By Felicity Pearce
Helen Barlow, founder of A World of Words Translations is literally living the dream. The dream that many of us (myself included) have when we think about being a freelance translator. She is as free as a bird, traveling the world, translating and learning new languages as she goes. For this week’s post, we’ve been asking her a few questions about her Utopian existence.
FP: Helen, can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a freelance and traveling translator, and any experience you think really helped?
HB: I’ve always had a serious case of itchy feet which led to me working for 6 years as an English teacher overseas a few years after completing my BA in French and Spanish. I worked in France, Thailand and Peru, improving my language skills while traveling and gaining valuable cultural insights. When I was in Peru, one of the teachers gave me her CV to translate into English, and I really enjoyed doing it. I then had the opportunity to translate a travel guide about Lima, which made me think I could combine my passion for language and travel and achieve the freedom I craved by translating for the travel and tourism industry. I took a two-year online translation course with City University. After that, I threw myself wholeheartedly into making my location-independent lifestyle a reality and took the excellent Masters in Technical and Specialised Translation at Westminster University. Then I was ready to go!
FP: Although a dream shared by many of us, being a traveling translator can still be a daunting prospect. What advice would you give to those considering hitting the road? Was it a leap of faith or did you make the change gradually?
HB: After completing the Master’s course, I was impatient to start my new lifestyle, so I booked a one-way ticket to Brazil. I planned to work while learning Portuguese. In hindsight, I suppose I should have saved up some more cash and established myself more with translation clients/agencies before hitting the road. It wasn’t exactly easy at first; work slowly trickled in and I spent more time filling out countless agency forms and sending off CVs than actually translating. Good job the beach and street parties are free! After about 3 months, work became more regular. So, my advice is to head off once you’ve got your regular jobs and contacts all set up; well, that’s the sensible option!
FP: Getting back to palm trees and breath-taking views, where are your favourite places in the world to set up shop? What are some of the best views you’ve had from your “office”?
HB: I love Asia. I go to India and combine translating with yoga courses, taking in views of the Kerala backwaters, the Himalayas or the tea plantations. Bali is also popular among freelancers with its laid-back cafés and homestays overlooking the rice paddies. Latin America is also a firm favourite. Living in the vibrant historic centre of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, was an amazing experience. Closer to “home”, I have lived in Lisbon which is really well set-up for freelancers and has excellent co-working spaces and a rich café culture. I loved taking my laptop along to one of the many miradouros where I had my morning coffee while gazing out over the mishmash of terracotta rooftops.
A day at the office
FP: And on a more practical note, we know that you travel with your laptop, but what contingency measures would you recommend, in case there are internet issues, etc.?
HB: A local SIM card for your smartphone. Also, I have a “mi-fi”, or personal hotspot, which is a great back-up in times of weak or no wi-fi. It just requires a local SIM card. That’s about it.
FP: Finally, what is the single best thing about your job?
HB: FREEDOM! Being able to work from absolutely anywhere is such a luxury. I do work full-time and it’s not a walk in the park, but I’m trying to make my life as much as possible like a permanent holiday. And not having to physically GO to work, there’s no commute and your office can be a park bench, a beach, the airport. And your work attire can be your bathing suit!
FP: And the hardest?
HB: Time differences. I was recently in San Francisco which is 8/9 hours behind Europe. I had to sleep with the phone glued to my ear and often set my alarm for 3am to check my emails. However, it’s a different story in Asia as you have the whole day before the emails start flooding in!
And as all freelancers will agree, those occasional job droughts can be scary and the extremely tight delivery deadlines are downright stressful. I also miss having colleagues, that Friday feeling (but not the Monday morning one…) and after-work drinks! Still, I wouldn’t change a thing!
Thank you so much Helen for sharing you experience and insight with us. Bon voyage!
Helen Barlow is a traveling translator, budding travel writer and yogi who calls the whole world home. Her translation specialisms include travel & tourism, fashion, beauty, gastronomy, magazine journalism and cultural events.