Archive for the ‘Freelancing’ Category

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:

  1. Immigration/visa requirements
  2. Tax requirements
  3. 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!

Getting paid
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!).

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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!

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Stop me if this sounds familiar:
I really needed work, so I decided to take whatever came through the door. I decided that applying to mega-agencies/advertising on Fiverr/racing to the bottom on translation job boards was the fastest way to get full-time freelance work. But now I’m stuck; I have to translate 10-12 hours a day to earn a decent living at these rates. I can’t ever take a day off. If I get sick, I’m in danger of not being able to pay my rent, and I have no money to spend on better equipment or professional development. Low-rate work feels like a treadmill that I’ll never get off. HELP.

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OK…that’s not the only reason you need a translation partner, it’s just me learning how to use Canva, but worry-free vacations are a good reason to have a translation partner! I get this question a lot, so let’s talk about it.

Why do you need a translation partner?

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Book translation has been on my radar screen lately; Eve Bodeux and I translated a novel together last year, and I’ve just finished translating another novel and a mountaineering memoir (more on these when they’re published!). Then, as if there were something in the air, a couple of readers e-mailed me questions about book translation. So, let’s have a crack at this interesting topic.

First, almost everything I know about the business of book translation, I learned from Lisa Carter. Her blog is truly a gold mine of advice for aspiring literary translators, especially those who want to make some money while they’re at it. So, for the authoritative word on literary translation, listen to Lisa! You can literally listen to her, in an interview on Tess Whitty’s podcast, which I also recommend!

The harsh reality is that unless you get in on the ground floor of the next Harry Potter series (and maybe not even then), book translation will never pay as well as commercial translation. It just won’t. Because the people who need book translations (authors and publishers) mostly earn a lot less than the people who need commercial translations. But a) if you look carefully, book translation can pay enough to be a viable addition to your commercial translation business, and b) it’s appealing for other reasons, which I’ll address later.

In my experience, there are two kinds of book translation clients: those with budgets so low that they really need a pro bono translator, and those that will pay enough to hire a professional translator. I’m assuming that you’re looking for the second kind of book translation client. If you love translating books and honestly don’t need the money, go forth and translate, because there are tons of authors out there waiting for you (and I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically).

To find decently-paying book translations I recommend a) working with self-published authors who have decent budgets, or b) contacting publishers in your target language, that publish the kinds of books you’re interested in translating. In my experience, non-fiction always pays better than fiction (simply because non-fiction books have a longer shelf life and generally sell more copies). But fiction, especially for the aforementioned self-published authors, can pay decently too. Working with self-published authors isn’t as crazy as it sounds, especially if the author is translating into a language with potentially higher sales than the original. Some authors are willing to self-fund the translation and then recoup the investment through royalties, and others are just interested in getting their book in front of a new audience. For more on working with self-published authors, see Lisa Carter’s interview with Rafa Lombardino on that very topic.

How do you find book translation clients? Of the four books I’ve translated to date, one was a referral from a colleague, one was for an author who found my website, one was through an agency, and one was through a specialized publisher that I cold-contacted (with a warm e-mail). So, just like any other kind of client, you can find book translation clients in lots of ways; but I would definitely recommend having a dedicated page for book translations on your website (here’s mine), and I would definitely recommend proactively contacting publishers that produce the kinds of books you want to translate.

So, if book translation rarely pays as well as commercial translation, what’s the appeal? Well, lots of things. Translating books is really interesting. Although I love my work, it’s rare that I would choose to read one of my commercial translations for pleasure. When I kick back and relax, I don’t crack open a report on performance-based funding of public health programs in West Africa, or a brochure to attract foreign students to a European university. I find them interesting when I translate them, but they’re not something I would read if I weren’t getting paid. But the books I’ve translated have been really, really interesting: the kind of thing I’d read for pleasure. Also, book translations are less immediately-deadline driven than most commercial translation. The books I’ve translated have taken three to five months, during which time I work completely on my own schedule; a nice alternative to 3,000 words for tomorrow. Book translations are also good for translators who want to be location-independent, for that same reason (once you sign the contract, you’re usually not in daily contact with the author or publisher).

A few caveats:
-Always get a deposit; even at a lower rate than your commercial translation work, book translations are a big chunk of money and you don’t want to risk not getting paid.

-Get credit: the gold standard is your name on the cover, in the same font as the author’s; your name might be on the copyright page or somewhere else, but your name should be there somewhere (ditto for the Amazon page: you should be on there).

-Avoid work for hire (with the disclosure that I’ve done a book translation as a work for hire, so I’m talking about the ideal here, not necessarily what I always do). Work for hire, where the client owns all rights to the translation once they pay the invoice, is the norm in commercial translation. In book translation, you want to avoid it. When you own the copyright to the translation, the client can’t deny you credit for it; if they never publish the translation, go out of business, or if the translation goes out of print, you may be able to do something else with it (for example, self-publish it or shop it around to another publisher).

-Negotiate long deadlines. To me, this is the key to making book translation financially viable. I couldn’t live off book translation alone, and I don’t want to tie myself up so that I’m turning down work from my commercial translation clients. So I negotiate a deadline that allows me to fit the book in as I have time; that way I’m not putting my commercial clients on hold for three months while I work on the book.

Readers, other thoughts on translating books?

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There are a lot of reasons to avoid negotiating on price:

  • Once you take on the lower-paying project, what happens when a higher-paying project comes in?
  • Lowering your rate shows the client that, at least some of the time, you’re willing to work for less than your stated rate.
  • Lowering your rate can cause you to feel resentful of the client or the project (even though you’re the one who agreed to the lower rate).

But what happens when, for whatever reason (interest in the client, interest in the subject matter, interest in bringing in more work in general), you’re offered a lower-paying project and you want to accept it? What other factors might you negotiate with the client?

A longer deadline. If you really want the work, but you and the client can’t agree on a rate, ask the client to extend the deadline. This protects you from having to turn down higher-paying work during the lower-paying project.

The non-translation tasks. Can the client’s admin staff do some of the formatting? Retype numbers from a PDF? Create tables? Do the annoying double-column layout that you’re dreading? Decipher the handwritten notes in the margins?

Faster payment. If you really want the work, can the client reduce their payment terms from 30 or 45 days to, say, 10 days?

Name recognition. Especially for a direct client, you may be able to negotiate for your name, website, etc. to be included on the translation. This can be appealing if the translation will be published/exhibited/distributed.

In certain circumstances, you might also consider doing the job for free instead of reducing your rate. This sounds a bit nutty, but here’s an example: one of my A-list clients approached me about doing a translation for a charitable organization that one of their employees was involved with. In light of the pro bono nature of the project, what was “my best rate?,” they asked. Here, I thought of item 2 on the list above: if I said “I’ll do it for half of my normal rate,” the bottom line would be that, at least some of the time, half of my normal rate is fine with me (which it’s not, even though I really like this client). So in that case, I preferred to do the translation for free, as a contribution to the charitable organization, rather than at a reduced rate.

Obviously, the best option is to have enough work at your regular rates that you don’t need to pursue these options. But I think many/most freelancers end up in situations where they feel torn: the project doesn’t pay their standard rate, but for some reason they want to take it. Readers, other thoughts?

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Yesterday we flipped the calendar not only into July, but into the second half of 2015. A really short post for today: assess how you’re doing as compared to the goals you set for this year. Most importantly, what has to happen between now and December 31 in order for you to feel successful? If you want a public record of your goal, you can post it in the comments! Mine= publish the third edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator before the 2015 ATA conference.

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