‘Freelancer’ – the term we should leave behind in 2016

The new year period is a time to take stock. What’s been good about the year gone by and should be continued and pursued? What’s been bad about it and should be consigned to the history books?

Taking stock of 2016, the year has been a turbulent one in many translation circles. It’s been a year of lively debate about practices in the profession and the direction that it is taking. Whichever side of an argument translators lie on, most have the best interests of their colleagues and the profession at heart, and are firmly interested in seeing the continued professionalisation of the sector.

There are many facets to this issue. Firstly, the definition of what constitutes ‘professionalism’, but not least the way we pursue and achieve it. In 2016, the argument that stuck out like no other was ‘become a better translator’. Work on your source language comprehension. Develop your translation skills. Strengthen your subject expertise. Go premium.

It goes without saying this is sound advice. But if we all became better translators, can we expect this to automatically change the impression of the profession to the outside world? Well, yes. If we become better translators, we should naturally become more confident in conveying our professional status.

But there’s one word which is holding us back in achieving greater professional recognition… freelancer.

When someone asks what you do for a living, what do you tell them? How would you describe your job as briefly yet as accurately as possible? If we polled a random sample of translators, the most common answers you’ll hear are ‘I’m a translator’, or ‘I’m a freelance translator’, or simply in some contexts ‘I’m a freelancer’.

But when someone asks me personally what I do for a living, I say ‘I’m a professional translator‘, or a ‘I’m a translation professional‘, or even better ‘I run my own translation business‘. Because these descriptions give more credit to the professional and business aspects of our job. Plus, they tend to invite more pertinent and interested questions that allow you to explain the full scope of your work and educate your interlocutor.

The term ‘freelancer’, on the other hand, while semantically accurate with regard to the self-employed and flexible aspects of the job, conveys a sense of casualness. As if translation is a hobby and not a ‘real job’. When you think about it, the word ‘freelance’ is a completely irrelevant part of our job description. Because it shifts the emphasis from what you do (which clients are interested in) to how you do it (which clients are not interested in).

Now we are not just translators, not just freelancers, but translation professionals and translation business owners, and it is imperative that we start using more accurate terminology to define our job and start to change perceptions for the better as part of our profession’s continuing journey towards professionalisation.

But in the grand scheme of things, isn’t this a trivial point? Well, no, not really. Translators berate the fact that their profession is relatively unknown and as such is often not taken seriously. Think of all the myths that surround the job: we work in our pyjamas, we just use Google Translate, we can translate while looking after the kids. Much of this lies in the way we present ourselves. It’s no wonder all of these myths persist when we so keenly and flippantly describe ourselves as freelancers. But by using more appropriate terms to describe our job, we can start to dispel these myths for good.

So, in 2017, when someone asks you ‘what do you do for living?’, think about it.

See also on this topicWhy you should never call yourself a freelance translator (And what to say instead) by Translators Academy.