Translator on Tour: 30 Countries, 7 Continents, 1 Laptop


Portrait photo of Melissa
Melissa Kostelecky

Anyone working in an industry dominated by freelancers can attest to the unnerving feeling you’re left with in the absence of a work contract, the kind with an employer, benefits and a retirement plan. The first few years I worked as a German to English translator I was constantly on edge, worried that at any moment the work would dry up and I’d be left sleeping under a bridge. It wasn’t until I had made it a few years bridge-free that one of the biggest perks that come with this job became apparent to me: I was beholden to no employer, confined to no office and committed to no specific set of hours. As long as I could connect to the internet and remain flexible with my hours, I could see the world and further my career.

So after a good eleven months of planning in 2013, I packed my belongings into a 5’x10′ storage unit and set off on a round-the-world trip just before the new year. My travels would take me through 30 countries and seven continents before 2014 was over.

A bit of background information: I’ve always been hooked on traveling. Even as a 15-year-old I remember my mom taking me with her on a business trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and being thrilled about it. Yes, Nebraska. As long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a rush through my veins upon experiencing new sights, sounds, smells and every other sensation you have when in a brand new place. I’ve come to constantly appreciate the enjoyment of learning something new about a different culture, the distraction of having to stay on your toes in order to avoid getting lost (or at times scammed), the relief of just getting through the day without any catastrophes, or even the confidence gained by working my way out of sticky situations. It’s something that stresses a lot of people out, but I can’t seem to get enough of it.

“When I sat down to plan my 2014 trip, I new only a few things: I wanted to see all seven contents […] and I needed to continue working.”

When I sat down to plan my 2014 trip, I knew only a few things: I wanted to see all seven continents. My boyfriend Chris would join me for a week to ten days in roughly one-month intervals (his work is more location-dependent so he couldn’t pick up and go for a year). And I needed to continue working, not only to fund my travels, but because I didn’t want to neglect my career or the agencies and companies with whom I’ve spent a decade building up a working relationship, simply because I’d be on the go.

06_Sharks!3It’s hard to even break down into a few short paragraphs all the things I experienced last year. Some of the highlights when people ask me about my favorites are the safari through the Serengeti, with lions using our truck as shade in the mid-day Tanzanian sun, my first sighting of penguins in the wild on a grey, snowy day in Antarctica, and watching nearly a hundred grey and white-tip reef sharks in the outer Great Barrier Reef devour their dinner mere feet in front of my face. (Can you tell I’m an animal lover?) Chris and I took cooking classes in Cape Town and on the Gili Islands just east of Bali. We dragged our feet up and back down a 14,000-ft mountain on the Inca Trail. We danced tango at a Milonga in Buenos Aires on Valentine’s Day. I watched Germany win the World Cup from the center of Munich and celebrated in the streets until the wee hours of the morning. I explored rock-hewn churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Chris and I kissed a giraffe in Nairobi, Kenya. And the most memorable year of my life was capped off by a proposal from Chris in our bungalow on my last stop – Mo’orea, French Polynesia – before heading back home.

06_DSC_1211 (2)While the trip was successful, I had underestimated how exhausting it can be to maintain a work-life balance when the “life” part of that entails constant movement: packing, unpacking, sightseeing, photographing, blogging, meeting up with friends old and new, recovering from jet-lag, learning and navigating a new city every few weeks, researching places to stay and things to do in my next destination. Oh, and then there’s sleeping, something I don’t easily do without.

On top of all that, my challenge was finding time to translate, edit, invoice, research, answer emails, attend webinars and take care of everything else the job of a translator entails, all while ensuring that I was still able to offer reliable, high-quality translations on time and to the satisfaction of my clients. I knew I’d have to put new client acquisition on the back-burner. At one point I realized I hadn’t invoiced anyone in about six weeks and was worried that might be problematic. In order to cut down on paperwork and thus weight in my one and only suitcase, most of my office had to be made digital. And I knew there were a few places – Antarctica, the Serengeti and aboard a dive boat in Australia – in which the internet would not be reliable enough to even chance it, meaning I’d have to take a proper off-the-grid vacation (gasp!). Those turned out to be the times I was most present, not to mention that I had forgotten what it was like to really recharge my batteries.

“It was an experience that was exhausting, fulfilling, exhilarating, frustrating, frenetic, peaceful and invigorating all at the same time.”

06_DSC_0412It was certainly all worth it in the end, even if I had been a bit naïve about how easy and at times feasible it might be to fit everything in. There were days when just leaving my accommodation was too exhausting to even consider; I left Auckland, New Zealand for example having seen nothing but the route to and from the airport and the walls of my rented apartment. Due to the cyclicality of financial translations, there were weeks in the spring when I worked 14-hour days and only ever got out to eat, but the pendulum swung the other way when things slowed down and I was able to concentrate more on the travel side of things.

I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for the world, and I’m incredibly grateful that we work in an industry that allowed me to do it.

Melissa Kostelecky was born and raised in the Denver metro area until leaving for college at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1999. After four years of high school German, three years studying the language in college and a year as an exchange student at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg, she decided she wanted a career in which she could use her language skills. With a degree in International Studies she returned to Germany for another four years, this time working as an intern at a medical recruitment company and later as a German to English translator with a specialization in finance. After repatriating in 2007 to New York City, she returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2012, this time in the Portland, Oregon area. She just celebrated her ten-year anniversary of working in the translation industry.