How did I establish a portfolio career – and why?

How did I establish a portfolio career – and why? by Melanie Girdlestone, freelance trainer and translator

My choice to work for myself was essentially the result of a system of elimination! Even as a teenager, I knew that money, status symbols and a “positions of responsibility” in  a large company were not things I aspired to. Instead, I somehow envisaged spending my days spreading happiness in some way. The question was: how?

When I finally got serious about finding gainful employment after settling in Munich,  fate came to my rescue. I spotted a newspaper advert by Langenscheidt, the famous dictionary producer, and was lucky enough to be taken on as a member of the teaching team at their new language school. Over the years, further coincidences (including phone-calls out of the blue) allowed me to teach in major companies including a luxury carmaker, major telecommunications provider and a national airline.

My teaching activities ended in 2004, when I accompanied my husband to the UK on his 5-year expat contract. Having left all my clients in Munich, I started from scratch – once again with luck on my side. When a former student of mine contacted me about some translation work, history began to repeat itself, with word spreading and clients accumulating in my contact list again.

To attribute these developments to fate alone would oversimplify the matter. I believe a number of other factors were involved. Surviving on your own seems to me to be a question largely of self-knowledge, of knowing exactly what makes you – and consequently your clients – happy. I, for instance, prefer freedom over rules, so the more creative and open-minded my client, the more I feel my teaching and/or translations can contribute. In addition, creative thinking has enabled me to build up business by linking my personal interests to the opportunities I see in the world around me. For example, my fascination with the way we determine interpersonal relationships through language makes me relatively “creative” as a translator – ideal for tasks such as translating advertising straplines and song lyrics to be (hopefully) as engaging in English as they were in the German original. And then, of course, there’s the importance of an open mind. As well as allowing me to spot an opportunity, broadness of vision helps me tolerate and learn from virtually anything, including my clients’ “quirks”. On top of this, a degree of inquisitiveness helps me share their understanding and fascination for the cars, simulation technologies, wind turbines or cakes they write about – an enthusiasm I inject into my translations. But most of all, at the risk of sounding corny, I believe passion is essential. My love of language has allowed me to devote myself to my studies for two MA’s and consequently produce work that is hopefully of higher quality. It also allows me to evaluate and learn from the work of others.

We all know, however, that life has a marked tendency to throw occasional disasters at us. In this context, I believe it is important to feel able to handle things when they take a turn for the worse. If I do not get along with a client, I end the relationship as elegantly as possible, if only as a means of self-preservation. When confronted with a crisis (such as a key client who is restructuring the way translation or teaching activities are contracted out), I give myself time to deal with the inevitable sadness of losing my contract but soon set about identifying the opportunities the change represents – chiefly time to think, reassess, rebalance and re-orientate. If I feel underpaid or undervalued, I am not afraid to bid a client farewell in order to free up time for other, more lucrative or rewarding work. Conversely, the risk that the client might do the same to me is constantly at the back of my mind, inspiring me to think beyond my daily work so as to be prepared should the worst happen. Scary but exciting – because whenever a door slams shut another window of opportunity opens somewhere.

There are, of course, several aspects of independent work that are hugely inconvenient. Out with PAYE, in with self-assessment tax returns. And who to call when the computer goes strange? Tax returns are a drag, I will admit, but they are invariably completed in the company of my old record collection and a nice cold beer. IT problems tend to be resolved by somebody who knows somebody somewhere that can help. Because although your office network is rather limited when you operate as “sole trader”, you frequently meet like-minded folks who are only too pleased to help, especially if you can return the favour some day. I have often done free translations for people in the past and invariably found something the recipient of these services can do for me at a later stage.

And finally, of course, comes the question of success. At the age of 46, I am by no means rich, but I have never had to restrict my spending and always had plenty of cash available to fall back on in case of an emergency. I live very comfortably in a desirable part of town and focus my energy on the jobs I enjoy most. Meanwhile, my mind continues to churn out new ideas about things I might write, study, tell my clients about, or explore in years to come. I have no employees (which is probably wise considering I have no management skills), but I often share projects with people whose work I like. And with no prospects of promotion, I tend to promote myself; treating the mind by engaging in studies automatically helps promote your bank balance. Bring on more geeky books to make me that bit better at what I do than the others! When my clients come back for more, I know I’ve done the right thing!

You can find out more about Melanie’s work at:

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