5 Downsides to Working for Yourself

Many new translators and students ask us about what's better: working as an in-house translator or working for yourself as a freelancer. Judy has done both, while Dagy has never worked in house, but our answer is clear: working for yourself is infinitely better. However, there are a variety of significant downsides, so we wanted to briefly list a few of them. This is a question we get quite frequently, so we wanted to get a list going. Of course, it's not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, but in no order of importance, here are the 5 main downsides of working for yourself:

  1. You are never done and you are never really off work. When Judy worked in-house managing a small group of translators at an e-commerce company, she was required to be available at all times and was practically married to her Blackberry. However, in reality she never really took much work home and was essentially done with work when she pulled out of the company parking lot. However, as self-employed linguists, we are never really done because we ARE our company and there's always more networking to be done, more e-mails to be sent, requests for proposals to be answered, volunteering to be done, etc. There is no finish line, and that's a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective. We love it that our work is a continuum, but we do occasionally have a hard time turning work off. We suppose this is a good problem to have, as we really enjoy what we do and it doesn't always feel like work.
  2. Days off? We constantly see spouses, friends, and acquaintances who are at home because, well, it's a holiday! We frequently forget holidays, and since we have clients in more than five countries, any particular holiday is usually not a holiday in the other countries. It's therefore a challenge to take the same days off as your loved ones and friends. We certainly try to observe holidays, but it's not always possible. That said, Judy is taking two days off this week, while Dagy gets to work, as Thanksgiving is just another Thursday in Europe and our Austrian clients don't care that Judy isn't working. The projects still need to get done.
  3. Paid holidays. One of the great perks of working for someone else is that you have paid vacation time. If you live and work in most other countries than the US, there's actually some government rule on how much vacation you should get, and it's usually quite generous (four weeks or so in most European countries). Entrepreneurs don't have paid vacation time. If we want to go on a vacation, we have to start saving up for it. 
  4. Getting paid for actual work. As a salaried employee, you get paid (either every two weeks or monthly, depending on where you live) whether you work or not. Self-employed linguists, however, are very much like self-employed lawyers: we only get paid when we can bill our hours (or words, or lines, or whatever) to a client. When Judy worked in-house, she was certainly not known for sitting around and eating macaroons, but the point is still that there's much less pressure to perform because you will get paid anyway, regardless of how much you accomplish during the pay period. As an entrepreneur, you better finish that project relatively fast if you want to send the invoice and get paid. It's a great motivator indeed, but it's also a situation that can be too stressful for many.
  5. Uncertainty. The only thing that's for certain if you run your own business is that it will probably be great, but that it will also be a lot of work. Everything else is up in the air, and you never know how much money you will make tomorrow, next week, or next month. This is not a good way to live and work if you are very risk-averse, and it can be quite scary if you think about it. Of course, when you work in-house, you have no real long-time job security either (some countries are better about employee rights than others, but we digress), but you will know where your next paycheck is coming from: your employer. When you are self-employed, you are essentially looking for work every day for the rest of your life. Of course with time you will get repeat customers and you will hopefully establish long-term working relationships, but as a contractor to your clients, they can walk away from the relationship at any time (and so can you). Does that sound too scary? Then perhaps self-employment isn't the best choice for you.
We hope we have given you some food for thought. In spite of the downsides, we absolutely love what we do and would never be able to have the lifestyle we have if it weren't for self-employment. However, we think it's important to highlight some downsides so new translators go into the world of entrepreneurship with eyes wide open. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts, dear friends and colleagues! 


Emma Goldsmith on November 26, 2013 at 12:55 AM said...

While I agree with all five points, the biggest downside for me - topping the others in order of importance - is health cover and being off sick.

Here in Spain, social security contributions entitle you to full medical care (we're very fortunate in that respect) but if you're off sick, the government only pays the equivalent of 30% of your earnings. I have private insurance to boost this amount a little, but falling ill is still my biggest worry as a freelance translator.

Unknown on November 26, 2013 at 9:37 AM said...

Thanks for this honest post; I agree with all five points. I had an in-house translation job that I didn't love, but I didn't have the courage to quit. When I got laid off and started freelancing, I soon encountered all of these problems--and also the wonderful freedoms that freelancing imparts. Freedom from dress codes, cubicles, meetings, bosses, vacation requests... I love being able to say goodbye to difficult clients, being able to take an extended vacation, working during the week from a friend's house while having weekends and evenings free... Getting laid off was a real blessing in disguise! I would encourage any freelancer struggling with these problems to join their local and national professional translators' associations. In my experience (with the ATA), these organizations are full of truly kind and helpful veteran translators eager to impart their hard-earned wisdom.

Shizuka said...

I agree with the downsides, but there is one big upside. If you don't like a client, you have the freedom not to work with them again. While I've been very lucky with clients, I try to remember that as much as clients choose freelancers, we also have some choice in who we work with.

If you're a full-time employee, you can't stop working for your boss or other superiors unless you want to be out of a job.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 26, 2013 at 2:41 PM said...

@Emma: Excellent point indeed. Getting sick is always scary. Don't even get us started on the lack of anything safety-net wise here in the US! You are very smart with your private insurance. Fingers crossed that we all stay healthy and productive!

@AMy: Our pleasure, and thanks for reading and for commenting! You put it very well: freedom from so many things is what makes freelancing so incredibly great, among many other things. And yes, it sure does sound like getting laid off was one of the best things that ever happened to you. We could not agree more with you on the point about associations. They truly are the heart and soul of our industry.

@Shizuka: Excellent point! As a freelancer, you can always discontinue any working relationship, which is great. We sure do have a choice. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for providing this very easy-to-read and informative blog. I am considering joining the ranks of professional translators in the next year with the 3-year goal of retiring from my teaching career and translating full-time. I do not want to make any major missteps, so I have been reading anything and everything I can!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 30, 2013 at 8:23 PM said...

@Paula: We are happy to hear you like the blog. Best of luck on your journey, and be sure to read all the industry standards on the business of translation (Corinne McKay, Chris Durban... and perhaps our book) to really be prepared for what's ahead. There's so much for information out there now than what was available 15 years ago. Lots of great books and resources! Oh, and BTW: everyone makes mistakes. It's part of the learning/growing/translation process, so don't be too afraid. :)

Carlos Djomo on December 2, 2013 at 11:55 AM said...

Great post, Judy and Dagmar. Thanks for sharing! Indeed, to many, going the freelance way is tantamount to getting into a deep blue sea of worries, fears and uncertainties. But it ultimately serves as a way to bring out our wonderful abilities to adapt, improve and take even greater challenges.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 2, 2013 at 2:25 PM said...

@Carlos: Very well said indeed! We wouldn't change our freelancer life for the world. Thanks for reading and for commenting.

Hebrew Translation Services on December 9, 2013 at 5:32 AM said...

I agree with the comments you made. As someone who has been self-employed for over 20 years, I would urge freelance translators to rent a small office somewhere nearby their home and work from there. First of all if is more professional to have an office and once you have an office you can expand your staff if you like. In addition, your life is more structured-you get up in the morning and get dressed for work. When you go home you can leave your work behind you. In most countries an office is a deductible expense so does not have to cost a lot of money.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on December 9, 2013 at 6:03 PM said...

@Hebrew Translation Services: Great advice indeed! However, before the recent advent of co-working spaces, having an actual office used to be quite cost-prohibitive in many countries and regions. Now, however, co-working makes it possible!

Mu Liu on January 11, 2014 at 7:20 AM said...

I haven't worked as a in-house translator before, just kicked off as a freelance interpreter/ translator immediately after graduation, now I am running my own transition company in London (http://www.chineselinktranslations.co.uk) . The biggest downside as a freelancer is you don't have colleagues working with you under the same roof, you need to handle everything (marketing, invoicing, branding, project management) yourself. But the biggest reward I got from working for myself is the change of mindset- I now know better how to think like an entrepreneur, which I consider as the biggest wealth of my life.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I like the post. Would you authorize me to translate this to my language and publish in my blog? (I already sent you an email, please read).


Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 2, 2015 at 11:56 AM said...

@Cesar: Thanks for the comment -- and yes, absolutely. Feel free to translate and just make sure you link back to us!

Anonymous said...

Awesome! @Judy!

Thanks for the quick answer!

See you.

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

Subscribe by email:


Twitter update

Site Info

The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

Translation Times