Time Management for Translators


Time management is something EVERY freelance translator I know struggles with. It’s not surprising: as a translator you’ve been trained to work with languages, and not deadlines, clients and project managers. And trust me, even languages like Mandarin are easy compared to demanding clients and tight deadlines!

Things may be even harder if you’ve recently made the switch from a regular office job. Sure, being at work from 9 to 5 was boring, but at least you knew where and when you were supposed to work. As a fresh freelancer with a smartphone and wireless connection it may suddenly seem that you should be working all the time, wherever you are.

If your dream of the 4-hour work week is turning into the nightmare of “never have time off”, read on. Below I’ve gathered the 4 top time management  tips I’ve acquired over the past 8 years or so of freelance translating:

1. Keep office hours

You need to know when you want to work. This doesn’t mean going back to 9-5 monotony.  Choose the schedule that you want for your life. That can be only weekday mornings, only weekends, a couple of hours every month, whatever. You can even decide on a different schedule every week. The important bit is knowing when you are working and when you are not.


  • Get out a piece of paper and write down your dream work schedule.
  • Below that write down your current, ACTUAL schedule. Be honest and include all and every time you are checking e-mails, analysing potential jobs, coming up with quotes.
  • Now think of ONE thing you can do today make your dream schedule a reality (for some ideas, read on!)

2. Learn to say No

When I first started translating I found it  hard to say No. I was so chuffed that a translation agency had taken me on its books that I felt obliged to accept every little project they offered me. When I gave excuses (I don’t think I have enough time, I don’t feel comfortable with that subject matter) the project managers would always manage to convince me (don’t worry, we’ll give you an extension! don’t worry, there’s a glossary!). Or they would make me feel guilty with plaintive cries of client deadlines and lack of translators.

As you can imagine, my dream work schedule soon turned into a nightmare as I was taking on more work than I could cope with. Why oh why wouldn’t the project managers understand that I couldn’t work any more?

It slowly dawned on me that the problem wasn’t the project managers but myself. The project managers job is to find translators for the files coming in for the client. Of course they will do whatever possible to get their translators on file to take a rush job, to add hours to their working day, to do just one more little file. I learn that I had to take responsibility for my working hours. When I received a project that I didn’t want to take, I didn’t make excuses, I simply said No. Politely, yet firmly. No budging.

Homework: Create a short model NO e-mail you feel comfortable sending to clients and project managers. Remember that your reasons for saying No are none of their business. Or just copy my model below. 

Dear X,

I’m afraid I won’t be able to accept this file. I’m currently working on another project and the earliest I’m available again is the Xth of Y.

Thank you in advance!



3. Track your time

You need to know your time to manage your time.

I’ve always been a bit of an overperformer when it comes to deadlines. Even at university I prefered handing something in a week in advance than panicking over last-minute changes. This is why, very early on in my translation career I started tracking my time. If I was going to provide accurate deadlines for my clients, I simply had to know how much time I was spending translating.

Tracking time is also very important for all those other administrative tasks. You might find, for example, that your super lucrative client, isn’t such a cash cow once you factor in all the admin and that the low-paying, but low-admin agency is a much better deal.

There are many time tracking apps out there but my favourite has always been Toggl.

Homework: Sign up to Toggl (it’s free!) and track your time for a day. Let me know in the comments what you find out!

4. Separate your work from your life

Let me tell you a secret: I don’t give clients my phone number.

I’ve found that when project managers get desperate they will call you…even though you’ve already answered their e-mail telling them you are busy. And that call usually comes when I’m focusing on a particular tricky translation segment…boom, my concentration is gone and I’m going to have muster extra reserves to say NO over the phone.

Using a phone for translation work is always inefficient (since I’ll have to get to my computer anyway to see the file) and highly disruptive to my work flow and personal life so I’ve cut it out.

This is all part of separating my  work life from my personal life. Remember what I said about office hours in the beginning? That also applies to checking e-mail when you’re out with friends. If you don’t clearly separate your work from pleasure you’ll find the former quickly encroaches on the latter.

Homework: find one way to separate your work from your personal life this week. Here are some ideas:

  • Create two separate e-mail accounts, one for work, one for life
  • Set up a work phone number or ditch using the phone altogether
  • Switch your phone to airplane mode when you need some social time with friends or time on your own

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