Not at any price

Not at any price

Last week I turned down the chance to get paid for doing nothing – and I’ve never been so sure I was doing the right thing.

Let me explain. A good agency customer of mine sent me an e-mail informing me that they were thinking of launching an “out-of-hours service” for some of their clients and asking me what I would charge for being “on-call” in the evening and at weekends. The idea was that they would set up a rota of translators who would guarantee to be available at particular times for any work that might arise. Together they would provide cover until about midnight every night and on Saturdays and Sundays.

Now I should say that the agency was going about this in exactly the right way: asking translators for prices which they could then use to estimate whether the idea was viable and, if so, how much they ought to be charging for it. It wasn’t a case of imposing anything on anyone. And I could see how being able to offer such a service might be an attractive selling point. It would also not, in fact, be really inconvenient for me to be on call. As a parent of an eight-year-old child it’s hardly as if I’m out every night.

Proper job

But almost as soon as I started to think about it, I started hating the idea. As I’ve said in previous posts on this blog, I really believe in the “free” in freelance. I value my freedom to choose my working hours, to take time off when I want and to make it up by working extra hours when I need to. It’s been my life for 15 years now, and being on call would seriously disrupt it. Being part of a rota would also mean having to coordinate days off with other people and ask for permission to take holidays. It was beginning to seem like all the worst parts of having what used to be called a “proper” job.

And there was another thing. While it was true that many “on-call” nights would probably involve being paid for sitting at home watching the television (or even writing blog posts!) I had a sneaking feeling that the workload would grow over time. Why? Because the idea of having on-call translators would only encourage the agency’s clients to leave everything to the last minute, creating unnecessary emergencies with jobs that, with a bit of forward planning, could easily be done in office hours. And Spain, where I live and the agency is based, is a country where clients really don’t need any encouragement to leave everything to the last minute.


Do translators really need to be on call anyway? We’ve all worked late on the odd occasion to help out a customer, but, as a rule, the service we provide really doesn’t match a hospital casualty unit or a fire crew for urgency. When it comes down to it, there really isn’t very much that can’t wait until tomorrow to be translated, unless we encourage customers to think that they need to have every job done yesterday.

It’s possible that at certain times in my career I might have been so worried about losing this agency as a customer that I might have ignored my better judgement, quashed my misgivings and ended up on the miserable rota. The result, I’m sure, would have been just as disastrous as those described in this previous blog entry. But this time I had no doubt. I wrote to the agency explaining my problems with the idea and making it clear that although I liked working with them, I had absolutely no wish to become involved in this scheme.

Of course, I could still lose them as a customer. To be honest, if they find anyone loyal or foolish enough to staff their out-of-hours service those translators deserve preference when the more normal jobs come in. But if they do go elsewhere I can always find other clients I’ll prefer to work with. Because that’s what the “free” in freelance is all ab0ut.


  1. Mhairi

    I think you made the right choice Simon. It is very likely that it would have just encouraged the agency to send you documents at the last minute. Although superficially it may seem like a good idea, in the end you could have ended up being exploited. Have a lovely Easter!

  2. Tony

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Simon. Thanks for taking the time to write the blog.

  3. Timothy Barton

    As a sports translator it’s a service I really need to offer sometimes. During a transatlantic sailing event, for instance, the racing goes on through the night, and something bad can happen at any time. The client needs to have someone on hand to translate. It’s not a huge problem for me. I take my computer with me if I’m going somewhere that’s more than 15 minutes away from home, and if I have to do something like catch a flight, I check with my client and tell them my flight time. I’d probably be less willing to do it for an agency though. For my clients it’s usually either a "just in case" or something like "we’ll have a news report at some time between 3pm and 5pm and need it back immediately".


      Thanks for your comment, Tim. I think it’s fair enough to agree to offer the service sometimes for a particular event in the way you describe. What I didn’t want was to get on to a perpetual rota that would make me into a kind of sub-employee.

  4. Nélida Kreer (@Nelida_Kreer)

    I am 100% in agreement with you here, Simon. You did the right thing, no doubt about it.
    In fact, I had such an instance where I was asked to be on call last Xmas. and on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and since my direct family lives abroad and I had no special plans lined up, I agreed to it, but it was for a special direct client and involving a brand change process, so I felt they were entitled to ask and it was a plus-point for me as a provider to say yes. In fact, nothing happened, but they knew that if something had, I would have been there.

    Other than that, I would never go in for it as a regular work routine. Or else we would become just "lancers" and lose the "free" part…:).


      Thanks for your comment, Nélida. That "free" part is very important to me.


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