Success revisited

Success revisited

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Making it, not faking it

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a subject I’ve touched on once or twice before in this blog (here, for example, and here too): success. I’ve been thinking about it for several reasons. On one hand, I’ve been finding posts by translators who claim to be a great success who in fact spend their time churning out junk at low rates for agency clients. On the other, there are translators I admire, with high standards, who, it turns out, are going through a rough time at the moment. So what is success for a translator? And does success mean anything at all?

In one of the previous posts I referred to, I said we should define our own success, and I still believe that. Success can’t be the same for everyone because we’re not all motivated by the same things. Some seem to think that no-one is a success without a big house and a Porsche, others just want a pension, and still others will be happy if they can guarantee to put food on the table every day. But in this post I’m going define what success means for me. Are you the same, I wonder?

What are my signs of success:

  1. You earn enough to do what you want to do. This is probably the most important of all. For some, here, we might be talking about buying the big house or the Porsche. For me, though, it means being able to take the time off I want to take, go where I want to go and do the professional training I want to do. My flat is modest and I don’t own a car, but that’s the way I like it.
  2. You can put something aside for the future. Sooner or later we’re all going to retire and some of us are in for a big shock when we do. I’m pleased at least to have some pension provision and savings, not that I’m thinking of retiring any time soon.
  3. You don’t have to accept work you don’t want to do. So many translators are forced to accept any work that comes in. I think I first really started feeling successful when I felt able to turn down jobs I didn’t want to do. Not necessarily because I didn’t feel qualified to do them, as I’ve always tried not to take on work I didn’t feel competent to do, but just because I didn’t like the look of them. Try it. It’s a liberating experience.
  4. You don’t have to accept rates that are too low. Obviously this ties in to the previous point, because if the rates are too low you won’t want to do the job. But, again, successful translators don’t drop their rates, even if it means missing out on some jobs. If you’re successful you’re busy and if you’re busy then taking one job will mean rejecting another. So taking a job at a low rate is going to mean missing out on one at a higher rate. It makes no sense at all. That’s what I tell my clients when they ask me to work cheap and I’ve never had one argue the point.
  5. You don’t have to accept the unacceptable. This also follows from what I’ve been saying. Successful translators don’t agree to use online translation platforms that make their work harder. They don’t sign non-disclosure agreements with abusive clauses. They don’t believe the customer is always right. Because sometimes customers are wrong and sometimes they ask for things that we shouldn’t agree to.
  6. You can produce work of the quality you want to provide. Providing work of the quality you want to provide means negotiating rates and deadlines that are reasonable so you can do the best possible job. It also means earning enough so you can get whatever training you need to improve and do an even better job in future. Sometimes, because clients are clients, they sometimes ask for things to be done quicker than we’d like to have to do them. But that should be very much the exception rather than the rule. There can be no pride in churning out low-quality work.
  7. You can adapt to changing circumstances. For me, one of the big advantages of freelancing is that it’s much easier for us to change course if we need to. If we need to work more hours, we can work more hours (provided we can attract the clients, of course). If things are not going well in one direction we can move in another. We can reinvent ourselves. We can rebrand. The possibilities are endless. The strange thing is that not everybody does it. People who are unsuccessful keep on flogging that dead horse without thinking that they could or should change and adapt because something isn’t working.
  8. You don’t complain all the time. This follows from the previous point. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional rant or online vent when things are difficult, as long as it’s done in a safe place, among friends. But endlessly moaning will get you nowhere. What’s gone wrong? What can be done about it? Successful translators analyse the situation without continually whining.
  9. You can really help others. It’s good to be useful. Whenever I’ve been able to help other translators, even in a small way, it’s always made me feel like a success. If you’re in a position to do it by mentoring, recommending or simply putting people in touch with one another, I would heartily recommend it.
  10. You have the respect of the colleagues you respect. It’s relatively easy to make a splash in the translation world. Start a blog, write something controversial, get people talking about you and suddenly you’ve got followers. But who are those followers? You are only a real success when you’re read by people you admire. The ones whose words you’ve always rated highly. If you can see that they respect you, you really have made it in a big way.

What’s your definition of success in translation? Please feel free to comment.


  1. Andrea Halbritter

    Très bon article, Simon ! Je vois cela exactement pareil.

  2. Annie Brose

    My success is having enough work that will allow me to travel and work from just about anywhere.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Annie. That sounds like a good definition.

  3. Kathe Lieber

    I completely agree, Simon. I’ve been at this for 30-plus years and have no plans to retire. My work satisfies my magpie mind, and I get lots of repeat business. Like you, I live in a modest flat and have never owned a car, but I can’t imagine any other way of life that would suit me better. I’m not rich, but I’m happy.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thank you for your comment, Kathe. I’m sure this job gives me a better quality of life than any other I could have chosen – or fallen into.

  4. Roberta Tabolacci

    Thank you Simon, I couldn’t agree more. Personally, the greatest success for me is having freedom: freedom to choose what I want to devote my time to, freedom to work at any hour that suits me best, freedom to learn things I’m interested in, freedom to work on self-improvement, freedom to be there for “my tribe”, freedom to travel, both in terms of time and money, freedom to live my life the way I want. The moment I realised I gained freedom, it was clear to me that I was – and I am – on the right path. Happiness is a particularly exciting side effect!

  5. Mary Ellen Kerans

    Great list, Simon, answering an important question.

    I’d add that number 7 is the key to achieving the other goals. I’d go even further on your point 8 and say that rants are to be avoided altogether, nipped in the bud as a waste of our time to either indulge in or listen to.

    Instead, channel that energy into more of what you describe in point 7, I say. Understand/analyze opportunities and dangers in the market, prepare yourself not for yesterday or today’s job but for tomorrow’s, accept (some) tough challenges, teach what you know to others because that sharpens your understanding of your own skills and weaknesses.

    Point 7’s also the key to making sure that the problem identified in your introduction ("translators I admire, with high standards … going through a rough time at the moment"). If enough energy’s gone into 7, such moments should be short and few. To help with 7, an association like MET — or cultivating the people I met before MET and pitched in to create it — are inspiring. The importance of people is usually summed up with the word "networking." That means different things to different people, but it’s much more than just sharing war stories at a meet-up!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thank you for your comments, Mary Ellen. I particularly like what you say about preparing for the future rather than stagnating or looking backwards.

  6. Oliver Thalmann

    Great article, Simon
    I see your list as a Maslow’s pyramid for the freelancing translator. A ladder to climb – where I am still on the first rung (which seems to be a bit slippery to surmount).
    Greetings to Barcelona from Ljubljana.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your comment, Oliver. If I am describing a pyramid, I know many people who are higher up than I am. Good luck with your climb!


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