[Research] Freelance Translator Survey 2020:
4. COVID-19 & Brexit

The effects these events have had on freelance translators’ lives

Published on 30 November 2020

Current affairs

Brexit – Effects on freelance translators

We took the opportunity in this survey to explore the actual or perceived impact of Brexit, or the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Although the survey covered freelance translators from around the world, it was expected that many would be living in the UK or working with clients there and might potentially be affected by the changes. 

The findings indicated that Brexit was perceived to be relevant to them by around 40% of the 1,034 respondents who answered this question. Of these 407 respondents, 61% said that they were not entitled to vote in the Brexit referendum, while 37% said they were entitled to vote and did. Only 1% (n=6) indicated that they were entitled to vote but did not do so.

Vote in the referendum

Those respondents who had voted in the Brexit referendum were invited to disclose how they had voted, and the distribution of responses is shown below. 

The vast majority of 87% of those respondents eligible to vote in the Brexit referendum voted to remain. Just 5% voted to leave, with the remainder preferring not to say how they voted. 

Effects of Brexit

Those respondents for which Brexit was relevant were asked whether, at the time of completing the survey, any aspects of their work or life had been affected by Brexit, either in a negative or positive way. The distribution of responses for the 411 respondents who answered this question is shown below.

More than half of these respondents (57%) said that their work and life had not been affected in any way by Brexit so far. Around a third (32%) said that they had been affected in a negative way by Brexit. Only 3% reported that Brexit has affected them in a positive way, but 9% said it had affected them in both a positive and negative way. 

Those respondents who said that their job or life has been affected by Brexit were invited to describe the ways in which this had happened. A total of 144 respondents took the opportunity to do so, but since some made several different points in their answer, a total of 191 separate comments were analysed. 

The following key findings, illustrated with some example quotes, emerged from this data regarding the ways in which freelance translators’ jobs have already been affected by Brexit.

Less work (n=34) – 24% of respondents

“Ever since the referendum in 2016 I have experienced a downturn in work, which has become much less predictable and generally now consists of smaller projects rather than the large-scale projects I was previously often involved in.”

“Lost a small amount of work with European agencies.”

“Saw temporary downturn in workload.”

Freedom of movement (n=29)

“Personal life; had planned to return to the UK (I live abroad) in the short term. Will have to postpone the move.”

“Lost rights and ease of travel/doing business.”

Uncertainty (n=24)

“Insecurity and anxiety over what happens when it’s all finished.”

“[…] uncertainty about admin procedures after Brexit.”

GBP-EUR exchange rate (n=19)

The fluctuations in the exchange rate have affected some positively, others negatively.

“On the plus side, some fluctuations in the EUR/GBP exchange rate have worked in my favour recently.”

“The fluctuations in the exchange rate GBP/EUR have made me more expensive for UK-based clients.”

Stress (n=15)

“Personally, it’s been a cause of stress, anxiety and great sadness.”

“Life: general feelings of frustration, disappointment, and anger towards the UK government and Leave campaign; worried about travel to/living in EU countries; worried about raising levels of explicit and accepted racism/xenophobia/hate in the UK.”

Clients (n=16). Most comments on this subject mentioned losing clients, but there were a few that mentioned their services have become more attractive for some clients.

“Most of my clients trade/do business directly with the EU. Their loss of revenue has affected mine.”

“As an English native speaker based in the EU, clients have said they prefer working with me than taking the risk of financial/fiscal complications working with UK-based translators.”

More work (n=10)

“Work has increased as a result of Brexit as many people are now applying for […] citizenship […]”

No change in workload (n=10)

“Work: not (yet) affected.”

Citizenship (n=7)

“It has cost me time and money obtaining citizenship status in my country of residence in order to ensure I will not have to rely on work visas/residence permits in the future.”

Relationships (n=2)

“[…] It has also soured relationships with family members who voted to leave.”

“The removal of the 4 freedoms affects my personal and business life. I now genuinely and actively hate half the people around me, as they must have actually voted for this shit, more than once when you include the GE, but with the added frustration of not knowing which half it is. So I just hate pretty much everyone.”

Other (n=25)

“It has made me ashamed to be British.”

“I no longer feel at home in a country I have lived in for 42 years.”

COVID-19 – Effects on freelance translation jobs

Our survey fieldwork period coincided with the global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in March and April 2020. This provided us with a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which the pandemic was either expected to or had already affected freelance translators.  

Current effects

The respondents were first asked whether, at the time of completing the survey, their job as a freelance translator had already been affected in any way by the COVID-19 outbreak. 1,033 respondents answered this question, and overall, 61% reported that their freelance jobs had already been affected by the pandemic.

A survey from the International Federation of Translators | Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs (FIT), carried out roughly at the same time, showed that a staggering 96.8% of their respondents had been affected by COVID-19 at the time of the survey. We believe that the difference comes from the fact that our survey excluded those whose work consisted of interpreting services only, as that category was one of the worst affected due to event and in-person meetings being cancelled.

Another survey run by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), which was published in May 2020, showed that the gap continued to increase. Their results showed that only 16% of respondents had not seen any effects by that time.

Since the virus was spreading rapidly worldwide at the time of the survey, we were curious to find out whether the distribution of answers to this question would differ between groups of respondents completing the questionnaire at different times. Therefore, we compared the findings from respondents completing the survey within the first, second, third and fourth week* after its release.

*Since the survey was open for a period of 25 days, ‘Week 4’ only consists of 4 days.

The above chart reveals that there was a progressive increase over time in the percentages of respondents indicating that their freelance translation jobs had already been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of those who completed our survey during the first week that it was live, 54% gave this response, but the number increased steadily to reach 71% of those who completed the survey after 7th April. 

Future expected effects

We also asked freelance translators whether, at the time of completing the questionnaire, they expected that their job as a freelance translator would be affected in any way by the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, and the distribution of responses is shown in the figure below. 

Overall, 61% of this sample (n=634) expressed the expectation that their work as a freelance translator would be affected by COVID-19, while only 9% (n=89) indicated that they did not expect their work to be affected. The remainder did not know (at the time of completing the survey) whether COVID-19 would affect their work.

The data was then analysed based only on those respondents whose work had not already been affected and who answered the question about possible future effects (n=397), and the distribution of responses is shown in the chart below.

Of these, it was found that roughly a third (34%) did expect that their work would be affected at some stage by the pandemic. Only 18% (n=72) did not expect their work to be affected, while around half (48%) of these respondents indicated that they did not yet know if their work would be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

We also compared the findings from this sub-group of respondents depending on whether they completed the survey within the first, second, third or fourth week after its release. The distribution of responses for each week is shown below.

It is notable that in the final few days of the survey, when the pandemic was reaching a peak at least in many countries within Europe, more than half of all respondents whose jobs had not already been affected expressed the expectation that they would at some point be affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. This was in contrast to each of the preceding weeks, when the largest percentages of these respondents had indicated that they did not know whether they would be affected by the pandemic. 

COVID-19 – the experiences of freelance translators

Those respondents who said that their job as a freelancer translator had already been affected by COVID-19 were invited to describe the ways in which this had happened. A total of 568 respondents took the opportunity to do so, but since some made several different points in their answer, a total of 600 separate comments were analysed. 

The following key findings, illustrated with some example quotes, emerged from this data regarding the ways in which freelance translators’ jobs have already been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic:

Sharp decline in work supply for most respondents

  • The vast majority of comments, a total of 464, referred to ways in which the respondents’ supply of freelance translation work had been reduced as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • 263 respondents referred to a reduction in the supply of freelance translation work, with some citing figures ranging from 50% to 95%, while others just referred more generally to receiving much less work since the spread of the virus. 

“at least 50% decline in turnover and enquiries/translations”

“I have lost approximately 75% of my typical volume.”

“I have 95% less work because of COVID-19 which is unsustainable even in the short run.”

“It’s been very difficult to find new clients and big projects. It seems like everything work-related is frozen.”

  • 52 respondents indicated that they had stopped receiving work altogether or almost completely.

“Work has completely stopped, no enquiries at all.”

“No work whatsoever at the moment. I have not had a single job in over 2 weeks.”

“I have not received any work since the beginning of the epidemic.”

  • A further 52 respondents explained that the reduction in their supply of work was related to their specialist areas and the current lack of activity in these areas while countries are in lockdown. These include, for example, translation work related to travel and tourism, court proceedings, events and conferences, hospitality, museums, transport, and the film industry.

“Many clients are hotel/restaurant owners and shopping mall PR firms… closed businesses mean no work for me!”

“Publishers are not translating anymore, and book fairs and events have been cancelled.”

“I mainly work as a subtitler and the production all around the globe pretty much stopped.”

  • 12 mentioned reductions in the supply of work from certain countries affected heavily by COVID-19.

“My main client base is Spain, so when an entire country goes into lockdown and the economy plummets, translation doesn’t seem to be the first priority for most companies.”

  • 85 respondents explained that they had experienced existing projects or regular streams of work being cancelled or put on hold by their clients.

“I am currently receiving far fewer enquiries than normal and I have had two large jobs cancelled due to costs. Normally these jobs go through without any problems.”

“The project and all regional activities that we are supposed to work in as interpreters have been suspended until further notice.”

“Four big contracts have been cancelled, postponed to next year or postponed indefinitely.”

“Lost a major job, which has now been either postponed or cancelled. No money to even buy food. Things look very bad.”

“One of my direct clients is my alma mater. They give a lot of work (transcript of grades, diplomas, papers to be published in journals), and because of the preventive quarantine they are closed until further notice.”

“Conference cancelled and therefore my interpreting assignment never happened”

“A direct client pulled their job without communicating why.”

  • 14 of the survey respondents mentioned that they had been experiencing delays in receiving client payments due to the virus outbreak.

“Publisher of my literary works has cash flow issues, my payment will be delayed substantially.”

“I have not been paid for work done two months ago, and have had no new work commissioned for nearly two months now.”

“Normally regular payers now with overdue invoices.”

“My payments have been delayed.”

  • 12 indicated that they had been asked by clients to reduce their rates or were being offered lower rates than usual for their work.

“My regular workflow almost stopped. And new clients are offering extremely low rates.”

“I may have to lower my rates even more to get more projects”

“Asked to reduce rates because other colleagues with my language combination charge less. I didn’t, so I receive less work.”

“Clients have less work for me, haggle more over prices.”

“My main client has reduced my rate by 40% until everything is back on track and the workload has also been reduced.”

A minority are receiving extra work, especially COVID-19 related

  • 31 of the respondents described experiencing an overall increase in their supply of freelance translation work, or a substantial increase in certain types of translation jobs, particularly on COVID-19 related topics.

“More work from my direct clients!”

“Workload has skyrocketed!”

“As I currently work with clinical research, I have been requested to do more translation work than before.”

“5 times more work as usual.”

“The amount and urgency of medical translation projects has risen (due to Corona-related projects).”

“Huge increase in crisis communications and providing translations for online-based services that cannot be provided in person (especially in the field of education).”

“My clients of every sector requests me for translation on their measures and plans with regard to COVID-19 for the time being. At the moment rather busy, but I’m pretty sure some of the sectors will temporarily stop requesting for translations at a certain point of time if this situation gets even worse.”

“I have far more work as I subtitle for streaming services and their demand has surged.”

  • A further 37 reported experiencing a decline in the supply of in some of their usual freelance translation projects or from regular clients, but an increase in other areas.

“Some areas dipped quite considerably, but demand for Covid-19-related translation and localisation compensated for that.”

“Brief one-week lull in work. Has picked up again and is very busy now, but not with all clients.”

“Most of my tourism industry clients have stopped work with immediate effect. There’s a lot of demand, surge, for Covid-19 related translations.”

“Slight downturn in my normal work from agencies, but an upturn in work from direct clients.”

“Regular clients have stopped giving me work. New or fluctuating clients are there (fortunately), but asking for different things, so I have to adapt. In short: I have stepped out of my comfort zone.”

“Some agencies are much quieter than usual. Others that I don’t hear from often are getting in touch.”

  • Some are finding working during lockdown a challenge – 22 respondents described the difficulties of continuing their freelance translation work while also caring for or home-schooling their children during the lockdown.

“I’ve had to significantly reduce the time I can work due to children being home.”

“Not the job itself, but the fact that the children are at home and don’t let me work, so I have to work at night and don’t get enough sleep to cope with everything.”

“I am confined at home (60 sqm flat) with my 6-year-old son and translating a book in such circumstances is not feasible, so I am working during the night and taking care of him during the day.”

“I’m home with my kids so can’t take on any work.”

“I have a lot less time available to work due to having 2 school-age children at home and whose schools are expecting them to do as much work as they would normally do at school”.

“My home office has been invaded by family members WFH. I’ve had to buy noise-cancelling headphones and reduce/eliminate dictation activity.”

  • 11 referred to other challenges relating to working exclusively from home, or being unable to access on-site resources necessary for their work.

“I find I am less capable of doing my work, and it is taking longer than usual to finish.”

“Can’t consult any written sources if I get a project for which I need some research, clients can’t come for their certified translation, sending by post is pretty unsafe.”

“Because I translate legal documents which I get from direct clients, I have to then authenticate them so that they can be used and at the moment I am not able to do that.”

“It has forced us in my translation office to move to remote working, which makes our communication slower and makes us lose time during the working day.”

COVID-19 and freelance translators – concerns and opportunities

Whether or not their jobs had already been affected by the spread of COVID-19, the 634 survey respondents who said they expected this to happen were invited to explain this answer. In total, 490 respondents took the opportunity to do so.

Since some made several different points in their answer, a total of 510 separate comments were analysed. 

The following key findings, illustrated with some example quotes, emerged from this data regarding the ways in which freelance translators expect their jobs to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The findings illustrate that the vast majority of respondents are highly concerned about negative impacts on their supply of work and on their income, which some expect to continue for a long time. Overall, 96% of all comments received regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on respondents’ freelance translation jobs were negative, revealing a range of concerns and fears for the future. 

  • 410 respondents expressed the view that their work supply and income is likely to be significantly reduced or non-existent at least while the pandemic continues. 

“I expect a fall in translation and translation-related assignment for next months (I’m really scared about it!)”

“I fear that I will not receive any more work at all at a certain point. At the moment, I have (amazingly) still plenty of work.”

“If the outbreak continues, where lockdown applies, more operations will be shut down and less work will be available for translation as nobody is working.”

“I don’t expect to receive any new requests for translation work until September (provided France has returned to normal by then).”

“Expect income to be down by 50% this year.

  • Of the respondents providing this type of comment who explained their answers further, the types of reasons given were that agencies or direct clients had temporarily ceased or significantly reduced their activities.

“I’m afraid that I will not receive any new projects in April as my main agency experienced crisis and they have reduced employment already. I’m expecting more financial instability and chaos in life.”

“As all the translation agencies are closed, no more jobs or clients.”

“Agencies will not take on new translators. There won’t be any work. The world has shut down.”

  • Another commonly cited reason was that translation services would not be a priority for businesses with reduced budgets or concerned about their own financial survival.

“Probably less work as many companies will have gone bust or are struggling, and translations into such a small market will probably not be a priority for many businesses.”

“Some clients may go out of business and/or have financial difficulties that will prevent them from using a translator (even though I have significantly reduced my rates).”

“The whole economic life of the country has been put on a halt. When companies go back to normal, they will have to be frugal with expenses. Translation needs are not a priority and they will probably try to lower rates or get a cheaper provider.”

“I expect many clients will temporarily suspend translation requests as they won’t probably need new translated materials under current circumstances.”

“Even though at least the medical field of translation, as in my case, is experiencing positive effects due to more projects coming in, I assume we will have a delayed regression when companies, the longer the crisis will hold on, will need to spare their money and refrain from giving out projects to external resources.”

  • A further 22 respondents who expressed concerns about the reduction in supply of translation projects indicated that they expect this to continue for a prolonged period of time, as economies go into recession, businesses struggle to survive, and there are knock-on effects on sectors such as travel. 

“It will take considerable time for work levels to recover as companies focus on core business and less on development.”

“Reduced workload and cash flow issues as a result of clients going out of business or struggling financially.”

“I mainly work in audio-visual and gaming translations. I currently work on projects completed weeks or months ago. Since all productions have been suspended, I expect my activity to be affected by the end of the year or at the beginning of next year.”

“I am afraid for the years to come because we translators often experience a slowdown with some delay. That was the case after the financial crisis as well. And then the support for business will have stopped. It will be difficult to prove a link with this crisis. This will also have consequences for my retirement in a few years: less savings, less income …”

  • 22 respondents indicated that they expected fierce competition and downward pressure on rates for translation services, as clients try to secure better deals, larger agencies reduce their rates, and unemployment levels result in more individuals offering translation services.

“Less work because others are charging less. Companies use this to ask for reductions.”

“It will be more difficult to compete against so many freelance translators, all working online.”

“Unscrupulous larger agencies using the opportunity to make gains in the market and push rates down further.”

“From my experience in my prolonged target language country recession started in 2008, I know that it will reflect in a drop in business and more competition due to a rise in (intellectual) unemployment.”

“A higher unemployment induced due to the crisis would imply a surge of bilingual people in the industry, leading to a drop in fees and available jobs.”

  • 15 respondents reported ways in which the pandemic was expected to have negative effects on various aspects of their own working or personal lives, for example because of the challenges involved in working alone or from home, the need to modify their business strategy or plans, or the effects on their psychological well-being.

“I’m thinking of giving up my co-working space because I can’t afford it now. I really liked it in there, especially all the networking I was able to do, working from home does not provide this kind of things.”

“Cancellation of CPD and professional events, increased isolation working from home, decreased productivity with family at home.”

“The closures would mean that my children would have to stay home, and I cannot work when my children are around.”

“I was planning to do a lot of networking this year to improve my chances of getting more work through contacts and recommendations.”

“I was planning on approaching businesses in Japan regarding translations related to tourism/Japanese culture, but the tourism industry has been hit hard and will take time to recover, so I think it will be hard to sell premium translations and transcreations (higher rates) to this industry.”

However, small numbers are identifying potential opportunities for diversifying their services or types of clients, or are more hopeful that the downturn will be temporary and believe that the demand for their translation services will pick up fairly quickly when the current lockdowns come to an end. 

  • 22 respondents indicated that the expected effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on their freelance translation jobs include new or different opportunities for work available to them, or a need to diversify or identify other means of generating an income.

“Less translation work from some clients, more translation work in the medical/pharmaceutical field.”

“I also expect the way that translations become more and more necessary due to the urgent nature to spread medical-to-simple information as fast as the COVID-19 itself to prevent further damage.”

“I may have to change focus drastically as about 60% of my income was travel-linked medical/insurance related.”

“During the confinement I have started progressing with my “hobby” in literary translation and hope to pitch my work to my chosen publishers in the coming months.”

“Lack of income may force me to consider doing something else (Accountancy).”

  • Finally, 8 respondents expressed an optimistic view that the supply of translation work will increase again later in the year as countries return to normal after their lockdowns. 

“Once the lockdown is over and businesses reopen, I expect (and hope) that there will be a lot more translation work.”

“I guess the volume (already decimated) will remain low for a while, but I think it will bounce back eventually.”

“I expect to see a considerable reduction of income. I also expect a rush at the end of the year, when things start to get back to normal (I hope).”

In summary, the findings of the survey relating to COVID-19 indicated that many of the respondents’ were already experiencing a sharp decline in their supply of work, and the majority expected that this would be the case in coming months.

Concerns were also raised about pressure on pay rates and increased competitiveness for increasingly scarce translation work. A minority of respondents, however, reported an increase in work since the virus outbreak, especially in the form of projects related to COVID-19. Others indicated that they were responding to the current challenges by diversifying into new areas of work. The findings provide a unique insight into the impacts of the pandemic on this group of professional freelancers, and their responses to these.  

Sections of Freelance Translator Survey 2020

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