Why having a day job makes me a better freelancer

Two years ago, Riccardo Schiaffino summarized the contents of a Colorado Translations Association seminar on About Translation and included this line:

NEVER sound desperate

(especially when you are).

This is why I work two days a week as an English teacher in Parisian companies.


For the first eleven months of my freelance career, translation provided my only source of income. Underemployment almost turned me into a monkey. I spent more time filling out agency forms and doing unpaid tests than actually translating.

I was starting to grow a tail when I came across this blog post on Intercultural Zone. Patricia Lane gives this advice to a struggling freelancer:

What I suggest […] is to split your time between getting yourself established as a translator (your career) and taking on any ol’ part-time job (unrelated to your career) to keep afloat financially.

I took this advice to heart. Why was it the right move for my freelance career?

Because it was liberating.

I do not need to be assigned every job I quote for.

I can count on two full days of work every week. If I have no translations one week, that makes no dent in my grocery budget.

Better quoting

My head is screwed on tighter when I submit quotes. My time has become even more valuable. I am not racing to the bottom.

If I land an interesting project, I am thrilled! If I don’t, I’m disappointed about not taking part, not about missing out on the income.

Other perks of having a day job

Not only am I less needy for work but

  1. I get out of the house. I talk to humans using my voice, not my keyboard.
  2. I brush my hair.  My shoes gets shined, my face gets powdered, my shirt gets ironed.
  3. I march. Few can keep up with my rapid pace as I head to and from the train station. My brain doesn’t get this much oxygen at home.
  4. I part from my computer. This gives my arms, back and eyes a rest. Anyone else translate using a font size of 20?
  5. I network. I got my current translation project, which is very exciting, after being referred by a fellow English teacher.
  6. I learn. I’ve given lessons to people in publishing, oil and gas, electricity, finance, in the automotive industry… I hold a backstage pass into the corporate world. This awareness of company challenges helps me translate business documents.


Having a part-time job is useful for me at this point in my career. What do you recommend for freelancers who are still building up their clientele? To take a walk on the wild side and put all their energy into freelancing? Or to make the transition into freelancing less financially stressful by keeping a day job?


13 responses to “Why having a day job makes me a better freelancer

  1. Hi Catherine,
    I started translating about 15 years ago and at that point I was also working for the Alliance Française de Londres, doing what you’re doing, teaching French (mainly business French) to companies. I loved the job and the variety and learning about the business world (my Masters in economics was all theory and very little practice) and this job gave me the opportunity not only to learn, but also to network. I knew I wanted to spend more time translating and it came gradually. Obviously the fact that I had 2 children in the meantime had an impact on the translating/teaching balance, but I am now translating full-time and enjoying it very much.
    I have kept one “student” who works in very smart offices in Central London and that’s when I iron my shirt, put smart clothes on and when I make the most of my time in London to catch up with an exhibition or simply to do some “lèche-vitrines”.

    Keeping a day job is definitely better than waiting for the phone to ring or an email to come through. Smartphones allow you to reply to a potential job offer wherever you are anyway, so you might as well be out and about, working or having fun.

    Have a good day!

  2. Very interesting Nathalie! We seem to have similar backgrounds. And we are lucky to be living in the culture of our source languages.

  3. Bien dit, Catherine ! You make a fantastic case for day jobs. My time in France was full of part-time adventure (teaching, mainly) and the change of scenery, networking possibilities and financial safety net are well worth it, as you so eloquently lay out.

    Now that I’m spending a bit of time on Guam, away from both France and my hometown (San Francisco, where there is French everywhere you turn, really), I found that I was desperately missing the social interaction aspect. French-related jobs are few and far between (besides the private lessons that I simply love), so I started working in a restaurant for the first time in my life.

    I’ve met so many people, and gained one new translation client, some editing work and a few useful contacts. I’ve even learned a bit more about the restaurant business, which is extremely useful for my translation specialty. Who knew? During down time at the restaurant, I get to teach the cook French pronunciation of his culinary school terms. Now, if I could just get the kitchen crew to let me broadcast my France Inter podcasts while we’re cleaning up… :-)

    I’d have to say that the best part about Guam is the time change, which allows me to complete rush jobs overnight for my clients in the US and Europe during a regular work day for me when I’m working from home. And here I was slightly embarrassed that I was moonlighting away from my computer.

    Merci !

  4. Catherine,
    I am writing to let you know I did enjoy visiting your blog. Very useful remarks. Nicely written!
    Fernanda Navarro
    I live in São Paulo, Brazil, and work as freelance translator (English/Spanish to Portuguese) for over 12 years now.

  5. Please come by again Fernanda. Thank you for reading my blog from far-off Brazil!

  6. # I get out of the house. I talk to humans using my voice, not my keyboard.
    # I brush my hair. My shoes gets shined, my face gets powdered, my shirt gets ironed.

    I hate to break it to you Catherinetranslates, but it sounds to me like you are not meant to be a translator. I really do think that you are not translator material. You even look pretty in that of picture of yours!!!

    After 24 years of full-time freelance translating (never had a part-time since I was fired for insubordination from a stupid job 24 years ago), this mad patent translator gets up at 5 AM most days, starts pounding the keyboard around 6 AM, watches and reads alternative news sources on Internet for about 2 hours in the morning, changes from pajamas around 11 AM, takes a nap around 2 PM, reads a mystery novel about 2 or three hours most afternoons, and scours the blogs again around 6 or 7 PM when he is tOo tired to work.

    that’s how real translators live, and I would not have it any other way.

    No need for nonsense like worrying about how I look, what clothes I wear , or whether my hair is brushed or standing on end and silly details like that.

    There is plenty of healthy interaction with the world at large via telephone (mostly haggling with customers over rates and deadlines) and e-mail (mostly haggling with customers over rates and deadlines again).

    Now that’s what I call a healthy lifestyle!

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek, technical translation since 1987

  7. Hi Steve,

    I thrive on meeting clients and colleagues face-to-face! I met a client early this week to go over the final touches on her website and I’ll be meeting someone next week to discuss a very large project (am crossing my fingers). As for colleagues, I never go a whole month without meeting a fellow linguist at a local café.

    Online AND Offline – that’s how I interact and I would not have it any other way!

    Thank you for putting some Neil Young on your blog earlier this month.

  8. Thank you for your blog Catherine. I am just starting out as a freelance translator. This really is great advice and I hope to follow your lead. My full-time job left me no time to dedicate to translation and so this a big step. Taking a part time job or doing some teaching would certainly take the pressure off!!

  9. @Pippa, thanks for reading and good luck!

  10. Hi Catherine:

    I was just kidding, of course. But everybody has a different “modus vivendi”. I enjoy quite a bit a little discussion group we have here in Eastern Virginia where I meet in a cafe about every other month with 3 other translators to talk about things related and unrelated to translation.

    Your point is well taken – life can be pretty boring when you are stuck in your office all the time without real contact with human beings.

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek

  11. Hello Catherine!
    I stumbled onto your blog in my meanderings around the web. I found this post to be most enlightening.
    I have just graduated in Linguistics and Teaching, so I’m hoping to go into teaching for a while to fund my next stage of education which I am aiming to be my L2 and translation. Eventually (once I’m fully qualified) I’d like to gradually redress the balance in my employment until I’m doing a roughly 50/50 in teaching/translation. I don’t see this as a negative thing, or as a crutch, but as variety and diversity in your work. I think it’s the ideal situation, I probably wouldn’t want to do either one 100% of the time. Everybody is different though, so whatever works for you.

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