Is being too frugal damaging your translation career?

When I started out as a translator roughly two years ago, I didn’t give a moment’s thought to budgeting, investing or CPD. I thought about one thing and one thing only: making money. Translations out, money in. Simplistically speaking, of course, this is the basic idea behind the life of a freelance translator and behind any business. You do some work, you get paid, and you try to keep your costs low. Hell, if you can keep your costs at 0 then that’s the ultimate situation, surely?

Well, it’s probably obvious that the answer is no. Any business has to balance its revenues with expenses. A big company has a myriad of costs for premises, staff, raw materials and so on. But as a translator, you can get away with having minimal or even no expenses. Your old laptop, bedroom-office and Microsoft Word are certainly enough to get started and there’s no real need for a huge initial investment. So that’s what I did. I started translating with an old netbook, a pirated copy of Word and really nothing else. Well, I didn’t have a lot of choice. I’d just started out in my job and I wasn’t exactly swimming in savings. Besides, I hardly wanted to drop £600 on Trados when I wasn’t sure this translation lark would stick. At first I was just taking on a few small jobs for a peanuts rate, so I was hardly making the big bucks. I was simply making a few extra quid each month as a nice ‘bonus’ on the side of my day job, and it was quite enough for me.

However two years later not only have I stuck to translating, but I’m considering making it into a full time gig in the not-too-distant future. At which point it becomes a bit pathetic to still be working like a student, squirrelled away in my room with and Open Office as my tools of the trade.

However, this gets me to the point of this post. Investing in yourself as a translator is a tough thing to do. When you’re only really making enough money to survive, the last thing on your mind is buying software, hardware or other materials that cost you a month’s paycheck. You’re probably thinking more about how to afford your next coffee fix than whether or not the latest ProZ webinar is a good investment. Well, I certainly am. The fact is, although I earn a half-decent side income from translating, there’s always something ‘important’ to spend it on. Usually Ryanair flights, but there’s also beer, coffee, TFL, books and the gym, to name just a few. By the time I finish the month there’s precious little left to ‘invest’ in my career progression.

I think I’m not alone as a translator in somehow resenting having to spend anything on working. Working is about making money, right? Not paying it out! So that’s why so many of us struggle on with faulty computers, out of date software, dodgy home offices and minimal investment in training and so on. But this attitude in itself is actually counter productive. Yes, you can save money by spending nothing, but you’re missing out on possibilities to improve and advance. A business that spends very little doesn’t grow. A bit of risk and investment is necessary for them to start branching out and expanding. And the same applies to us translators.

Now, my current excuse is a mixture of ‘I can’t afford it’ and ‘I don’t translate full time’. And both are true. But if I want to go any further as a translator it’s time to make some more effort and investment in doing so.

So where are the key areas where translators can invest in self-improvement?

  1. Hardware

Still translating on a Windows 95 PC or a laptop held together with tape? You’re not alone! My first investment as a translator was in a really great Lenovo laptop (an absolute bargain at £450) which has a big screen to keep MemoQ and a couple of other pages open simultaneously, all the storage I could possibly need, the capacity to run any CAT tools I need and is comfortable and convenient to use. If you don’t have a decent computer, you’re going to have to make that your next serious purchase, as unreliable hardware can let you down at any time.

  1. Software

The big ticket items are of course CAT tools. But Trados and friends all run into the hundreds of pounds and are not for the fainthearted. I have to be honest and say that at the moment I get by just fine with MemoQ4Free. But some day I think I’ll have to take the hit and buy the real thing. There are also other handy pieces of day-to-day software that are worth putting in the money for: an up-to-date Office package being one of the main ones. I really need to get my Office 365 subscription up and running rather than relying on Open Office.

  1. Home office

This can include anything that’s helpful to you in your work. A phone? A printer? A proper desk?

  1. CPD

This is the big area where I am most interested to start putting some serious energy. For a start I’ve signed up for a couple of webinars run by which cost $40. This seemed like a reasonable place to start – with small sums rather than huge capital outlay. There are 100s of ways to develop yourself professionally. Most cost something but it’s worth it to improve yourself, stay sharp and eventually hopefully increase output or profit. Some possibilities are: books, webinars, conferences, networking events, training courses and so on. You can aslo get some free CPD though. There are a number of free webinars, not to mention blogs where you can learn a lot about the art of translation.

  1. Marketing and self-promotion

This is a scary one. Money spent on marketing can seem like money that’s going into a big, black hole. But you don’t have to spend a lot on it. Getting some decent, professional business cards is a good start. And registering a proper domain name for your website, maybe. But you can also do plenty of free self-promotion via social media: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, a blog or website. Just be aware that this is a huge investment of time, and time is money!

  1. Memberships and certifications

I’m on the verge of spending the $120 to become a full member of ProZ for better access to jobs and so on. There are also professional organisations like ITI to consider. These cost good money but are a great investment in your credibility.

So, these are some of the areas that are competing for your money. Clearly as a young translator with not too much money I can’t pour thousands into CPD and CAT tools yet, but I’m putting an end to my no-spend attitude. At least I can tax-deduct this stuff, right?

Any thoughts? What have you found to be a good investment and where is it ok to save?

One thought on “Is being too frugal damaging your translation career?

  1. I’m thinking about the same thing – dropping money on courses, memberships and marketing to improve my freelance copy editing prospects. It’s a daunting thought.


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