Our freelancers in the spotlight! Today: Urs S.

Urs invites us into his everyday working life. Read how he organises his day, what he particularly likes doing for Apostroph, and what else he gets up to.

Picture of a man snowboarding

Hello Urs! Tell us a something about yourself, your childhood and your professional trajectory.

Born in Detroit to a family from Lindau, Canton Zurich and raised in Nyon on the shores of Lake Geneva, I was first in my class in Latin – but only in Latin! – during my brief attendance of Montbenon grammar school in Lausanne. I then spent a year in California, perfecting and “Americanising” my English and mastering what, to my ears, sounded super interesting: the different types of slangs. On my return to Switzerland, I decided to put my talents as a traditional linguist at the service of the justice system by obtaining a law degree in Lausanne in 1991, followed by a licence to practise law in Geneva in 1995. 

Having dipped a toe in the judicial world in the early 1990s as a clerk at Canton Vaud’s Leasehold Tribunal, and then as a lawyer at the Geneva bar, I specialised in insurance and occupational pensions. I ended the second millennium as a lawyer in the benefits department at the head office of what was the Providentia (now Mobiliar) life assurance company in Nyon. My specialisation in insurance is fortuitous, as it gives me regular work – sometimes a considerable amount.

After spending a number of years in the legal and corporate world, I left Switzerland in July 1999 with my first wife who hailed from Curitiba in Brazil. We spent six months on the road, travelling as far as Côte d'Ivoire in a van I fitted out myself. We then sold the van (a.k.a. our home) to be used as public transport for the locals, and travelled to Rio de Janeiro to start a new life.

There I taught English in companies for a few months, without much enthusiasm and with a strong desire to return to Switzerland. One day my wife came home with an advert in her pocket. An agency was looking for translators in Rio de Janeiro. It was on the premises of this agency, located at the time in Copacabana, 100 metres from the beach, that I learned the rudiments of the job.

After six months of in-house work, I left the agency’s offices to start freelancing, focusing on the French and Swiss markets and thereby tripling – and more – my rates. Working from home allowed me to quit the city of Rio, which I was beginning to find very disagreeable, and move to Sana, a village in the Nova Friburgo region known for its “pigeon breast” monolith (Pico Peito do Pombo, located at alt. 1400 m), its waterfalls and its green hills, which look strangely like the Fribourg Prealps – but with far lusher vegetation, of course. Many of its inhabitants still bear the names of families who left Estavayer-le-Lac in 1819 to reach Brazil by river, then across the ocean in three caravels.

It was in this village that I met my second wife, a Carioca from Rio, with whom I tried unsuccessfully to settle in Switzerland in 2010, before moving to Marseille (2011-2013) and then Lisbon (2013-2016). Taking full advantage of my status as a digital nomad, I didn’t stop there, but returned to Brazil – more precisely to Búzios, the "Saint-Tropez of Brazil", in order to realise an old dream, namely to stand on a surfboard for at least ten seconds. Mission accomplished – even surpassed – without too much difficulty, thanks to ideal conditions: all it took me was a quarter-of-an-hour on foot, the board under my arm, to reach the beach, where the temperature of the water is pleasant all year round and you can converse with the docile sea turtles while waiting for the next wave.

Finally, fleeing a Brazil devastated by multiple never-ending crises with dark years on the horizon, I returned to Switzerland two years ago with my sons. I currently live in Lauenen in the Bernese Oberland, in the flat my family occupies when they come to ski and in front of which I practise backyard pow surfing, i.e. snowboarding without bindings, lifts or snow compaction… There’s nothing like it for stretching the legs after a day spent sitting in front of the computer – and with a minimal carbon footprint!

What languages do you work in and what kinds of texts do you translate for Apostroph?

My preferred sphere of expertise is translating contracts and other legal, judicial and administrative documents from German or Italian into the corresponding French jargon. I’m really at home with that kind of job!

That said, I can also translate all kinds of texts in a wide range of fields from English, Spanish and Portuguese into French. I have to admit, however, that I generally dislike English-language jobs, as searches keep taking one to Canadian sites, which is far less reassuring than the high degree of standardisation of admin.ch.

On the other hand, I really like Iberian languages, with (as you would expect) a clear preference for Portuguese. I’m a Portuguese speaker at heart: I listen to a lot of Brazilian music and read the most important Portuguese-speaking authors. It means I translate this language not only with pleasure, but also with an in-depth understanding of the Latin countries’ somewhat Kafkaesque approach to justice – not to mention the frequent clumsiness of these documents, some of which appear to be drafted by semi-literates whose language rarely stands up to my expertise. These kinds of jobs are not very profitable, typically because a lot of time is spent deciphering the odd wording and badly scanned documents. But these texts and their authors imbue the translation with a pinch of pepper, a poetic atmosphere that sometimes goes as far as to generate the famous saudade, that melancholy without sadness present in any Portuguese speaker.

How long have you been with Apostroph?

I don’t remember exactly when I started working for Apostroph, but I do remember that it was one of my first translation providers in Switzerland. We must have begun our collaboration in the early noughties…

How did you come across Apostroph and its team of freelancers?

When I turned my attention from the Brazilian to the Swiss market, I wrote to a number of agencies that I found on the internet – Apostroph included – and which soon provided me with an appreciable amount of work.

Which aspects of your collaboration with Apostroph do you like the most?

Above all, Apostroph’s modus operandi, which I think is the most practical, flexible and efficient on the Swiss market. But it goes without saying that this would be pointless if the project managers were unpleasant or incompetent! Indeed, without the human touch of the staff in the various Apostroph offices or Luise’s coordination, which enables any conflicts – which are rare – to be resolved quickly and the freelancers communicated with effectively, Apostroph would not be what it is: a company that works very well and treats translators with respect and consistency.

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Apostroph? And why?

“Lucerne”, because when I started working with Apostroph, the company was – unless I’m much mistaken – based solely in that city, which I visited at the time with my son in 2004.

Any work-related incidents you care to tell us about during your translation career?

In 2005, thanks to a good volume of work, high prices and above all a favourable exchange rate, I opened the VEGETAL/DIGITAL mini-complex in rented premises for a pittance: the first vegetarian restaurant and cybercafé in the aforementioned Brazilian village of Sana. It was a philanthropic endeavour that earned me nothing, but I had the great satisfaction of promoting vegetarianism and facilitating virtual communication for a sometimes malnourished and isolated population.

I was also able to make my first experiences in permaculture by supplying the kitchen in large part with the products from the former base of the fazenda of the Jandres (Brazilian version of the name “Gendre”, a family of settlers of Fribourg origin), which I rented, farmed and occupied. This represented 1000 m2 of vegetable gardens and a dozen species of fruit trees, including two avocado trees that allowed me to prepare dozens of kilos of guacamole annually for my guests, and an orange tree that gave me four months of self-sufficiency in fruit juice every year. In time, the exchange rate became unfavourable and debt threatened, so I had to close this philanthropic institution in 2007. That said, I stayed on the former Jandre farm until 2009, enjoying its meditative calm, its little private waterfalls in the surrounding jungle, and its abundant year-round fruit and vegetables, which offered self-sufficiency in food that sometimes hit two-thirds in summer.

Talk us through a typical working day.

I usually get up around 8 o’clock. Breakfast, coffee and a cigarette, after which I start work at about 9 o’clock. By becoming a freelancer, and therefore sedentary during the frequent peaks of work, I lost the habit of having lunch, and only eat two meals a day: breakfast and supper. It’s only when I travel and visit my relatives that this somewhat monastic routine is disrupted, sometimes with difficulty, as that’s when the typical issues that some freelancers know well can catch up with me: social isolation, difficulty in leaving our large comfort zone, even manias. Fortunately, my children and friends regularly come to see me in my Bernese Oberland lair to remind me that I’m a grouchy old bear in social hibernation mode.

Even though I don’t eat at midday, I still take breaks, usually somewhere between lunch and supper, depending on my schedule, the season and the weather: sunbathing, yoga, pow surfing (see above), gardening..., because where I go, there has to be a vegetable garden, otherwise I get depressed. I don’t like working in the evenings or at weekends, but I do it quite often, especially since moving back to Switzerland, where the cost of living is too high. By way of compensation, I often stop working at around 5 pm or earlier, as I spend more than an hour on average preparing my meals, which often includes a trip to the garden to pick a salad, herbs or vegetables.

It’s very rare for me to take a “real holiday”, even with my sons. These last twenty years, I can’t really remember spending more than a week away from my laptop. When I travel, either professionally or with my sons, I usually treat myself to spacious hotel rooms with an office area, which allows me to work in the morning before enjoying my free time.

If you could start all over again, would you follow the same career path?

I don’t much like the idea of going back in time or starting all over again. Like everyone else, I’ve had professional dreams that have come to naught, including being a pilot, a lawyer specialising in criminal law – even a DJ. But what happened had to happen, and like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing. I feel I’ve been extremely lucky to have discovered this way of teleworking, which has allowed me to live – sometimes lavishly, always ethically – in various parts of the world and to realise all sorts of dreams. It doesn’t matter that the hours are irregular, the job sometimes onerous and the sedentary lifestyle difficult to avoid. In more than 20 years in the business, I’ve learned to avoid the worst pitfalls such as translating late at night, accumulating too many jobs and not being able to see the wood for the trees, getting angry with a customer over nothing, etc. For a freelancer, managing one’s work and contacts also means putting time aside to do other things. What I like most about this job is this possibility of escaping the office more or less where one wants, when one wants. It’s a real gift from heaven.

Do you have any advice for budding linguists or fellow Apostroph freelancers?

I could give any amount of advice, but it would take hours. So allow me to limit myself to the following:

Linguists should read a lot, listen to the radio and keep an eye on the media to keep abreast of current events and trends in language. Be flexible in your work: don’t translate blindly but always put a word in its idiomatic context, which means creating multiple rich terminology databases.

Freelancers should organise their schedules in such a way as to avoid bottlenecks and sleepless nights. For the sake of your health, take breaks, even if they’re short. And, of course, if possible, cut your overheads and boost your vitamin D levels by translating somewhere in the sun!

Thank you for talking us through your trajectory, Urs!

Want to know more about the freelancers in our pool? Was your entry into translation like Urs’ or was it quite different?

Send us an email to freelance@apostrophgroup.ch.

And keep an eye out for the interviews we’ll be conducting with our freelancers over the coming months.

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