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Life as a Freelance Translator: An Interview with Melanie Brownlee

We talk to freelance translator Melanie Brownlee about her job, her goals and how she uses Mailbutler to increase her productivity.

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7 minutes

    By María

    María studied International Business, with a focus on Marketing. In her spare time she likes traveling with her friends, recording videos for her channel and trying out new restaurants.

    Melanie Brownlee is an accredited freelance translator and member of the CIoL (MCIL). She translates French and German into English and is specialized in Medical and Pharmaceutical translation, as well as Lifestyle and Wellness translation. In this interview, she talks to us about her job, her goals and how she uses Mailbutler to increase her productivity.

    Melanie, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview today. We’re curious to find out more about you and your work life. Let’s start with some easy questions. Would you fill in the blanks for us, please: 

    For me, it is super important to balance …. and … 

    Work life and personal life. I am a firm believer in taking your full lunch break!

    The person I would like to change jobs with for one day is… 

    I don’t have a specific name to mention, but I’d love to work as a crime scene investigator for a day! I am fascinated by that kind of work.

    When I was a kid I always wanted to become… 

    A hairdresser, a private investigator, Britney Spears herself...

    I wouldn’t get through the day without… 

    Coffee, scented candles and true crime podcasts.

    I admit, I like to put off...

    Difficult conversations.

    Thank you so much for your responses, Melanie! Now, let’s dive into your work life. You are a freelance translator. What path took you to where you are right now?

    I was always interested in foreign languages and cultures, and because I really enjoyed those lessons at school, I kept French and German on for GSCE, then A-level. Pretty early on I knew I wanted to carry on at uni, and about half-way through uni I knew I wanted to do the MA in Translation Studies. Deciding what to do after that was the hard part! It took a bit of trial and error with different types of translation and working in-house before I decided that freelance was the life for me. I’m very much a “work to live, don’t live to work” person, so ultimately the ability to be flexible whilst doing something I really enjoyed was the winning formula for me.

    That's 100% true. We should all have that mindset! What are the main advantages of being a freelance translator? And the main challenges?

    My favourite thing about being a freelance translator, aside from getting to use my language skills every day, is definitely the flexibility. It’s really important to me that I’m able to move my day around to suit my needs, and I find that it really does help me maintain a much better work-life balance. Not having to justify needing a day off or asking permission to work variable hours is a novelty that will never wear off for me. The rest of your life doesn’t stop during the hours of 9-5, and being flexible helps me to manage unpredictability with reduced stress.

    There are obviously some downsides, though. It can be challenging to trust yourself when there’s no one else to ask for help, and you need to make sure you’re getting some human interaction and leaving the house enough, which has definitely been more tricky during the pandemic.

    The pandemic has made work harder for all of us, for sure. You mentioned you learned German and French at school, when did you start learning them and why? 

    Sadly, I don’t have a very exciting story for you - I just started learning them at secondary school.

    My family tree is Northern Irish as far back as I can trace, so there were no familial links or anything like that. I was fortunate enough to go on some lovely family holidays, and my parents always ate local food and spoke to everyone and anyone, which I think contributed a lot to me being so interested in other languages and cultures. We did a lot of family holidays around the UK when I was small, and I’ve always thought it was cool how much culture can vary between regions, or even towns, in the same country.

    French was compulsory at school and German was offered as an option, so I took them both, and would have taken more if they’d been offered. It also used to bother me that I couldn’t always understand what people were saying, so maybe I’m just a bit nosy!

    You are specialized in Medical and Pharmaceutical translation, as well as Lifestyle and Wellness translation. Accuracy is very important for medical translation. You hold a lot of responsibility! Why did you choose these specializations?

    I sort of fell into medical translation during my MA - I did a module and had a brilliant lecturer and just really clicked with it. After I graduated, I went to work as a translator in a hospital in France, which really cemented it for me. I worked in the neurology department, which is how that came to be my specialisation within the area.  Combined with Lifestyle and Wellness, I like to think of my specialisations as encompassing health and wellbeing as a whole - inside and out.

    Medicine and Lifestyle also align with my own personal values and interests. I wanted to make sure I was doing work I enjoyed, but also work that made a difference in some way. Medicine is very rewarding, but so is Lifestyle - I am passionate about menstrual health and period poverty, for example, so being able to work on topics like these are hugely rewarding for me. 

    Wow, that is truly admirable Melanie! As a freelance translator, do you work with language service companies, or do you work directly with your clients? Which option would you recommend to new translators?

    It’s a real mixture for me! I work with a few language service providers and I also have some direct clients as well. There are definite pros and cons to both, but for a translator starting out I would recommend applying to a couple of agencies first. It’s easier for direct clients to find you (and you to find them!) once you’ve got that experience.

    Agencies are more likely to send you a steady stream of work as well, which is especially helpful when you’re just starting out and finding your feet. There’s also a bit more support as you’re working with Project Managers, which can be more reassuring in the early days.

    I see, working with agencies can give you more stability when you are starting as a freelance translator. Also, I am sure you have translated many different types of documents! What has been the most special piece of work that you have translated so far? 

    I always remember working on a medical report on a critically ill three-year-old patient. I thought about it for a long time after.

    That must have been a very tough report to translate. It looks like you are very passionate about your job! What are your future professional dreams and goals?

    One of my long-term goals is to specialise in forensic pathology within Medicine - I’d love to be able to offer translation services for post mortems. I’ve also been really interested in Scandinavian languages for a while now, so I’d love to get a formal qualification and maybe even be able to offer language services in Swedish or Norwegian in the future. 

    Sounds really interesting! I wish you all the best in your career and your goals. You’re using Mailbutler to keep an easy and smooth workflow. How would you say it is the best way to integrate Mailbutler into a freelancer life?

    It honestly just integrates itself! I use Gmail for business and I can access Mailbutler from the sidebar. It works away in the background and there are loads of handy shortcuts you can use as well, so it integrates seamlessly into freelance life. It’s so handy for the admin side of running your own business.

    We are happy to hear you enjoy using Mailbutler! What Mailbutler features do you enjoy the most and why? Would you recommend it?

    Mailbutler is a really useful tool for me. My favourite features are definitely the email tracking and the signatures - you can easily make and access several different signatures depending on your needs. I love them so much! It may seem like a small visual touch, but a professional signature containing all your important contact info (but without looking like a short novel tacked onto the end of your message) just gives you that much more credibility.

    The email tracking gives me peace of mind that clients have received project deliveries, and it makes invoicing easier too, as you can see how often someone has opened your email, so you know when to follow up. I would definitely recommend it to other freelancers! 


    Have you already checked out our interview Helping Women move Forward in Their Business” with Hollie Barac? She talked to us about her job, her podcast, what productivity actually is and how she uses Mailbutler to save time. Go read it now!

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