Life as a Freelance Interpreter and Translator

Sophie Chang Deming 張嘉芸



Being a freelancer is great. Your work hours are incredibly flexible, you’re not stuck in an office all day, you don’t have to deal with office politics/colleagues, you can wear pajamas while you’re working (for translation, not interpretation cases, obviously), you get to decide which cases you want to take, and you get to go on really long vacations.


But, these perks also come with a lot of demands. You have to be VERY self-disciplined and organized, you have to work on weekends or at night when everyone else is having fun, you get no income unless you actually do your work, you often have to explain to friends and family that you’re not unemployed, and there’s basically no comfort zone: you’re constantly reminded of how much you don’t know and what skills you lack.


So, here are three things I’ve observed throughout my freelancing journey and I think would be helpful to know regardless of which stage you’re in right now:


First, appreciate feedback when you get it. One of the things I miss the most about interpreting classes is that thanks to our amazing teachers, we actually get feedback for our performance. Even though criticism stings, it’s what helps us pinpoint our weaknesses and motivates us to improve. When you’re a student, you don’t really realize how important that is. When you actually get interpreting cases outside of school, you rarely get such insightful and precise feedback. Sometimes you get overly positive feedback from clients, saying that you did a great job when you don’t feel like that yourself. And then sometimes you get nitpickers who think they can do a better job than you just because they picked out one tiny imperfection in your performance. Usually, I’m grateful for any kind of feedback, good or bad, because that means at least someone was listening to you and actually cared enough to tell you what they think. Just try not to take it too hard.


Second, never stop learning and picking up any kind of information. Because of my cases, I’ve been able to learn about things I never thought I’d be interested in, such as breastfeeding, golf, supplement foods, smart manufacturing, and the Byzantine Empire. These aren’t really things I read about in my free time, but once you learn more about them, you’ll find them actually quite fascinating. I am so much more curious about the world since I started interpreting and I always appreciate the chance to grow intellectually.


Plus, you never know when one tiny bit of information will come in handy. This February, I interpreted for the author of the Book Thief, Markus Zusak, when he came to Taiwan for the International Book Exhibition. During one photo shoot, the photographer said that Mr. Zusak’s smile was looking kind of forced (he was probably so tired, poor man) and asked me to tell him a joke. Now, I’m usually the kind of person who forgets a joke right after I hear it. But then I remembered this random joke I read on reddit. It goes like this: Q: What does a cat say when it has no savings in the bank? A: I’m paw. (Get it?) Anyways, it was probably such a bad joke that it actually worked. I feel like those genuine moments when you really connect with the person you’re interpreting for are so precious and memorable. They make interpreting an even more meaningful job.


Third, take every single opportunity seriously. As a freelancer, you’re not guaranteed to get jobs. You get more jobs by taking each and every opportunity you get seriously and doing it as well as you possibly can. The days leading up to an interpreting assignment are often nerve-racking for me. The person you’re interpreting for is usually an expert in his or her own field. It almost feels like an impossible task to be armed with the same amount of knowledge to interpret for them. I read rigorously on the subject, prepare a vocabulary sheet, go over the slides and material again and again, but it never seems enough. The truth is, we’ll never be able to predict what the speaker’s going to talk about. I tell myself that I’m there to serve the audience members. As long as communication between the speaker and the audience goes smoothly, I’ve done my job. The hard preparation work always pays off. Even in the classroom, you should take each week’s material seriously. You need to bring your best to class so that your instructor can gauge your performance based on your real capabilities instead of a half-hearted effort.


The road of interpreting is rocky and winded. I’ve had my confidence shattered into pieces and I’ve had to pick myself up from where I fell. But, it’s definitely worth it. Even if you don’t end up becoming an interpreter or translator, the process of learning it equips you with so many skills that are applicable in many aspects of life. With those skills, you can learn anything you don’t know already very efficiently, which gives you endless opportunities.