Things I Will Do for Free

There are some things I will do for free. Here they are:

1. I will translate a short story, essay or extract of my own choosing for submission to a magazine (print or online), especially if a) the magazine doesn’t cost anything and/or b) I hope to spread the word about a particular writer or book.

2. I will moderate or appear on a panel or read from my own translations in the UK (if the organizer pays my expenses) or at small events in Berlin.

3. I will edit friends’ translations in exchange for them editing mine.

4. I will read friends’ original manuscripts and comment on them.

5. I will give advice and recommendations to the best of my ability.

6. I will give interviews to the best of my ability.

7. I will write a blog, or two, and occasional pieces for other people’s blogs.

8. I will run a monthly translation lab where translators can help each other.

9. I will do short translations for charitable projects.

10. I will co-edit a no-budget magazine of current German writing in translation and organize an annual translation talent contest.

That is the end of the things I will do for free in my professional life. I am lucky to be older than the internship generation, which is good because I have never been in a financial position to work for free. I love my job but I have to be able to make a living out of it. Over the past few months, I’ve heard about a reputable German publisher commissioning sample translations in return for books, I’ve seen companies operating on a shoestring by employing more unpaid than paid staff, I’ve been asked to curate a special edition of a magazine for no pay, which did not have a budget for any translations I did or commissioned, and I’ve been asked to recommend translators who will work for no pay in order to gain experience.

There is the argument that people without a huge amount of start-up capital should be able to start a business too, not just rich kids. But if your business model is based on exploiting people working for free (rather than just exploiting them in the usual Marxist sense, while paying them) then that business model is not sound. And I’m not the first to say that the rise of the unpaid internship increases inequality, by making it harder for those who can’t afford to work for free to get into certain industries.

So my personal rule of thumb about working for free is this: if someone is going to make money out of the thing they want me to give them for free (e.g. my translation) I won’t work for free.