufacturers and brands, which are a real pleasure to read and of course to translate. There are also some witty puff pieces or lengthier in-depth articles and essays, as well as a city guide in each issue.
  1. Paula or I compile an Excel chart of the texts to be translated, which we upload to OneDrive in a file we are both authorised to update and read. We update as we go along, sharing out the texts between us as equally as possible. Then basically we get on with translating, using whichever method suits us best. Until now we’ve been very old-school – not quite paper and plume, but without the whole CAT tool shebang. However, we’re currently working on sharing termbases and translation memories and dipping our toes in the ocean that is Memsource and memoQ. And we find that Dragon (speech-recognition software) is very useful when translating interviews as it helps to capture the laid-back flow of the speakers, and of course speeds things up immensely.
  1. We upload all documents to Google Drive or OneDrive to make sure everyone in the team has access to them, even if one of us is working at an airport or sitting in a kayak in the middle of a lake, the digital nomads that we are! We send each other everything for proofing, sometimes bouncing a particularly tricky piece back and forth four or five times.
  1. There’s always lots of research to be done, the names and spellings of every brand name, manufacturer and store as well as their website URLs have to be checked and double checked, and I try not to get side-tracked by browsing Drykorn’s website or held up reading interviews with designers I admire. You have to be au fait with the latest terminology: what used to be a jumpsuit or a boiler suit is now referred to as “onesie” and what was known as a leotard in my day is now a “body”, for example. Heels are now sometimes referred to as “pumps” which reminds me more of stinky black rubber plimsolls from school sports than sexy stiletto heels.

Although major German newspapers have their own style guides, of course no German-produced magazine has a dedicated English style guide, so it’s up to us to be consistent, even if only galão-sipping transatlantic Parisians are reading us. So if we spell Cracow without an accent once we have to make sure we do it throughout the entire issue. That’s Paula’s specialty. And of course it helps that we both enjoy leafing through the latest issue of British Vogue and The Business of Fashion and checking out the reviews of Fashion Weeks in the New York Times and Harpers Bazaar, for a feel of the kind of language used.

  1. Once we’ve sent all our finished translations off to the graphic designer for layout, the editorial team will often come back at us with last-minute changes, urgent new texts or headings that might need translating etc. That might mean a phone call while we’re navigating the supermarket aisles with our trolley or a late-night one-liner on WhatsApp. We often work evenings when the deadline is nearing. It’s simply part of the job, and one we both take in our stride, trying to make sure we balance things out with a Thai massage, enough sport and some digital detoxing when the magazine is hot off the press. But you do need nerves of steel sometimes when fielding the increasingly plaintive demands of the graphic designer waiting to be “fed” with new texts and the in-transit messages from the editor who is already halfway around the globe at her next destination or interview for the next issue and doesn’t have the foggiest where the final version of the intro for the fashion tradeshow text might be.
  2. Paula, who is geographically nearer to the editorial team for our main magazine client, has the highly responsible and difficult job of checking the final proofs by hand with the graphic designer at his office. That’s why she is always a real stickler about removing any unnecessary mistakes ahead of time and has a pet hate of stray “straight” apostrophes that Dragon sneaks in. She’s the one who saves the magazine the embarrassment of printing the wrong year on the cover and can always be relied upon when it comes to spelling difficult designer names like Proenza Schouler and Walter Van Beirendonck.vogue_pool_2

Now for the pros and cons…


  1. Freebies: I’m really bad at this, but I have streetwise colleagues who are always bagging themselves freebies and goodie bags like the cute monthly My Little Box subscriptions – as well as commanding top rates!
  2. Decent pay: Working for PR companies, as well as agencies who cater to big brands means they are willing to pay higher rates for your additional skills, which will include excellent copywriting, as well as ensuring you’re clued-up on all the terminology. They sometimes simply pass the cost on to their clients so they are looking for quality rather than a cheap rush job. I love these clients because they really value your language skills and know that one spelling faux pas (Columbia instead of Colombia for example) can ruin a whole advertising campaign. Fashion magazines and tradeshow guides generally pay less, but the upside is that it’s regular work and a large chunk in one go. So although it’s stressful, you can allow yourself a luxury break afterwards.
  3. Second-hand glamour: You can certainly ask your clients to get you into fashion shows, and some may even offer you clothing in lieu of payment. A colleague I know receives cool streetwear in return for proofreading texts for the label’s catalogues. Obviously that’s not going to pay the rent but it’s a very nice bonus.
  4. Being in the know: You will be one of the first people in town to know about new trends and upcoming collections. If you want to be an “early adopter” and wear culottes and blousons before they hit the high street, then this is the job for you!IMG_1969
    Another day at the office…


  1. Online distractions: When researching whether that buckskin waistcoat has a vertical or a horizontal mid-seam, it is easy to suddenly find yourself filling up your shopping cart on ASOS or, heaven forbid, Maison Margiela, and spending every cent you earned that day in the process.
  2. Raison d’être: It’s hard to convince yourself you are truly making a difference when you translate fashion. If you are planning to bag a Nobel Peace Prize you need to look elsewhere, and translation-wise you should probably also find a balance by doing stuff that makes the grey matter cry ouch every once in a while. But we shouldn’t have to live under a bridge just to translate or write that world-shattering opus. Personally I love writing my own stuff, translating texts for documentary film narration or the odd stint for an art book or museum catalogue. But I also love the airy lightness and joy of fashion work.
  3. You will be asked to work for free a lot…whether it’s “just three Instagram hashtags” or “two Facebook posts, daahhling!” So you need to practice saying no and choose carefully when to say yes.
  4. Stress: Magazine deadlines, tradeshows, Press Days and the week preceding Fashion Week. Basically your yearly calendar has its stress curves already drawn in for you. That’s when everyone is scrambling to get their press releases written and sent out. Even if I am not planning any visits to fashion events I make sure I keep the week beforehand light in terms of social activities as that’s usually when emergency work comes flooding in. In the commercial world in general, where time is money, fast turnarounds are often a must. But especially in the fashion industry, where the large chain stores are taking inspiration from the catwalks and transforming them into off-the-peg cheap fashion within six weeks, every second counts.

So, if all this sounds like it would float your boat, and you are already an experienced translator with a penchant for creative texts, you will need to get out there and network with people from the fashion sector, meet young up-and-coming designers (offer to translate their “About us” page for free, for example,) attend tradeshows, or even study a particular aspect of the trade you find interesting (design, marketing, textiles etc.). Glass of champagne at Berlin Fashion Week anyone?vogue pool

*Photo credits Paula Hedley.


Where are you from? De donde eres? Wo kommst du her?


When travelling, or working with people from different countries, this is a question you will be asked a lot. And I mean a lot. In almost every interaction. They even ask you now when entering a museum, where no doubt some kind of statistic is created out of it. Perhaps, if we all started saying “Wales”, all the information panels would be translated into Welsh!


It’s a question that has me puzzled, yet I ask it myself all the time. I never really felt it contributed much to the idea of “who someone is”. Yet not to ask it seemed impossible too. And how to answer?  Where, really, really, do we come from?

As I was walking along the Via Laeitana the other day, a nice dark-haired “Spanish” lady smiled and stopped me and asked if I had ever heard of “doctors without borders”. I said, “Si, pero no hablo Español. She replied in English, “Oh, that’s no problem! Where are you from?” I said “Germany” as that is where I have lived for the past 25 years and I wasn’t sure of the relevance, seeing as she wanted money from me and not a tourist review. She raised her eyebrow rather gallicly and said “You don’t SOUND German!” I almost apologised. Next time I vill speek viz a German akzent. But we had a very interesting conversation (in English) and she told me about doctors without borders and I told her about translators without borders and after parting with some money, on I went. Later, sitting on a bench in the sun I was approached by a young dreadlocked “American” guy for a cigarette. “Sorry, I don’t smoke,” (why do we ex-smokers always feel so damn apologetic about the fact we have given up, or is it a British thing, simply apologising for everything?) but, instead of just wandering off, he said, “Where are you from?” This time I said “England.” And he nodded and walked off, as though his mission were complete. Was it the wrong answer? Or did he feel the interaction had had some degree of success once he had placed me geographically?
Of their very nature, many translators have a geographically chequered past, mixing Spanish, German, French, Welsh and English liberally in their linguistic evolution, yet even we, when first meeting, want to know: “Where are you from?” Convoluted conversations ensue with strings of place names: “From Warrington, but moved away at the age of seven, then spent three years in Malaysia, before moving back to Britain,” or “From Newcastle, but have lived in France for thirty years.”

I was born in Islington, London, but at two weeks I was in Hamburg. At three months in Berlin and at one year back in Southall, where on the streets only Hindi and Punjabi were spoken, and the fashion stores had Indian mannequins sporting saris.


I spent my early years being looked after by a Malaysian nanny, then a German one, spent time in a German kindergarten; London schools followed. I moved to Liverpool, to Manchester, then Berlin. Put me in a pub full of lairy Mancunians and the warm burr will also trip off my tongue; stick me in with a busload of Scousers and I’ll likely be calling you “la” before the trip is over.
We translators have this wonderful spongy tendency to soak up the language soup we find ourselves in. In Barcelona the Catalan “Bon dia” was quickly in my blood, much more than “Buenos dias”. (Even though I can’t say much beyond that!)
In 2014, Taiye Selasi ,the talented Nigerian/Ghanian/American/Italian/German writer, gave a TED talk about this very issue. She spoke eloquently of her feelings of home, the tastes and smells and sounds that denote her feeling of “Heimat” – for which most languages don’t even have a word!  She talked about Afropolitans, making me want to be a Europolitan, and asked, “How can we come from a political concept, a state?”

Of course, when I say Königsberg, it is a concept, it conjures pictures, perhaps smells, perhaps memories, in your mind. The same for South-West Africa or Kovářská. Perhaps even Berlin. The passage of time and the sweep of politics has pushed and pulled borders around like a giant bedsheet being shaken out and rearranged.


Ask my mum. She was born in a place and a country that no longer exists. Even the name of the place has changed. From Schmiedeberg and Šmídeberk to Kovářská. And ask anyone born in the GDR. So what to do with that? When my mother wanted to claim her (West) German passport after reunification, they demanded to know if she did indeed have “German blood”, (as her (East) German passport stated Kovářská as her place of birth, which, in the new making of the postwar bed, had been placed behind the Czech border, despite having had a large German-speaking population). My mother held out her arm, pale side up, and said “I don’t know, why don’t you tell me?”
Taiye Selasi concludes that to a large extent many of us are “multi-local” feeling at home in several places, or indeed none. So surely the question should not be, “Where are you from?” but rather: “Where are you local?”

When I step out of my  flat in Barcelona to buy samosas from the Pakistani grocer across the way, who speaks with the same cadence as the Pakistanis in Ealing, and buy my bread from the local Panaderia every day,  I almost feel “local”; I feel “known”.
When I am in London and drop by the Chinese takeaway, as I do once a year to order the same familiar food, I feel “home” but I haven’t lived there for 28 years.
When I see the local supermarket in Berlin being demolished for a flashy modern new build in Prenzlauer Berg, where I raised my children and drank my first glass of Sekt, the “local” part of my heart hurts.
So now, when I look at someone and ask them where they are from, I usually know I will be settling in for a loooong tale of migration and flux, a fascinating story of roads less travelled: of places, cultures and languages that form and change us and makes us who we are. It’s something that can’t be answered in just one word, or be vouched for by one passport.


Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 16.58.50

Which town is this? Answers on a postcard.



And this?

207 bus at Shepherd's Bush

And an easy one to finish…


Here’s a link to Taiye Selasi’s talk. Well worth watching!




Putting the “Free” Back into Freelancing

Most people know that the term “freelancer” dates back to the days of chivalry and knights, when the “free” lances were basically guns for hire, medieval mercenaries with no allegiance to any king or queen. Sounds pretty romantic doesn’t it? A bit Lancelot and Lady Guinevere. But of course guns for hire are also lances to be broken. “To break a lance for someone” is now a little-used idiom, expressing a willingness to go all in for a person or a cause. In German we have the same idiom “Eine Lanze brechen für…”.Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.38.13

I am certainly willing to break a lance for self-determination aka freelancing. For the idea of being able to decide for yourself where you draw the line. When to say yes, and when to say no.

We get to set the terms, and as long as we are supplying something that is in demand (freelance whingers are out of luck) we can (within the confines of market forces) set down our rules. So, if you are an urban nomad or want to work out of a backpack (with good hotspot facilities nearby) or in a wooden hut (ditto) or only at night, or only for Russian poets, or automobile PR companies, then go ahead. You got the skills, then you get the thrills.

But I had a few years where I forgot about the free in freelance. And I am pretty sure many of you will recognise yourselves in this scenario:

It was going to be a short break with the kids and friends. I had planned to hang out in the hammock, drink beer and shoot the breeze every evening, with days spent lazily watching the kids jump around in the lake. What actually happened was that I ended up bent over my computer in a shady corner of the garden (sometimes with a towel over my head to aid visibility!) where the internet was just about viable (I needed half an hour sweating bullets to send one document) for the entire three days of the “break” because I got a last-minute job that paid enough to cover my entire month of living costs. I almost got a stomach ulcer from the stress of it (it was also a field I wasn’t completely au fait with but when I had voiced doubts they were brushed away by the company, who were simply desperate to get the job done) and spent much of my free time apologising to my hosts (who possibly didn’t care that much, and certainly didn’t understand, because they all had regular nine-fives.) I would say the word “freelancer”, shrugging, as if that magical word was reason enough for me to forgo my holiday, because after all, I did get to drink coffees in the sun at random times of the day and pick my kids up from school myself.

It was less this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 21.34.41

And more this: Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 21.40.47

It was that moment: where anxiety gnaws at your stomach, you realise you bit off more than you can chew, and yeah, the money is great, but this voice in your head is asking “When does it stop being worth it?”

I delivered the final docs to the client (who, when I spoke to him on the phone to clarify some terminology, was on a mountaintop in Oregon, skiing with his two children, and spent half the conversation shouting at them to be quiet. He didn’t really seem to care which words I used anyway) and I remember thinking, “So this guy is rich enough to go skiing with his kids in June, but isn’t rich enough to be able to switch off his phone?” So, a week later, when he confirmed everything was fine, I said “And by the way, please do not plan me in for any future jobs. The job is more suited to someone using CAT tools and would work out much cheaper for you that way too.” A consternated silence at the other end, and then “Really?” To his credit, he never called again.

And I remembered then, that the whole point about being a freelancer are the four letters at the front of the word.


When did the world of work get to be so omnipotent that getting a couple of days’ worth of work or winning a new client makes us want to break out the champagne? It’s great to love your job, and I mostly do, but nevertheless it is something I do mainly to pay the rent. Otherwise I would spend my time translating biographies for free. As freelancers we pay for our own healthcare, we forgo many benefits and safety nets that your classic employee enjoys (calling in sick anyone?) and for me the trade-off is clear. It means we should at least get to decide when and how. Of course nothing is going to protect you if you are not good at your job. But that holds true for any line of work. (Well, unless you’re a banker or a politician…sorry, couldn’t resist.) You need to get training, get qualified, go get. But for all others:

We need to RELAX!

We paid our rent, we will most probably continue to do so. And if we have a dry spell, we will figure things out. Which we have been doing all our lives. Barring major health issues, are our kids actively inhaling illicit substances as we speak? No? OK then.

No client is going to ask you if you are nearing breakdown when they request a quote. And they aren’t ever going to ask you when your last free weekend was. Why should they? That, as a freelancer, is your job too!

And because you shoulder all these extra responsibilities, it is also OK to charge more than your local barista. But above all, it’s about claiming the freedom that only you can claim. Going on proper holidays, writing an automatic reply that says “I won’t be in my office during this period. In the case of urgent translations feel free to contact Wilbur Wordsmith or Anna Apostrophe, my trusty colleagues.”

So….I am currently renting a pretty flat in the old town of Barcelona for a month. I have no phone and am only available via email or whatsapp. It is scary and new. But until now, my clients are still with me. I told them I was taking a holiday, and that I’d be back to work for the last two weeks, but Catalan-chola style. I want to wander around a strange town with my daughters without having to raise my forefinger at them when the phone rings, signaling that I need to concentrate on the call for a minute, even if one of them is about to do “the best handstand evah!”

It feels thrilling, exhilarating. And yes, I am grateful to be FREElance!

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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”.

Modern Walden or Life in the Woods near Berlin

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.” Henry David Thoreau


I am a sweet-water* lake kind of person. When I have time off from work I like to spend it at a lakeside cabin just outside Berlin. For those who don’t know, Berlin is surrounded by at least a zillion lakes, (OK then, 3,000) and everyone has their secret favourite that they only divulge to best friends, or people they owe money. I post kitschy photos of sunsets and heron flapping lazily over the horizon and spend my time watching mewling kites wheeling overhead with my binoculars. But when I take a photo of the serene lake with my smartphone the GPS function tags the photo as “Industriegebiet Rüdersdorf” (Industrial Area Rüdersdorf). That can’t be right, surely? I am on the edge of a nature reserve after all; the water so clear you can see your toes, mussels and schools of fish, carp as big as your arm jumping in the sunset. I even bought a rowing boat to better explore the area.

But I am not sure I liked what I discovered.
It didn’t help that my holiday reading was Naomi Klein’s magisterial book on the climate movement and the extractive industry “This Changes Everything.”

I took the book out in the boat with me, cast the anchor over the side, and bobbing out in the middle of the lake I could see various chimneys, and other industrial-looking silhouettes on the skyline, clear indications that despite the silence, the clear water, the great crested grebes and swans, I was not in the middle of untouched countryside: not only was I a mere 30 km from the hustle and bustle of Berlin’s centre I was also slap-bang in the middle of one of the largest industrial areas of Brandenburg. Opencast mining, gas-storage caverns, electricity generation, large-scale dumps, the works. The only thing I could identify off the bat was the cement works. That’s because when I return here after a week of city life, there is usually a fine white layer of dust covering everything outside. Plus there is a useful sign on the funnel-like structure saying “CEMEX.”

On the 40-minute drive here you pass every type of “urban sprawl” shop you can imagine: tyre and car outlets, building materials suppliers, warehouses, dump sites specifically for building waste, scaffolding businesses, forklift rentals, gas canister depots, about ten petrol stations, a liquid gas station, a garden centre selling only concrete statues of cherubs, and at least five large-scale DIY stores. An ALDI is just being built, there’s a wholesale pet food store, NETTO, Penny, the works. The kind of stuff we upwardly mobile Berliners tend to pretend doesn’t exist, at least in the Prenzlauer Berg world of organic shopping and shared sunlit work spaces-cum-coffee shops.


The lake where I spend my time is a bit mysterious, as it is not mentioned in the never-ending list of top bathing spots for Berliners looking to cool off. But that may simply be because the international media haven’t quite clocked on to the fact that there is an Eastern side of Berlin beyond Prenzlauer Berg, repeatedly listing Krumme Lanke, Tegelersee and Plötzensee as the go-to beaches. This seems odd considering a) the excellent water quality (it’s a nature reserve, with three springs feeding into it with the mussels, crayfish and myriad fish for proof) b) the proximity to the S-Bahn (4 km cycle ride through a pleasant cool woodland area, and a safe wide bike track) c) the size of the lake (220 hectares of sunlit water) and d) the great “Strandbad”, one of Germany’s many municipally subsidised beaches, with entrance fees of 2,50 € for grownups and 1,50 € per kid over six. Younger than that and you go free. The real money is earned with the beer and the grilled sausages, which, as I can attest, makes more sense than relying on stiff entrance prices. Once all those Rüdersdorfers are in there, they are a hungry, thirsty, captive audience and the size of the men’s paunches tells you the rest.

The Stienitzsee (there I’ve spilled the beans now) is the appendix end of a very long intestinal-like tract of waterways, bulging out in the form of lakes every once in a while (Kalksee, Flakensee, Müggelsee), connected by narrow canals: from its tail-end here at the nature reserve, it turns first into the Müggelspree, and then into the Spree, taking a convoluted detour through Berlin, with one arm heading towards the Spreewald on the Poland border, and the other heading all the way up to the Baltic Coast.

From the water you see things that are invisible from the road. Tiny basic cabins (“datschas” as they are still called, from the Russian for weekend homes, that pretty much everyone and his uncle seemed to have in the GDR) line the banks of the lake and canal. Some ramshackle, adorned with plastic swings and upturned leaking and paint-blistered boats with names like “Seejurke”** and “Kleiner Gustav”, some pristine with impeccable lawns leading down to the lake, with ostentatious gleaming “schwanzverlängerer”*** motor boats. But these cabins all have in common a certain modesty that still attests to the socialist past. No mock-Palladian palaces here, or Zehlendorf-style villas nor modernist fantasies. No vast wasteful lawns. Just normal people with normal habits lucky enough to have a spot by the water.

I decided to take the water route to visit the succinctly named “Building Materials Museum” nearby, whose name alone surely merits a visit by Bill Bryson. I turned into a narrow canal leading to the Kalksee, a limestone quarry that had been flooded after use. A large overhead road that leads to the Berliner Ring thundered above, and down below the bizarre sight of people enjoying the sun in plastic chairs, or mowing lawns by the river, whilst articulated lorries thundered above them.

The “Museum” with a pleasant dock and waterside café on the banks of the Kalksee is actually more of a park, a sprawling area with various historical reminders of the region’s industrial past and information on its present.

Turns out, where I spend my holidays used to be the largest raw materials producer for cement in the GDR. The quarry is four kilometres long, a kilometre wide and around 100 metres deep, the largest opencast quarry in Brandenburg.


In the summers during the early 1980s it snowed limestone; 59,000 tonnes of dust a year was produced by the limestone kilns alone. During the post-war GDR years the primary goals were fast cheap housing and growth. No one wanted to discuss the layers of dust settling on the freshly washed clothes on the washing lines around Rüdersdorf or the smell of burning chalk from the industrial lime kilns because there were more pressing needs. The environment was sacrificed on the altar of progress, whilst in the West it was being sacrificed on the altar of profit. In both cases the future was sacrificed for the immediate needs. Only in the eighties did environmental groups start making headway with the growing awareness of how these extractive industries were long-term affecting the water and air.

After reunification two cement works were shut down in the interests of “streamlining”, the third most profitable one was “bought” by Readymix Düsseldorf for what they call “an apple and an egg” here (not much) and turned into a state-of-the-art cement factory. It is still running strong nearby, but the air is somewhat cleaner thanks to the one million they invested in filters in line with European air pollution regulations.


Apparently the Brandenburger Tor, Schloss Sanssouci in Potsdam, the famous Volksbühne in Mitte, Berlin’s cathedral, the Olympic Stadium and lots of other landmark buildings all have one thing in common: they were all built from the limestone mined here in Rüdersdorf. It has been quarried and fired here for the past 750 years. Until it ran out, clay was also sourced from the banks of the lake and there were several brickyards in the area. To this day, the Rüdersdorf limestone quarry is the largest in central Europe. But ask a Berliner, and I bet 10 to 1 he won’t have heard of it.

So is Rüdersdorf the equivalent of Berlin’s hardware store? All the building materials you could need tucked away behind a few lakes and superstores, while we get to live in the elegant limestone buildings, saunter past organic coffee shop to the bespoke artisanal veggie store with no visual reminders of what it actually takes to build a city?

In 1764 King Frederick II had 13 “four-family-houses” built in Rüdersdorf to house foreign miners and their families. A village school soon followed, more houses, and then a colony for invalided-out soldiers who had to sign contracts to work the mines to pay for their upkeep. In 1899 the first cement factory opened up, ideally close to the limestone needed. The local waterways, leading directly to the heart of Berlin, and then via the Havel to Potsdam, were an additional factor. In the 1860s more houses were built for migrant workers from the Niederlausitz (Lower Lusatia, an area extensively mined for its lignite coal), who were brought in and housed in exchange for contractually binding work in the mines. Migrant workers from other areas of Germany soon followed. During the Nazi period prisoners were used as forced labour and after that migrants from Eastern Europe made it their home. During World War II, French, Italian and Soviet prisoners of war worked here, and then in the years of the GDR, workers were sourced from the nearby prisons.


Until Autumn 1989 the cement works and mines were strictly shielded from the public. With full employment, it was impossible to find people who wanted to work in the mines of their own free will, so the cement works were surrounded by concrete walls and dog runs. Production was continued with convicts from the Rüdersdorf prison. After the demise of the GDR the barracks were used as housing for asylum seekers, but under German law they weren’t allowed to work, otherwise they would probably have been set to work here too. From the watchtowers you have a bird’s eye view of the industrial landscape. I am reminded of apocalyptic films like Bladerunner or Stalker and it’s not a future I wish to pass on to my children. On the other hand, now that it is here, what a wonderful idea, to turn this community’s extractive past into an open air museum with children playing hide and seek in the old lime kilns and families having picnics on the newly grown grass. The museum guides at least seem unperturbed, in fact, quite proud of this moonscape. Apparently it was the site of many famous film scenes from 1914 onward, with famous directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Joe May filming here, with and actors like Hans Albers, Maria Carmi and Harry Piel. For the classic GDR-Karl May films about cowboys and Indians, actors would fight it out here in the white limestone “canyons of Colorado”. It seems ironic that while First Nation peoples in America and Canada fight to protect their lands from extractive mining and pipelines running through their countryside, actors on the other side of the world recreate the Wild West in the idyllic-seeming defunct mines and tailing lakes of Germany.

Somehow I don’t see the local Rüdersdorfers fighting for green energy. They are pretty busy polishing their high-speed motorboats and driving SUVs. The biggest employer in the area is CEMEX, which still blasts two detonations a day, and still supplies raw materials for Berlin’s continuing building boom. But since the eighties a mixed bag of progress and backtracking has been made, local forces of “progress” wanting to make a fast buck by allowing large corporations in combination with more sustainable forms of industry. In 1988, just before the Wall came down, a local Rüdersdorf Environmental Group was founded, concerned about the high levels of dust in the air and the pollution in the lakes. An exhibition was staged highlighting the effects of the local industry on the waterways and environment. The water was undrinkable and fish stocks had shrunk to a minimum, the eel that used to flourish here had disappeared. The group was key to turning the Stienitzsee into a nature reserve, almost worthy again of Fontane’s description of it as the “Thuringia of Berlin”,  but the towering industrial towers biting into the skyline are a reminder that there are two sides to the coin of our comfortable existence.

Nine wind turbines were erected in 1995, the museum on the site of the open pit mine was opened in 1994. And in 2011 the “Solarpark Rüdersdorf” opened on the 11-hectare site of the former rubbish tip Tasdorf. It was the largest rubbish tip serving Berlin in the 80s, covering 22 hectares, and was recently “sealed” with a photovoltaic farm on top providing enough power to fuel more than 750 homes.

The local mayor is pro-industry, Christian Democrat, Andre Haller, but despite this there are green initiatives taking place and there is currently a referendum on Brandenburg policies on intensive livestock farming vs sustainable and organic animal husbandry. Hope yet.


Communities need to be able to create their own balance between exploiting and preserving their country’s wealth. Sure, buildings have to be built, and heated, but we are now, better than ever before, in the privileged position of being able to choose which path to take: building with fast-growth renewable timber, in a sustainable way, powered by wind, solar and hydro-energy with lakes untouched and industrial mines remaining as quaint monuments to the past, or a future where lakes serve purely as tailing ponds for the runoff and toxins revealed from the earth.

Returning to my cabin after the museum visit, I saw a white-tailed sea eagle circling above, on the lookout for fish. A relatively rare sighting, but something I have shared with my daughters a few times now. That same evening we saw a vole, and discovered a raccoon in the plum tree, stuffing himself with half-ripe plums, and I tried hard to suppress the feeling of preemptive nostalgia, hoping against hope that my daughters too could share these wonderful sights with their children one day.


* the Germans call freshwater lakes “süsswasser” = sweet water lakes.

**Seejurke is a Berlinization of Seegurke (sea cucumber)

*** Schwanzverlängerer means “dick extension”. A lot of the motorboats seem to serve only that purpose, as they are only taken out at sunset for a quick fast spin around the lake and then polished all day.

Further reading: