• Ruth Simpson

New directions

Freelance life is often a constant tension between doing the things you know well, and taking on new challenges. This is an article I wrote for the ITI Bulletin that the editor has kindly allowed me to publish here.


‘Thanks for coming to the first of our two practices for the pop-up conference choir. Now, this year we don’t have a director, so is there anyone who might be able to wave their arms

around and keep us in time?’ My hands shake, my heart races, my stomach twists

into a knot. I know I want to do this, but I’ve never tried. A year ago I would have

been looking around waiting for the most confident person in the room to take control,

but I come to realise that, this time, that person might be me.

‘I’ll give it a try.’

Cheers and applause from everyone else… I just hope their expectations aren’t too high.

Stepping up to direct a pop-up choir at a conference for translators and editors wasn’t something I had ever dreamed of doing. But as soon as that first rehearsal got under way

I knew instantly that I wanted to do it again, and then again. I left the conference buoyed by the professional content, of course; but it was the off-conference events that really made me hurry back to my desk and start honing my website, thinking about how I could enhance

my work and be more active in the translation community.



The continual balancing act

Everywhere you look it’s about striking the right balance. Be careful not to burn out, but make sure your career is on the right track. Be there for your children, but find time for yourself. Have interests outside the home, but keep things ticking over within it. And while it can be difficult for many people, freelancers can find it even harder to lay down boundaries between home and work – especially when the office is at home and home is at the office.

There are plenty of places to find tips on striking that balance, but what I want to look at here is motivation, and how challenging yourself – or in my case stepping up to an unexpected challenge – can be beneficial in all kinds of ways.

Making the decision to do anything new can be incredibly daunting, especially when it’s a

performance of some kind. When I took the snap decision to have a go at directing the choir, impostor syndrome crept up on me the instant the adrenaline had subsided, and the fear of not delivering the goods gripped me throughout the rest of the conference, lasting right through until the Saturday evening performance. I needn’t have worried. I wasn’t alone, and my fellow translators and interpreters who sang at the METM17 dinner in Brescia gave a lively performance that was greeted with riotous – and well-deserved – applause.


Conducting the fantastic choirs at Brescia METM17 and Girona METM18.


I hadn’t set myself the challenge of directing the choir, but I enjoyed it so much I did it again at the following year’s conference, then again in 2019, and have been encouraged to do it again this year. It has motivated me to look up conducting courses and consider setting up a choir in my home town. But perhaps most importantly, it has motivated me to become a better translator and to work hard on growing my business.


Two types of reward

Freelance translators and interpreters are certainly a varied bunch, but one thing we have in common is that at some point in the past, we have had the courage to put ourselves out

there and sell our grey matter. We all know, though, that opening a project and getting down to some hard graft isn’t always easy. Finding motivation takes work, practice, and a conscious shift in attitude. It’s about changing your inner voice from ‘this is boring’ to ‘how can I make this interesting?’.

I don’t have any magic pills to sell, but here’s what I’ve found from my investigations into the topic: first of all, motivation comes in two main forms. One is intrinsic, and the other, not terribly surprisingly, is extrinsic. In lay terms, that means some things motivate you from the

inside, and some sources of motivation come from the world around you.

Intrinsic motivation is what you feel when you are moved to do something for the purposes of natural satisfaction. You love your children, so you book a doctor’s appointment for them when they are sick. You volunteer at your local soup kitchen because helping those in need brings a sense of meaning to your life.

In contrast, extrinsic motivation is what you feel when you do something for a specific external gain. The gain might be intangible (an athlete trains hard for hours so that she can perform well in a sporting event) or tangible (I translate this file in order to be paid, so that I can eat, and I can pay my rent).


Motivation beyond money

For most freelancers, that tangible gain of money isn’t negotiable. We have to work and pay our bills. But money itself isn’t actually the primary source of motivation for human activity, as American-Israeli professor and economist Dan Ariely demonstrated during a study he ran

to see how people completed tasks with varying financial rewards. Ariely is a wonderful writer, and his findings make a fascinating read.

I would definitely encourage everyone to look at his website for more insight into motivation and what he creatively calls ‘advanced hindsight’. Without going into excessive detail, his study shows that people aren’t motivated by money alone, and that higher financial rewards don’t necessarily mean increased motivation. He concluded that intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic. Our personal values are stronger than our desire to acquire more stuff. Refreshing news, isn’t it?

If you can pitch it just right, the holy grail of motivation is when intrinsic meets extrinsic. In 2018, I translated the economist Eric Singler’s Nudge Management, about tweaking environments to change behaviour. In one passage, Singler gives an example of a lowly

stonemason who is happy with his lot, chiselling stone blocks day in, day out. When an onlooker asks how he finds the motivation to get up and do the same work every day, the stonemason replies, ‘Look at the cathedral I am building.’ Being a part of something that is bigger than you is an extraordinary source of motivation.


Chiselling stone blocks, or building a cathedral?

Don’t give up the day job

But where can you get your hands on some of that juicy intrinsic motivation? In short, by first identifying what is important to you, and then creating a personal challenge out of it.

As I started thinking more about how personal challenges can spark intrinsic motivation, I began to notice it all around me, especially in people I admire. And while some of them have made dramatic lifestyle changes, they certainly don’t have to.

In fact your ‘day job’ can be a great place to start. Emma Goldsmith, MITI, gave a fascinating presentation at the METM19 conference in Split on how, after three decades in Madrid, she decided to ramp up her already enviable Spanish skills over an intense six months of self-learning. Nobody had asked her to improve her source language: she did it for herself. I was blown away by the list of fiction books she had devoured, and her multi-tab, multi-column spreadsheet of new vocabulary was a joy for any language nerd to behold. Emma assured us that the prospect of presenting her findings to an eager audience was pretty motivating in itself, and I bet stepping up her already impressive Spanish has done no harm at all to her performance as a translator.


Looking back over my life (so far) I can pinpoint four or five personal challenges that have required energy, certainly, but have been hugely beneficial. The first was signing up to do a wine diploma after meeting my winemaker husband and taking a personal interest in the subject 15 years ago. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually be running professional workshops for other translators in the field. Another was setting up an association for my daughter’s school when the principal decided they wouldn’t run any more family events without one. Dusting off my violin after 20 years of neglect was another, and now learning the ukulele is my most recent personal challenge. Every single one of these challenges has brought immeasurable joy to my life. Some have benefited my work, and others have simply given me a fun reason to get up in the morning.


Some sources of joy in my life!

Start from where you are

Obviously, one issue I kept coming back to time and time again when I was researching the whole issue of motivation was cost. It simply isn’t possible for everyone to take on a personal challenge just for the fun of it; you need a comfortable income and a certain amount of freedom. But intrinsic motivation really does cost nothing – look at the stonemason. Transferring your personal values to your attitude about work means looking at the bigger picture, thinking about the people who are going to read your writing, and taking pride in how your input is going to make their lives better. And that costs nothing.


My advice for taking on a personal challenge would be to look at what you love, and think how you can take that to the next level. If you’re arty why not join a class in your area or challenge yourself to enter an illustration competition? If you’re athletic why not try a new

sport or join a local team that you thought was out of your proverbial league? If you enjoy writing why not approach a publication with an idea for an article? The only way to shake

off the impostor syndrome (the feeling that someone else would be a better choice than you) is by getting out and being that person yourself. I can’t stress this enough.

Aside from boosting your overall motivation, taking on a personal challenge has plenty of benefits that can easily be applied to working as a freelancer. In a risk-free context, it

hones your ability to accept failure when things don’t work out as you’d hoped; it improves your determination to succeed; and it also opens doors to new speciality areas.

And it’s fun. Isn’t that enough?

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