Just a little fun thing here: Kidsville News (a “fun family newspaper and educational resource”) recently interviewed me about what it’s like to work as a translator. Here’s the article, and it was actually really interesting to think about how to explain translation to elementary-schoolers!
A reader asks:
I am a freelancer working largely through agencies. I am retired and a US citizen, and I currently live in Vietnam. I am considering relocating to Europe – more specifically, France – and I am uncertain what the tax consequences would be. Currently I do not pay taxes to anybody except the USA, I am not paid directly in Vietnam for any work I do and none of my agency contacts are in Vietnam. My suspicion is that if I were to relocate to France I would have to pay French taxes on my work (and perhaps charge VAT) even though none of my clients are French and I am paid for all my work by transfer to accounts in the USA or Thailand currently.
I should say that I’m not an international tax expert, and I don’t live in the EU, so I’m mostly looking for input from other readers here. I have investigated freelancing in Switzerland since my husband is a Swiss citizen, but that’s a different situation since Switzerland is a member of the Schengen Area but not the EU. It seems to me that freelancers who want to do the location-independent thing for a while (and why not…it’s a huge advantage of our profession) have a few issues to think about:
- Immigration/visa requirements
- Tax requirements
- Getting paid
So let’s have at it! Readers, I’m looking to you for tips, so please add them in the comments.
Immigration/visa: this reader didn’t mention whether he’s a citizen of any EU/Schengen Area country, but let’s assume not. If you’re a US-only citizen, you’ll need to figure out how to legally stay for more than 90 days in the EU (after which, on a US passport at least, you have to leave for at least 90 days before you can re-enter). Here’s a post from Nomadic Matt that gives a good summary of the situation and your options. There are EU countries that issue long-stay tourist visas (I know two freelancers currently using that option: one in Spain and one in Italy), but it’s a long process to apply for one, and many countries will require that you have a significant amount of money in savings and that you waive your right to work while you’re there. It’s also a little unclear whether you’re considered to be “working” if, for example, you’re freelancing for clients in the US but living in France? More on that later…
Out-of-the-box options that might be worth investigating: The Savvy Backpacker has a full rundown of these, which may be more or less appealing depending on your financial resources and risk tolerance. Apparently, Germany has a freelancer visa that you can apply for in Germany, as opposed to other countries’ long-stay visas that you must apply for in your home country. If you have even a moderate interest in being a full-time student, you could investigate the student visa requirements for the country where you’d like to stay. There are also ethically dubious, but probably often-used, ways to stay in the EU: finding an inexpensive university program and paying the tuition in order to get a student visa, but never attending classes (or attending only on the first day so that there’s some record that you attended; overstaying your tourist visa, hoping you don’t get arrested for anything, leaving the EU over land or on a ferry (where you’re less likely to have your passport checked), and then flying out of a non-EU country. Not recommended, although many people probably do pursue those options.
Here I’ll have to defer to readers who know more about this than I do. Do not take any of this advice as reliable: always consult an attorney or tax professional before you make any decisions about taxes. Short version: it’s complicated. Basically, if you’re a US citizen, you probably have to file US taxes no matter where you live or earn money. This is unusual: I’ve even seen claims that only the US and Eritrea require non-resident citizens to pay tax on the income they earn while living abroad.
However, there is a substantial (up to $99,200 for the 2014 tax year) exclusion for *earned* income (not pensions, interest, capital gains, etc.). Note that this applies only if you meet the definition of “living outside the US”: currently, you must live outside the US for at least 330 days in the calendar year, not just for a majority of the year. I’m also not clear on whether that exclusion applies to income earned from US clients, because it’s called a “foreign income exclusion.” Here’s an article from The Freelancers Union that touches on some of those issues. Whether freelance work performed in a foreign country for a US client would be considered US-sourced or foreign-sourced, I’m not really sure.
Depending on where you live, you may also have to pay taxes in your country of residence. Here’s the IRS web page for US citizens and resident aliens abroad, and here’s the introduction to taxes abroad page from the American Citizens Abroad organization. Whether you have to pay in-country income tax depends on the US tax treaty with the country where you live. To answer our reader’s question, my impression (see disclaimer above) is that a US citizen in France would have to file a tax return in both the US and France, and pay French tax at least on his/her French-sourced income. Our reader comments that he doesn’t have any clients in France, so this might not be an issue for him.
To address the VAT issue: again, it’s complicated, not least of all because EU-based clients seem to have differing views on paying VAT on non-EU translators’ work. For example, many of my clients have told me that it’s financially advantageous for them to use non-EU translators because translation services procured outside the EU aren’t subject to VAT. But then, other translators have told me that that’s completely false, and that any translation service that an EU client pays for is subject to VAT. No clear answer there, unfortunately. Readers, I’m counting on you for some insights!
If you live abroad, it’s worth thinking about how your clients will pay you: not least of all because the payment method may affect your immigration status (complicated enough for you yet?). For example, if you’re a US citizen living in France, but with no French clients, and all of your clients are paying into your US bank account, it seems that you could make a reasonable argument that you’re not “working on the local economy.” But if you do have French clients and they’re paying into a French bank account, it might be hard to make that same argument. I think that it’s ethically fairly straightforward if your clients are in the US and paying into a US bank account; it’s less straightforward if you have clients in the country where you live. For example if you direct those in-country clients to pay into your US account, that might look fishy (tax evasion) if the in-country tax authorities investigate you.
The bottom line
Like lots of other things in life, this whole process is easier if you have a significant savings cushion. If you have enough money in savings or enough income from other sources (retirement accounts, investments, etc.) that you can present yourself as not needing to work in order to pay your basic living expenses, you have a much better chance of getting a long-stay tourist visa from an EU country. If you have all of your clients pay into your US bank account, with no income funneled through the EU country and no EU-based bank accounts, and you pay US taxes on what you earn, the chances are probably slim that you’ll run into trouble. The situation gets more complicated if a) you’re dependent on your freelance income to support yourself (as most of us are!) and/or b) you have clients in the country where you’re hoping to live.
I’m sure that there are some social/cultural factors at work as well. For example in our reader’s case, the fact that he’s retired from another career is probably a plus: he has an ostensible source of income in the form of personal savings, Social Security or a pension. I’d say that in the EU, it’s also more common for people to completely retire in their 60s, so people probably won’t wonder how our reader supports himself; that situation would be different for a younger person and certainly for a family. So, lots to think about here!
Readers, over to you (help!).
The next session of my popular online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator starts tomorrow (Wednesday the 23rd) and I have two spots left. This is a four-week class for beginning translators: we do four targeted assignments (your resume, marketing plan, rates/billable hours sheet and online presence), four one-hour question and answer conference calls, and everyone receives copies of my books How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and Thoughts on Translation.
Registration is $350 ($50 discount for ATA members), and you can read the full course description or register here. A previous participant in the course commented that, “Neither in my undergraduate classes in education nor in some of the more practical classes I took as part of my MA in English (including the course connected to my assistantship as a writing consultant) did I ever experience one course that delivered as much precise and helpful information as this course.” Hope to see some of you there!
On September 3, Steve Lank and I presented a webinar for ATA, on “Effective marketing to translation companies.” We offered to answer the remaining questions from the webinar here. I’ll put the questions in bold, and our answers below them. If you’d like to purchase the webinar recording, it’s on the ATA website.
Corinne – You put “CT” after your name on your resume. Is that an official ATA abbreviation? Or can I put the same if I’ve been certified by another organization?
Corinne: “CT” is ATA’s designation for ATA-certified translators. If you’re certified by another organization, you should see what their designation is.
For experienced translators, do you have advice on how to increase rates with agencies you have been working with for several years? If a translator has a good, long-term relationship with an agency, will the agency stop using a translator if he/she raises rates?
Steve: I think you just need to be open about it. We have to go the same thing with our end-clients and the response differs depending on the individual. But it you have a good relationship you should be able to talk about and they should be expecting it (again, we have to do the same thing). They will let you know if it is possible or not and then you take it from there. Whether or not an agency will stop working with you based on a rate increase depends on the agency. If they have an upper limit they can accept then perhaps. More likely there will be some cost-sensitive projects they won’t be able to send to you, but there will be others they can. In the ideal scenario, because of the long-term relationship you have and the value you bring they can absorb the increase and nothing changes. I myself have never stopped working with a translator with whom I had a long-term relationship for increased rates alone.
How do you move from being in an agency database to actually getting assignments?
Steve: Persistence, I would say. If you are really interested in working with a particular agency, stay in touch. That will show you are serious and keep you top of mind. It takes time, but I think persistence pays off. Of course, I am talking gentle, professional; persistence, not the pushy, stalky kind! ;-)
When asked for references, do I need to ask permission from current/past clients before listing them? Asking more about individuals than agencies.
Steve: Yes, I think you should always ask permission to list someone (agency or individual) as a reference This in my mind is a question of professional courtesy. Besides, some companies have a policy against providing references so even if your PM loves you s/he may not be able to give a reference, so you need to check regarding their policy. And even if you know they will serve as a reference, you will need to find out how they would like to be contacted (e.g. phone or email). Finally, contacting clients for permission to list them as a reference also gives you an opportunity to reconnect with them (and to keep you top of mind) in case you have been out of touch, as well as to give them some details on the opportunity so they can be prepared and craft their response accordingly. For me, at least, there can be a real difference between how I respond to a reference request when I know it is coming vs. something out of the blue. and since you want to have the best references possible, you want to make sure your clients are prepared.
When you check the translator-scammers, do you look for the name or the email address of the translator? I just checked and my name is listed, but with an email address that does not belong to me.
Steve: I look for both the name and the email address and to date when I have found names on the list the emails have matched. However, if I found the name but not the email, I would still be cautious as these scammers are constantly making adjustments and can easily switch to another email address if another is identified as fraudulent. In the case of a mismatch, I might reach out to the individual to let her/him know what I have found in the event s/he is actually legitimate
How do you remove your name from the list?
Steve: I am not sure of the process to get your name removed, but contact details for the site can be found here: http://www.translator-scammers.com/translator-scammers-contacts.htm
Any suggestion on how or where to find good, reputable, quality-conscious agencies to contact?
Steve: The definition of these terms can really vary by individual, depending what you are looking for and what you value. However, I would suggest looking at listings on professional industry organization websites (e.g. ATA or other national/international organizations) or industry publications, such as Multilingual and then going from there. However, I think the very best place to start is with referrals from like-minded colleagues who have had a good experience with a particular agency. I know that when I am looking for new partners (whether individuals or agencies) I look for referrals first from people I know and trust. When I have exhausted that I will go to industry listings.
Do agencies mind if translators take previously-announced vacation time?
Steve: As freelancers, you are, of course, in control of your own time and can take vacation when you want. That said, I always appreciate a heads up from my regular translators when they are going to be away so I can make alternative plans. What is problematic is when a regular translator goes away with no notice. Again, this is the prerogative of the freelancer, but if it puts me in a bind it might lead to loss of business for the translator when s/he comes back, depending on the circumstances.
What’s your opinion of advertising your rates online (either on your website, LinkedIn, Yelp, etc.)?
Steve: I would advise against listing rates in a public forum and simply provide them when asked by individual prospects. Listing them online makes your services seem all about price and commoditizes them, basically inferring that the individual adds no value and one translator is the same as another. It can also lead to missed opportunities where someone who may have contacted you to discuss a project based on your credentials, and may ultimately be willing to pay your rate based on credentials and their conversation with you, may not ever reach out if they think they can’t afford you to begin with.
A lot of my current volunteer work is related to my religion, volunteering at the mosque, editing religious publications, etc. I hesitate to include this info because religion is such a touchy subject (and potential grounds for discrimination).
Steve: We addressed this on in the webinar itself, but I think it bears repeating and a little elaboration. That is a personal decision that you need to be comfortable with. I would hope that people in an international industry such as ours would not resort to discrimination like this, but that unfortunately depends on the individual. In your case, I would say take it on a case-by-case basis and include it or not based on what you found in your research on the potential client you are approaching. This means you have to customize a little each time, but I think it is worth the effort.
How do you justify “volume discounts” when there are no true economies of scale?
Steve: This is again is a personal decision that can be based on a variety of factors. If there are not actual economies of scale in a project, one factor could be that a large project would keep you very busy during a period when you don’t have other work and would keep you from having to spend unbillable time rustling up work. Another could be that you can translate a particular subject matter faster than others and you feel that with the size of the project you could still make the money you need. A third is that working on a large project at a discount might help get you in with a client you have been wanting to work with by helping them out of a bind and could generate standard rate business in the future. Ultimately what is typically driving agency requests for volume discounts is end-client budget and you just need to decide if it is worth it to you. What you shouldn’t do is accept just because you are asked for fear of losing future business. If it will keep you from more lucrative business in your pipeline, then the decision is obvious. But if it would help fill a gap, maybe it would be worthwhile. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The key to keep in mind is that it is your decision that you need to make base on your individual circumstances and the relationship(s) you have with your clients.
The next session of my four-week online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator starts on September 23, and I have five spots left. If you’re attending November’s ATA conference, this session is a good opportunity to get your freelance plan in place before then!
The course is open to beginning translators in any language combination, and everyone gets individual feedback from me on four assignments: your resume and cover letter, marketing plan, rates and billable hours sheet and online presence. We also do a one-hour question and answer conference call every week (recording provided if you can’t attend the live calls) and everyone receives free copies of my books How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and Thoughts on Translation.
Registration is $350, with a $50 discount for ATA members. A recent participant commented that, “Although I have been a full-time freelancer for over 10 years now, Corinne’s “Getting Started as a Translator” course greatly helped me by requiring me to rewrite my resume and cover letter, create a solid marketing plan, rethink my rates, and improve my online presence. It was an excellent opportunity to fill in some of the gaps that had been limiting the growth of my business. Corinne’s individualized advice on targeting direct clients and developing my specialties has given me new hope for my business.”
Hope to see some of you there! Visit my website for the full course description or to register.
The reality of a translator’s work day is that most of it is spent at the computer. This falls into the “great” category in terms of location-independence and the ability to work from nearly anywhere with a reliable Internet connection. But it falls into the “not great” category in terms of the effect on one’s eyes, hands, spine, and overall health. Here are a few suggestions for mitigating the damage, and feel free to add your own in the comments!
Think about your desk setup
In 13 years of freelancing, I’ve tried various setups; standard desk with a standard chair, standard desk with a yoga ball, a treadmill desk, and now a standing-height desk with a high stool. I do think that being able to change your position is important; if you want to see a sit-stand desk in action, you can check out this video interview with Karen Tkaczyk, who uses an Ikea Bekant motorized multi-position desk.
All of these desk setups have their pluses and minuses: I like sitting on a yoga ball because you can’t slouch (or you fall off the ball…) and you can’t sit with your legs crossed, unless you have unusually good balance on one leg. Treadmill desks are excellent for your health, but can be loud and large, and can also leave you feeling just exercised enough that you don’t feel motivated to do more vigorous exercise when you’re not working.
At my co-working office, we have Ikea Linnmon trestle desks, which look like this:
They’re an interesting solution because they allow you to change from sitting to standing by using a high chair or stool, rather than by changing the desk height. I use a wooden stool as a desk chair, which a) prevents slouching since there’s no back, and b) is just uncomfortable enough that I have to walk around or stand up regularly, which I like. If I had a Herman Miller Aeron, I might never get up again, whereas the wooden stool kind of forces me into activity.
Think about your hands and eyes
As translators, we type *a lot*. Unless you use speech recognition software, your fingers are working overtime, so make sure you have a really good keyboard. I am an evangelist for Unicomp keyboards; I have the classic buckling spring model at home, but it’s so loud that I purchased the quiet touch model for my office (it’s still pretty loud compared to something like an Apple keyboard, but it’s doable). Using the Unicomp keyboards, I have had zero repetitive strain problems in 13 years of translating, so I think they’re well worth it.
If you have a laptop as your primary work computer, invest in a good-quality, large monitor so that you’re not squinting at a little screen. And look at some basic ergonomic guidelines when you set everything up in your office: adjust the monitor so that your head is in a neutral/level position when you look at the center of the screen, and place the monitor so that your fingertips just touch the screen if you reach your arm out straight in your normal sitting/standing position.
Make exercising a habit
I once told an audience of freelancers, “Do something physical for at least an hour a day.” To which someone in the audience responded, “That sounds kind of X-rated, don’t you think?” I’m not going to judge your choice of physical activity, but I’ll give you my doctor’s advice: if you are completely sedentary at work, you have to consider an hour of exercise as part of your work day. I know…you don’t have time, you hate Jazzercise, and so on. Here’s how I do it: I consider a gym membership to be a business expense. I mean, in the IRS’ mind, and thus on my actual taxes, it’s not a business expense. But in my own mind, it’s a cost of doing business in a job that I love, but in which I do a lot of sitting on my tail. I deliberately sought out a gym that is a five-minute walk from my office, and that offers “lunchtime express” exercise classes. The class varies by the day: one day it’s power yoga, one day it’s TRX, one day it’s kettlebells. Honestly, I don’t even look at what the class is: I just go on the gym website and sign up, and that’s my lunch break. The gym is so close that I can change clothes, walk there, do the class, take a quick shower, change, walk back, and be back at my desk in about an hour and fifteen minutes. Maybe there’s not a gym right near you, or maybe you loathe the thought of group exercise classes, or whatever, but if you are at all avoidant about exercising, you need to find a “hook” that forces you to keep up with it.
If you work at home, you can try all kinds of little tricks to force yourself to exercise: when your phone rings, stand up before you answer it, and walk around while you talk on the phone. Keep a set of dumbbells on your desk, and lift them while you’re listening to a webinar. Set a timer and work for 50 minutes, then “work out” for 10 minutes by doing jumping jacks, squats, or running in place in your office.
I’m sure you have some great tips on freelance health, so let’s hear them!
Paul Urwin recently interviewed me for his podcast 100 Percent Translations. We had a great conversation about finding clients, staying happy as a freelancer, moving up in the translation market and lots of other topics. I tried to be concise, but still talked so long that Paul split the interview into two episodes…you can listen to the first one from the link above!