A Day in the Life of a Freelance Interpreter
Updated: Nov 4, 2019
As a freelance Spanish interpreter working in legal, court, and conference settings, my days vary. A lot.A bit of background first: I’ve been in the freelance market for two years now, and it’s been three years since I finished my graduate work in interpreting. Before grad school, I worked as a staff interpreter and an interpreter services supervisor for about ten years. Before that, I worked as a subcontracted interpreter for an agency for a couple years while I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in Spanish, and for a while after I finished undergrad. So while I’m not new in interpreting, I’m still pretty new as a freelancer.
So back to that thing about the varying days. Last week I travelled out of town with a colleague to interpret at a 4-day conference. Those days were mostly the same: Wake up early, arrive onsite to interpret into Spanish all day with my partner, go back to the hotel to collapse, repeat. We were working from backstage at a big event in an arena, and I absolutely love this setting–I am fascinated by how big projects get put together and I love being behind the scenes as part of the crew. I left on a Tuesday and was home Saturday in time to kiss my husband goodnight.
But those days when I’m focused on just one thing aren’t the norm, so I’ll tell you about a more typical day from this week.
I woke up at my regular time (7am), and started my day as usual: Checking email briefly to see if anything needs my immediate attention, checking social media feeds (I’m pretty active on different platforms and want to make sure I respond to anything involving me or anything I want to involve me), and reading news briefs.
Because my days are largely unstructured, and I have many projects going on at once, I make lots of lists. I have one list of ongoing ideas and things I need to work on that usually gets re-prioritized every day, and then lists of what I want to get done just for that day.
Without these lists on days when I don’t have interpreting assignments, I feel totally overwhelmed, and then nothing ends up getting done except for scrolling through social media and wondering why everyone else is booked except for me, while simultaneously thinking to myself that I should really use my downtime to work on all the stuff I need to do.
Back to a day in the life. After the list-making with my morning coffee, I start to chip away at a few quick things (mostly reading in French, reading in Spanish and adding to glossaries) before I make breakfast and get ready for my first assignment. It’s a short but busy day with three assignments and an online meeting (where I’m a participant, not the interpreter), and since I’ll be out all day, I’ve made sure to pack my backpack with everything I’ll need. The regular interpreter stuff: pens (like really an unnecessary amount of pens but they are my security blanket), notepads (same amount as the pens), court certified interpreter ID, water, snacks, portable charger. Stuff I need for my online meeting, and to get some work done between assignments: headset with mic, laptop and charger. And my personal can’t-live-without items: Lip balm, unscented hand lotion, and gum.
Aaaand…I’m ready to head out into the world!
10am: First assignment of the day. I live in a small city, and I’m fortunate to live in the urban core where I can walk to a lot of the places where I work. I leave home on foot around 9:15am to get there 15 minutes early. Today all of my assignments are within walking distance, which is a huge deal for me. I really dislike taking out the car, and I really love walking. My first two jobs today are in the office of one of my direct clients. They’ve recommended me to a couple of attorneys who work in different firms, but who go to their office to meet clients. When I arrive, I make sure to thank the paralegal again, in person, for passing my name along to their colleagues. We’re doing a meeting with a client and an attorney I’ve never worked with but who’s obviously very comfortable working with interpreters. It takes about 45 minutes, and we’re done. And I’m off to my favorite coffee shop!
11am: I’m enjoying the absolutely beautiful, cooler weather we’re having after this summer’s brutal and seemingly never-ending heat and humidity (showing up to an assignment drenched in sweat is just not a good look). Is it cold beverage season still? Hot? I belly up to the bar and order a chai latte over ice. I’ve got just enough time to work on some ongoing projects: writing copy for a new website, tweaking some blog posts (it usually takes me FORVER to fully develop and finish a blog post) social media planning, putting together the finishing touches for a couple workshops I’m giving in October, and responding to emails. The time passes very quickly, and it’s time to head back to that same office for another meeting.
1pm: Another attorney I’ve never worked with, and we hit it off right away talking about cats. I like finding something to chit chat about and developing a rapport right away. The message I’m trying to send is: hey, see we like each other, and I’m a person, not a robot, so work with me. And, it’s just nice to have pleasant interactions with my fellow humans. This attorney also seems really comfortable working with an interpreter, and is an absolute joy to work with. Personable with the client, they even exchange laughter and what I’d describe as some tender moments. This connection between attorney and client feels good to me, and these are the moments I most cherish as an interpreter. Afterwards, the attorney tells me, “I really enjoyed that, thanks!” Wow! This is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me about my work! I tuck those kind words away into a safe place, because I will need them in the future.
1:30pm: Oops, it seems I forgot to eat lunch, and I have a meeting online at 2pm, and then my next assignment awaits me at 2:45pm! Fortunately, that 2:45pm is a close walk from the law office I just left, and I’m able to grab a bite at the burrito joint in the lobby. No Wifi to connect to my meeting, but I’ve got a personal hotspot on my phone, tether to my laptop, pop on my headset, and log onto the meeting, which happens to be with a colleague I really like, talking about an event I’m excited about. We talk for a short 15 minutes, and I’ve got time to perk up with an afternoon coffee and read the news for a bit.
2:45pm: Last assignment of the day is at the US Marshals lockup, with an attorney and client I’ve worked with many times, though this is the first time I’ve met the client in person. It’s just a quick meeting before the client (who is so nervous I can barely understand their shaky words through the mesh partition) goes before the judge. We’re done by 3pm.
3pm: Normally I’d finish out my day at another favorite coffee shop that’s housed in a vibrant space in a historic German building, adjacent to a theatre where you can often hear bands rehearsing, but I head home instead. If I’m being honest, I can’t wait to check in on the adorable kitten, Frankie, that we adopted last week.
3:30pm: Frankie, I’m home! I’ve recently picked up my guitar again, and started taking online calligraphy lessons, and I spend some time enjoying these things after I finish unloading my backpack and plugging in all my devices. It feels good to do something physical, and musical. And while I love interpreting, my life for a long time was all interpreting all the time, and lately it’s been important for me to do non-interpreting things. I have a chance to work on some more lists, dig into some more website copy. On another day I’d swim or play tennis, but today I’ve got some good movement in just walking to my assignments. I hear a knock at my door, and it’s my neighbor–She’s seen Frankie in the window and wants to meet him. She brought treats. It’s the perfect cue that it’s the end of the workday.
Many people tell me about freelancing: You must love the freedom! And it’s like, I’m learning to? I do have a lot of freedom, but there’s also a lot of hustle involved which I don’t always love, and I have to make what feels like a lot of hard decisions in terms of negotiating work, and what work I’ll accept, using only my judgement. It feels really uncomfortable sometimes. In the beginning I had a lot of doubts about my decision to go freelance, and I felt like a slave to the subcontracted work that was offered to me. Over the last couple years, a big win for me has been to maintain the good relationship I have with agencies, while doing more work with direct clients. I’ve got a few projects I’ve been working on this year with two colleagues, Laura Holcomb and Elena Langdon, and that’s kept me quite busy. Finally, I’m working on adding a passive French to my language combination, which has been really fun. These are things I don’t think I’d have the time or energy to do, or even know I wanted to do if I had a full-time job. In 15 years, I had three full-time jobs. They were all very different, and they were all enough to teach me that it’s just not my thing anymore.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out my spouse’s involvement in my freelance work in terms of his emotional and moral support. In spite of the fact that he has a full-time job (in academia, totally unrelated to language or interpreting) he has a comfort level with the uncertainty that comes along with the freelance lifestyle, though in the beginning when I was transitioning into the freelance market from a steady paycheck, it was extraordinarily stressful for both of us.
Hats off to spouses and partners who lend moral support to freelancers. To say this guy has been a good sport would be a massive understatement.
This slice of freelance life looks different for everyone. If you’d looked at my life in 2002-2004 when I was working as a subcontractor (so not really freelance, but also not an employee), it would have been something like this: Work all night in labor & delivery and/or the emergency room, attend class and read and write papers all day, sleep on the weekends. If you look at the next few weeks, it’s traveling to California to give a workshop, then giving an onsite workshop locally in Indianapolis, then interpreting a 3-day conference from my home studio the following week.
What about you? Are you a staff interpreter wondering what the freelance life is like? Or are you a new freelancer like me? More established? Did you give freelancing a shot and decide it wasn’t for you? Or maybe you have some advice for us newbies? Let us know about it in the comments!