The Freewheeling Freelancer Interpreter

Today, I want to come back to the subject of living and working on the road. Most of you know that I am a translator, which is a very portable career. But I am also an interpreter. Here is what happened to that side of the business:

The phone rings. It’s from Chicago. I move my Starbucks® tumbler out of the way and go to the corner, where I won’t disturb the other customers, but I can still see my bike outside.

“Scriptor Services, Jonathan Hine, may I help you?”

“Jonathan, this is Rachel Morris at Dunn, Dunn and Dunn, we would like to use you for another deposition on the case you worked with us last year.”

“Thanks for remembering me, Rachel. I assume this is interpreting, or is it more like the ‘language consulting’ that last year’s hearing turned into.” I hear her laugh, which makes me smile. Four interpreters had tried and failed to understand the witness, a terrified old man from central Italy. Maybe because I grew up in those parts, I could understand him: he was speaking English with such a thick accent that the others thought it was a regional dialect of Italian. Once I explained that he and his grown son were not suspects, he relaxed, and I got him to speak Italian so that there would be something to interpret (the judge could not understand his English).

“That was awesome, Jonathan, which is why the partner on the case wants you again. The deposition is here in our main office, not in Alexandria like last time. You’re in Charlottesville, Virginia, right?”

“Well, no. I’m actually closer to you now, if you’re in Chicago.”…

Responding to such requests is a little more complicated than it used to be. I can’t just go to the closet for a suitcase and some clothes, and throw them in the trunk of the car. Those who follow my blog know that I have been a bicycle nomad since leaving Charlottesville on 25 September 2013. My income more than covered my travels around North America, including attending the American Translators Association (ATA) Annual Conferences in San Antonio, Texas and Chicago, Illinois.

It’s easy enough to take in and deliver translations by email. But what about interpreting?

Making a living as an interpreter used to be restricted to those living in large metropolitan areas. Not so any more: the interpreter colleagues that I have visited are on the road a lot. State Department escort interpreters accompany their International Visitors all over the country, often for days or weeks at a time. Conference interpreters have long been free from the bonds of geography; they must go where the conferences are, because simultaneous interpreting is not a common skill. A distant hospital requiring interpretation services for a rare language or a delicate medical subject may need an on-site interpreter; there are still situations where telephone or video interpreting won’t do the job.

Although I do a lot of chouchoutage, which is simultaneous interpreting into the ear of the listener — no equipment, I am not a conference interpreter. My clients are not jetting me to Vail or New Orleans. When I do get a call (like the fictional vignette above), the cases are always unusual and the situations justify the expense of paying my travel. Even before I started living on the road, there were travel expenses to leave Charlottesville.

Today, I can take in requests for non-translation services (including interpreting) wherever I am. I include the travel expense of going to the job in the estimate. It may involve searching a few schedules and time to buy tickets, but I can still prepare an estimate. The cost-benefit of using my services depends on where I am when the call comes in. For example, one client in Virginia was willing to wait until I rode past their location to perform some document triage. Another client wanting revision training waited until I arrived at a place where I could leave my bicycle, then paid for the round-trip travel to the training. But when the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Florida (ATIF) in Miami needed a replacement presenter for a workshop, I happened to be in town, so there were no travel expenses.

This business model won’t work for a court interpreter who arguably must be where the trials (and court certification) are. But translators who only interpret occasionally and interpreters whose business already has them traveling to most assignments have no need to sit at home waiting for the phone to ring. To be sure, the business must be up and running before venturing out to travel full-time, so that the work is already coming in and going out. At that point, it makes no difference to the clients where you are, if you can respond to their need.

There may be personal reasons for taking to the road on a near-permanent basis. For example, having an empty nest, or wanting to visit far-flung friends and relatives more often (or maybe for the last time). Depending on your vehicle and your life-style on the road, and whether you keep the house, living on the road can cost more or less than staying home. Also, some business models are simply more effective from one location. Careful analysis and planning can reveal the feasibility of going nomadic or confirm one’s satisfaction in staying put.

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


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