On this day in 2012, I was riding home from the introductory meeting of my master’s course in translation, hovering somewhere between anxiety and bliss. Little did I know that only four years later, I would spend the day working on the first draft of my third novel translation.
Last week, I gave a lecture to the new translation students at my old University for the third year in a row. I get a little less nervous each year, and this time I could even enjoy it while it lasted, and not just in the “wow-I-actually-survived” rush that usually hits me around the time I leave campus. I could enjoy it despite my awkward word-fumbling and the fact that I never know what to do with my hands. Maybe because I allowed myself to be awkward instead of trying to hide the embarrassing parts. Like the fact that while I am sort of doing the work of my dreams, I still have to borrow money from my parents to pay the rent because I earn so little from it.
Since I realized I have never really told you the full story of how I started out as a freelancer, I decided to share a slightly altered version of my lecture with you.
1. Decide what you want to learn
You could say I’m a bit addicted to studying. Since I graduated from high school in 2009, I have taken courses in everything from law and vector graphics to musical theory and fantasy literature – at eight different universities. One thing I learnt from all these courses was the power you have over your own learning experience. You can curse your way through essays and exams, or do what you can to enjoy it, and actually learn useful things.
I wrote my bachelor’s essay in English on existentialism in the Harry Potter series, and in my master’s essay, I translated and analysed an article about one of my favourite musicians, Steven Wilson. That made the essay writing process much more enjoyable than if I had chosen some abstract grammatical phenomenon as the topic of my studies, and it was actually my master’s essay that landed me my first translation job – before I had even started writing it.
The official topic of my essay was the translation of pragmatic markers in cultural journalism, and as a part of my research, I emailed a few Swedish music magazines to check how they worked with translated articles. And after a few days, one of the editors called me out of the blue to ask if I could translate three articles for them.
So, no matter what you are learning, and whether you are taking courses or studying something on your own, it’s a good idea to really make the most of it. What are your dream projects? Perhaps there are ways you can incorporate the kind of work you want to be doing into your learning process right now, instead of wasting your time on the wrong kind of projects.
2. Don’t be scared of going your own way
I started my own business just a few weeks into my master’s course because I knew I didn’t want to work in a regular office. I wanted to be able to choose when and where – and especially what – I wanted to translate. When I had finished the course, I emailed about thirty translation agencies, ignoring the fact that they all wanted experienced translators, and eventually started working for three of them.
In the beginning, I latched onto every little job I could get hold of, translating everything from district heating pamphlets to a press release about the World Logging Championships. After a few months, I was assigned my first large recurrent translation job, a triannual client magazine about design, and I realized that this was the kind of work I was good at; I should be focusing on creative translations – not technical manuals or HR documents that I could hardly get my head around anyway. It was time to start saying no.
To be able to devote your time and energy to the right kind of jobs, at some point you will have to start saying no to the wrong kind of jobs, whether it’s because they are too difficult, feel ethically unsound or are simply too boring. If you go your own way and focus on the work you do best instead of trying to do everything at once, potential clients in your field will also be more likely to see you as the person for the job.
3. Connect with people
Many freelancers are introverts, just like me. But even if I find it easier to hang out with fictional characters than making friends in the real world, I have come to realize the importance of stepping out of your office once in a while. So many unexpected things can happen when you start talking to people about what you do and what you want to do.
In 2014, I went to my first translation conference, Art in Translation in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was the first time, apart from university, that I really connected with other translators, and I realized how much easier – and nicer – it is to see other people in your field as friends and sources of inspiration instead of competitors.
At this conference, I got to know two Swedish literary translators, without whom I probably wouldn’t have been a published literary translator by now. I came to the conference thinking that my dream of becoming a literary translator was unattainable without many years of experience, but thanks to their help and encouragement, I left with a solid plan.
4. Initiate your own projects
When I came back from Iceland, I had a month to create a work sample for a course in literary translation that I wouldn’t have known about if not for the women I met at the conference. Somewhere along the way, I misinterpreted the instructions and thought I had to be working with a proper novel translation job, when in fact, I could have chosen any novel I would have liked to translate. So I started emailing all the publishers I could find, my hope growing smaller and smaller every time I opened my inbox. Just as I was about to give up, I stumbled upon a webinar on translating self-published books.
I realized this was my chance and started looking for decent self-published books online. That’s when I found The Gift of Looking Closely. I read an article about it in The Guardian, ordered the book and was hooked from the first page. I loved it. It was exactly the kind of book I wished I could have written. It even had several points in common with my first poetry novel that I wrote back in high school – both were written in the second person and both were about young girls whose mothers had committed suicide. My gut told me I was on the right track and I contacted the author, Al Brookes. After some emails back and forth, she finally agreed to let me translate her novel.
During the course in literary translation, I worked on this novel and another one I really liked, and sent extracts from both of them to a number of publishers. Before the course was over, one of them, Printz Publishing, said they liked my translation, and asked if I would like to translate another novel for them, The Girls by Lisa Jewell.
Meanwhile, I decided to fulfill another dream: of starting my own publishing company. That’s one of the things I’ve been working on this summer. In a few weeks, I will finally launch it, along with my translation of The Gift of Looking Closely. It has been a long and challenging journey, but I have learnt so much, and it has brought me to a place I couldn’t have dreamt of being in a few years ago.
The moral of this story is: Dare to dream big. Initiate your own projects and start taking concrete steps towards your dreams, and they might lead you there sooner than you could have imagined.
5. Enjoy the freedom – but set boundaries
In January, I packed my office into a small backpack, moved out of my room in Gothenburg and set out on a four-month journey through Asia. I helped building a mud house in a small Thai village, discovered the Japanese countryside and fell in love with laughter yoga, while translating The Gift of Looking Closely and illustrating my first children’s book.
I love the freedom of my work, but it entails a risk – of wanting to do too many things at once, until you find yourself smack in the middle of a life where weekends and evenings feel like some mythical idea and everything has melted into a single long to-do list.
This summer, I have been volunteering thirty hours a week, while working on the publication of The Gift of Looking Closely, finalizing the children’s book, translating my second novel for Printz, translating a non-fiction book for another publisher, running a blog and trying to earn some money for the rent this autumn with non-fiction translation work (since none of my other projects are paid in advance). I clearly didn’t think that through, and I am still paying the prize of the near-burnout this summer brought me to.
It’s one thing to say no to the wrong kinds of projects, and a totally different thing to say no to projects you really want to do. But sometimes, you have to. You have to set boundaries. You have to accept that you can’t squeeze an indefinite number of tasks into a day. You have to give yourself time. Time to let your brain process particularly challenging creative tasks in the background. Time to let your projects rest, to be able to review them with fresh eyes. And, most importantly, time to do absolutely nothing without feeling bad for not being productive every single moment of the day.
I love my work. I love it so much, I sometimes hate it, because it simply becomes too much. But I put myself in this situation, and now I’m working my way out of it, building a more sustainable creative life along the way.
Once again, it’s all about what you decide to make out of it. Dare to dream big, and start taking steps in the right direction, but never forget to give yourself time, both to do a great job and to really be able to enjoy the journey.