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  • Yelena McCafferty

Free Agents

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

A few years ago at a Russian business networking event in London, someone asked me if there was still business out there for independent full-time Russian translators like me. “Everyone is trying to get a member of staff in-house these days, there is no shortage of applicants who speak Russian, Lithuanian or Latvian, especially in London,” one attendee remarked. “Yes, work is still out there for us,” I said reassuringly, despite companies striving to fulfil their language needs by relying on internal resources.

According to Helping the UK Thrive, an education and skills survey published by the Confederation of British Industry and Pearson in July 2017, foreign language capacity is one of the six most important factors considered by businesses when recruiting graduates. Companies understand that you buy in your own language and you sell in your customer’s, so you need to have staff who can talk to customers speaking a different language. The most commonly mentioned languages in demand in the same survey are French (52%), German (47%), Spanish (45%), Mandarin (36%) and Arabic (26%). However, only a third of businesses surveyed are currently satisfied with the foreign language skills of school and college leavers entering the jobs market. What’s more, the level of satisfaction is declining and the shortfall of people who are able to fulfil the criteria satisfactorily is increasing.

One of the job advertisements which caught my attention was recently posted by Honda UK; the company looked for a number of Japanese translators and interpreters to join its International Business Support team. It offered a competitive salary based on qualifications and experience, with paid overtime, a 25 days’ holiday provision, private medical care and a dental plan, a pension scheme, childcare vouchers and the opportunity to purchase all Honda products at a generously discounted rate.

Another well-known brand, Expedia, recently sought Portuguese, Finnish, Danish and Norwegian translators in London, with editorial and localisation experience. The work would involve translating a broad range of content from branded websites, HR documentation, training material, user interfaces, mobile apps, as well as social media content for all Expedia Inc brands.

So was I right or wrong when I said during that networking conversation that there was still plenty of work on offer for freelance linguists and specialist language companies? From my experience, there is demand for us in both the translation and interpreting markets.

If we take interpreting, for example, I once had to interpret over the phone for a British business with a Russian subsidiary. The reason was a complaint to be investigated by the HR department and a few people from the Russian office had to be interviewed. It would have been inappropriate to use a member of staff as an interpreter on that occasion. On completion of the interview I was asked by the client whether I picked up any nuances in the tone of the voice of the personnel we spoke to. Intonation can be revealing in different languages and when the body language isn’t visible over the phone, it’s even harder to sound someone out and come to a conclusion.

The second example demonstrating a need for an independent interpreter also has to do with an HR matter. I interpreted at hearings where grievances were raised by migrant workers at UK factories and it was against the employer’s policy to use another employee to interpret; the personnel manager added at the time that they needed to follow all the legal requirements to the letter, to make sure complaints were dealt with fairly. Any slacking could cost them dear if the employee subsequently claimed he couldn’t follow the language of the hearing and therefore disputed the outcome.

It’s not unknown for British manufacturers to hire people with foreign language skills for prominent managerial positions, such as a business development manager. But even so, the world of industrial production offers opportunities for independent interpreters when familiarisation visits from overseas are arranged. It may not be always practical for the visiting party to bring their interpreter with them or for the business development manager to interpret constantly between the delegation and other managers of his company in addition to doing his main job, which is focused on generating business. Again, my experience shows that this is true for businesses which have already set up a representative office in a foreign country.

Law firms are increasingly looking to employ paralegals and legal secretaries who speak other languages in addition to English. This makes it easier to communicate with clients on a regular basis, from phone calls to taking instructions. I have seen legal firms advertising for paralegals with Polish, Russian, German, French and Romanian language skills. However, in a busy solicitor’s office, the burden of extra duties may mean that staff can get overloaded and may need to use an external interpreter. This requirement is also valid for legal conferences barristers will have with their clients, many will insist on using a registered interpreter so no minor detail goes amiss or gets lost in translation.

The most common reason why multinational companies resort to services of an external translator is urgency. I’ve had to translate legal documents which were needed for a board meeting the following morning. With a large volume of papers to go through and tight time restrictions, a freelancer’s input is welcome, and sometimes the time zone difference is on your side as well.

Another aspect of doing legal translations as an external contractor is you may have a much better understanding of the legal system and its complexities if you are based in the country of the source language, i.e. in the country of your client. Staff at the company’s overseas subsidiary may not be aware of certain intricacies of company legislation, for example, and in my career I was tasked to translate UK incorporation documents for a number of clients. Interestingly, sometimes the translation of company documents was required to open an office abroad.

And where do companies go if they require certified translations of third party documents? Due to a potential conflict of interest and a lack of formal language qualifications of company employees, even if they speak the language, they are not able to certify translation work so this is where language experts with valid credentials step in.

Liaising with a foreign-speaking team within your client’s company may be challenging at times. Especially if the project is focused on marketing and the client expects transcreation rather than translation per se. In the case of brochures some information specific to the originating country may have no relevance to the target country and needs adapting or taking out all together. In the event of straight translation, references to specific overseas legislation, for example, may sound out of place. This is where a good brief prior to commissioning translation work would save time and reduce the number of revisions: it’s important for us, translators, to understand what the client wants to achieve and where our remit starts and ends.

In this day and age it’s very unusual, at least in European and American job markets, for an employee to stay with one company all their working life. People move on in search of better career prospects, working conditions, to reach personal targets, so employers are left without trusted workers they once relied on for their language requirements. So temporarily at least, they will be looking to use freelancers to fulfil those needs, and this opens another opportunity for us to work with new clients and win their business potentially mid- or long-term.

Some companies actively look for freelancers: Farfetch, the online platform for luxury fashion, this year advertised opportunities for Italian, German, Russian, Japanese and Chinese translators. Apart from the fundamental abilities such as language proficiency and writing skills, the love of fashion and understanding of garment and accessory making were essential. And there was a useful tip at the end of the job description, which would be good for all of us to take on board: “Have you checked spelling and grammar? We have high standards and you don’t want to miss out because of something as easily correctable as a typo.” Quite, especially if you want to stand out as a language professional!

Amnesty International also recently published a job notice for English to Burmese and English to Thai freelance translators, specialising in international politics, human rights and humanitarian law, development cooperation, media and legal texts.

Freelance public service interpreting jobs are out there too in this highly outsourced area of the language market: until 29 September 2017 the Royal Borough of Greenwich is on the lookout for interpreters in various languages, ensuring access to local services for all borough residents.

Coming back to commerce, the government’s current political strategy is to build on wider export opportunities after Brexit, while retaining close trade links with the EU. International communications are an integral part of an export marketing strategy. And while culture and language are often considered to be amongst the main barriers to export success, it is up to us, translators and interpreters, to help our clients break those barriers and achieve marketing and sales success internationally. We may choose to do it on a freelance basis, enjoy the flexibility it entails and put our eggs in various baskets. Or we may opt for a staff position and enjoy all the relevant benefits and security that full-time employment gives. My research and experience show that language work is out there, you only have to look, in spite of companies employing multilingual staff whose primary responsibility may not be strictly translation or interpreting. Positive attitudes lead to positive outcome.

A version of this article has been published in the September-October 2017 issue of the Bulletin, a bi-monthly magazine of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting.

Companies use various methods to meet their language requirements.

[Tip: If you need any documents translated from or into Russian or want to book a qualified Russian interpreter, please call on 0207 0436940 or email]



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