Three weeks ago we were just beginning to get an idea that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary spring. Since then, the world has fallen in very quickly and, as I write this, it’s not at all clear how or when we’re going to come out of the coronavirus crisis. I want to look forward to what happens next, but I’m going to save that for another post. For now I would just like to document how this has been affecting my life and work and maybe draw one or two conclusions.
Before the lockdown
The crisis caught me just as business was picking up after one of slowest months I have ever had. After that disastrous February, March was looking good and I’d picked up one or two big projects. About the time it became clear that we were all going to end up confined to our homes, I was offered another piece of work it looked as if it would be difficult to fit in and I decided to work over the weekend to make sure I could take it on. It was already obvious that the shut-down was going to lead to a recession and I thought it was wise to take all the work I could, while it was available.
That week was probably the strangest of my life. Things that, on the Monday seemed perfectly normal, like having coffee with a friend or going to the swimming pool, by the Friday seemed unthinkably dangerous. I spent the weekend between work and taking the chance to go for a couple of walks by the sea. They were my last proper exercise for a very long time. I still don’t know when my next proper walk – as opposed to a dash to the supermarket – will be.
The first few days
At least I was busy – very busy, working on three ongoing projects that had all come in at the same time. In fact my days weren’t very different to normal, except for not being able to go to the swimming pool at my local gym, where I usually swim two or three times a week, although to be honest I probably might even have had to cancel those sessions because of pressure of work. An added advantage of working from home, as both my wife (a journalist) and I do, has emerged over the last couple of weeks: confinement and isolation don’t actually interfere much with our normal lives. And in our case, as we’re used to being around each other all day, we also avoid the problem of mutual irritation that I’ve heard is suffered many couples. The addition of our 13-year-old son, whose school had by now been closed, didn’t cause too many problems either, as he’s pretty good at keeping himself busy with homework he’s set via computer link, YouTube videos, television and other distractions.
The virus may have been the principal enemy, but in those first two or three days of the lockdown paranoia ran it a pretty close second as I began to feel as if I was getting a sore throat. Was this the dreaded COVID-19? I tried hard not to think about it. If I had got it, what worried me most was giving it to my wife, who tends to suffer badly even from an ordinary cold. Fortunately, there were no other symptoms – either my fevered imagination was responsible or it was the mildest cold I have ever had – and within a few days I was feeling absolutely fine again.
Going to the supermarket under the new conditions – more or less the only thing we’re now allowed to do outside – had by now become a completely new experience. Waiting in queues outside, the regulation two metres apart, and finding all the cashiers in masks and gloves makes it somewhat surreal. Fortunately, despite occasionally running out of certain products, the supermarkets here haven’t suffered the mass pillage by panic buyers that has been seen in places like the UK. It’s even perfectly possible to buy toilet roll and liquid soap.
I’d managed to deliver my translations on time throughout the week, but I still had one or two things to do over the weekend. This was when we decided to go up to the roof terrace of our block – the first time we’d ever bothered to make the short trip up there. Just doing nothing in the sunshine and seeing neighbours on their balconies and terraces made the world seem that little bit less frightening.
On the Sunday night, I joined in a chat with about a dozen translators from a Facebook group I belong to. Meetings like this on Zoom and other platforms have become the norm for many of us during the lockdown. Ours was chaotic and quite wonderful – everyone talking at once so that no-one could really hear anyone else or hold a conversation. The important thing wasn’t what anyone said, though, it was being there. I’m lucky, I have a family to spend these weeks or months with so I can join these conversations for fun. For the first time, as I looked into the faces of some of my colleagues, I began to realise how vital they would be for me if I was be going through it on my own.
Contrary to my expectations, the orders kept coming in. My big projects came to an end, but among the new jobs was work for two new direct clients, one of them a major international organisation. Regular customers were also sending in work – one advantage translators have is that many of the people who send us texts to translate probably can work from home and have not been too badly disrupted for the moment. My workload was completed by jobs from colleagues.
On my rare forays outside, the world was becoming ever stranger. Masks – rarely seen in the street in the early days – are now worn by almost everyone. We still haven’t got any though. For one thing they’re almost impossible to buy. In any case, from what I’ve read, the ordinary models are only really any use if you have the virus and are trying to protect other people. I’m certainly not keen to wear one and I’m happy to leave them for the doctors, nurses and others whose need is much greater than mine.
At the end of the week, I was greatly heartened to receive inquiries about possible future work – one concerning a book for which I’m just waiting for the texts to translate, the other still not confirmed although looking promising. That means I should at least have work to do until the end of the lockdown period as it is now established. This is certainly encouraging, although working feels very different these days. It’s difficult to concentrate with snippets of news coming in all the time: the awful death figures, a new article about some aspect of the virus, another famous person who’s caught it, or just something distracting on Facebook. I get my daily quota of work done, but I find it expanding to fill all the available hours when if I put my mind to it I could probably get finished much earlier. It will be difficult to go back to more efficient working when other normal activities start up again.
Still, on Friday I did my monthly accounts and found that March, astonishingly and completely unlike February, had been one of my most profitable months ever. I am under no illusions that this situation is going to last. The result of the coronavirus crisis looks likely to be a severe worldwide recession, and I wonder how many of my clients will be able to survive the shutdown, let alone the difficult months to come.
Saturday was the first full day off I’ve had in a fortnight, and I’m so grateful for having had so much work, partly because every euro I can earn will be very welcome in what’s bound to be a difficult year, and partly because it has kept my mind occupied. I spent the day, and Sunday, looking after my wife, who was on duty both days for her newspaper, so the weekend passed cooking, cleaning, spending a bit of time with my son, relaxing and writing this post.
I can’t help thinking about the future, though, and I am thankful, above all, that my overheads are so low. We have paid off our mortgage and our biggest annual expense is probably holidays and travel – something we’re not going to be doing a great deal for the moment and which are easy to do without anyway if times are hard. I find myself wondering what it’s going to be like for others who are not so fortunate. One of the worst things about this unprecedented crisis is that none of us really know when or how it is going to end, or what comes next.
In my next post, though, I would like to try to make some predictions. To do that, I’d like your help. I’m planning to share my ideas but they’re only my opinion based on my experience of the last recession and I’d like hear what you have to say too. Will things go back to normal and will that “normal” be the same one we left behind? What effects are the virus and its aftermath going to have on your work? What kind of clients are going to survive? What kind are we going to have learn to live with out? Do you have any strategies for surviving or beating the coming recession? If you have, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I use part of your e-mail, I promise to credit you.