Home office stress in the translation industry

Being self-employed and managing my translation business from my home office ever since I established it in 1997, I am constantly envied by friends who tell me that I must have such a stress-free life. Unfortunately, this is totally untrue. There are many stress factors that remote project managers and self-employed translation company managers in our industry are subjected to, but there are also preventive measures one can take.

In the course of the almost two decades I spent managing projects from my home, I had to endure a wide array of industry-specific stimuli that triggered immense stress and frustration. For me, one of the most unbearable aspects of international communication is misunderstandings. On the international scene, it is almost inevitable for something to get twisted or misunderstood if it possibly can be. You need to be extremely precise in the way work order instructions are worded and emails are composed. Otherwise, you may get a response that’s entirely out of touch with the basics of the project being dealt with. If you use simplified business English, the risk is that you’re too succinct and under-specified. If you use a pedantic, verbose style, chances are your message will not be read in full, and parts will be omitted by the reader. You need to find the fine line between being too precise and accurate in your wording and being concise to the extreme. This is especially true when you do business with a large number of foreign freelancers you barely know.

The reasons behind misunderstandings and miscommunication lie preeminently in cultural differences and language barriers, as most freelancers that an all-round translation company project manager communicates with are nonnative speakers of English with varied levels of English comprehension. The other reason is that despite your efforts to identify and use the services of the most professional-appearing freelancers, you may still make bad choices — hiring linguists who pretend to be qualified for the task at hand but actually aren’t, and this is also a common source of miscommunication.

Another widespread source of home-office stress is being let down by the freelancer you assigned your project to. Delays in delivery or missing deadlines can cause a major headache. This is not only characteristic of home-office project management but is equally present in the case of projects assigned from home offices, and when a linguist causes you to request an extension of your deadline (often several times within the same project), your frustration level can rise to the maximum. The solution to this problem is to always have a safety cushion. The deadline you give your freelancer should be at least one or two days before your own deadline. Of course, this is only possible in the case of non-rush projects, but even then, you can include a safety cushion of a couple of hours or even half a day. Another preventive measure (which I have been employing for several years now) is to never accept immediate assignments. This way, the chances of late delivery are reduced significantly, and you avoid the embarrassment of disappointing your clients.

A serious increase in your stress level can be caused by scammers. There are several well-known tricks used in the translation industry and you should be aware of and alert to these. Identify threats before they inflict harm on you. The two most widespread scams involve operating with void checks or pretending to be professional freelancers. Both have unique and easily identifiable traits that project managers and translation company directors need to be aware of in order to fend them off in a swift and decisive manner.

Being a home-office agency director means that you either work alone or some family members help you in one way or another. Running your business alone means that your ability to complete your projects and deliver the finished translations to your clients depends significantly on your personal well-being. If you fall ill during a large multilingual project, or are hospitalized or temporarily incapacitated, your business will grind to a halt. It is possible that you will be unable to forward queries and answers between freelancers and your client, manage the quality assurance phase of the project (by forwarding files to editors and proofreaders), deliver the translations to your client by the deadline or respond to queries sent after delivery. On the whole, you will be unable to make sure the project is completed successfully. Even if one of your family members can help you in one way or another, he or she is unlikely to be qualified to arrange your project in a professional manner.

One way to resolve this issue is to provide your translators with the contact details of the editor and proofreader, and in turn, provide your editor and proofreader with the name and email address of your client when the project kicks off. You can ask translators to deliver the completed files to the recipients in your absence should you not confirm receipt of their deliveries within a couple of hours, or if they are notified through your auto responder that you are temporarily unable to forward deliveries.

Stress can also result from nonpayment or delayed payment on the part of your clients. Sending constant payment reminders or chasing clients for your money often takes an immense amount of time and effort. Threatening your nonpaying clients with publicity (payment lists) or legal action can be extremely stressful, especially if you’re a one-person company whose chances in court against a large client would be negligible. The solution to this possible headache is to screen clients by using payment forums where freelancers share their experiences with translation company clients. This usually works when gathering information about first-time translation company clients, but is usually impossible in the case of other types of clients (end clients or direct clients). The latter is usually a gamble, which is a major source of stress and uncertainty.

I find the Blue Board of ProZ.com an extremely useful tool for screening translation company clients before accepting a project. Since this service was launched 13 or 14 years ago, I have been able to filter out nonpaying clients based on the reports and scores entered by fellow members of the international translation community, and since 2002, we have been paid for almost every translation and editing project completed.

The way applicants respond to job postings published on Traduguide, ProZ.com or elsewhere can also serve as the trigger of unneeded stress. It often happens that I am addressed as “Mr. Daniel” as opposed to “Mr. Harcz,” which to me sounds almost as if the person sending the message is mocking me. Some other applicants fail to address me at all, or fail to answer the specific questions contained by my job posting. Instead, they send a noncustomized, standard application message containing general information about their services, rates and capabilities. I find this odd, as if these applicants do not really want to receive projects from my company and are just wasting my time. It can also be annoying to receive applications from other translation agencies when it was specified in my job posting that only freelancers should apply. The solution is simple: specify that inappropriate and incomplete applications be automatically deleted, and that some specific senders are blocked.

It often happens that translators attempt to ask for a higher rate in the middle of a project, claiming to have encountered issues that slow down their progress. These issues can range from difficulties with the format or layout, poor legibility (especially in the case of handwritten or poorly scanned documents) or terminology that needs to be researched. Requests can also be as far-fetched as weekend work being a price factor. This can be annoying, as it is akin to blackmail. Although I usually do not succumb to such requests, it did happen a few times that I granted a rate increase in order to ensure that the linguist kept working and met his or her deadline. Obviously, this can raise your stress level considerably. You are put in a difficult position since you need to ensure that the original translator does not abandon the project and you simultaneously need to stay within your budget. There is usually no time to reassign the project to another freelancer. The preventive measure is very careful translator recruitment and selection, as well as close control over ongoing projects.

Running your translation business alone comes with all sorts of stressful stimuli. However, on the whole, the amount of frustration you endure is probably still less than what would be present at a workplace where you are subjected to the orders of a boss and your freedom is compromised. Working from home allows you to take a break whenever you want, accept only the projects you feel comfortable with and reject everything else. There is no need to accommodate coworkers or colleagues, and you can even go out for a walk between two emails, not to speak of being able to wear your most comfortable clothing every day while you work. Spending more time with your family is a definite advantage as well.

Considering these advantages vis-á-vis the various stress-related disadvantages of a home-based translation business, in my judgement, working from home still has the edge. If you take precautions and employ the preventive measures described above, running your home business can be much less stressful and a great occupation.