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It has the makings of great chick lit: An aspiring young American writer wins a prestigious grant to live in the south of France, where she pens her first novel/memoir, falls in love and marries a French stone mason.
The story came true for Harvard graduate Miranda Richmond Mouillot, who is now working in Paris as a freelance translator and pitching her finished book to publishers with the help of a New York City agent.
We asked the bilingual expert what it’s like to be a self-employed businesswoman abroad. She’s living the dream. Can you?
Not Lost in Translation with Miranda Richmond Mouillot, Paris
What has it been like to work as a translator abroad?
When you’re bilingual, people often ask you what things mean. I’d translated part of a book for my thesis advisor, so when we moved to Paris, I found a job as a project manager with a small firm of translators and interpreters.
It was a great introduction to the translating world. My boss was very trusting. He let me learn the ropes. I was working with a variety of clients and projects, from financial documents to art books to legal texts. I got my hands into everything. But it was a small company, and after I’d spent two years there, I decided it was time to finish my book.
Why did you decide to write a novel/memoir?
The book is about my grandparents, who are Holocaust survivors. They fell in love in France and managed to escape to Switzerland, where they were sent to separate refugee camps, reunited, then married. My grandfather was an interpreter in the Nuremburg trials; my grandmother was a doctor. After the trials, they moved to the States, then separated a few years later. They haven’t spoken in 55 years.
The reason for their separation was a big secret in my family. I’m very close to my grandparents and felt a pressing need to write about what it’s like to be a grandchild raised by extraordinary people who survived these tragic experiences. And what it’s like to have a secret.
Months before they went to the U.S., my grandparents bought a ruined stone house in the south of France. My grandfather took me to see the house when I was 15. I fell in love with it and decided I had to live there. So, the through line of the book is me wanting to live in this house and unravel this mystery.
It took longer to write than I’d hoped, because life intervened. I met my husband: He’s a stonemason who specializes in historical restorations – too good to be true! Finishing the manuscript took me about five years, with a two-year break when we moved to Paris.
Now you’re freelancing. How do you juggle that and writing?
I set priorities. I set a minimum for writing every day. I get up early in the morning and write until my “work day” starts. At least two hours a day. Then I do everything else that has to be done. It’s like exercising. You have to schedule a time to do it or it doesn’t get done.
How do you market and manage your translating business?
So far it’s been word of mouth and talking to people. One client tells another, you build up a tiny circle of clients, then it gets bigger. You could call it networking. I talk to the people I meet, and if we hit if off I give them my business card. I also still work with the company where I had started, but as a freelance. We have a great relationship.
Another thing I’ve learned about being a freelance is, the more you say, “I do this,” the more you hear: “Oh, I know this person who needs that.” Sometimes it’s a little nerve-wracking.
What are the unique challenges and rewards of being a freelance in Paris?
The reward is being your own boss. I really like to respond directly to clients. I like my reputation and the quality of my work to be on the line. But it’s also a challenge to work for yourself, because there is no one else to take up the slack. If you can’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
Another challenge is, you think that if you work hard and put yourself out there, the clients will just show up. But you rarely know what will happen next month. You’re more exposed to the economic downturn. But it pushes you to be creative.
From what I hear, the economic downturn has less impact on me here in Paris. France has social protections—I won’t get kicked out of my apartment, I’ll still have health insurance. But I do work in a global market. Working as a translator in Europe, where the euro is higher, my rates are higher than those of someone in the U.S.
Is France a good place to be self-employed?
France is an excellent place to work. It gives me benefits I wouldn’t have in the U.S. Everything is regulated. You have to have health insurance. You have to save for retirement. When you set up as an independent worker here, you have to do the paperwork, and you have to put aside that money. It is expensive, but people I know who freelance in the States and don’t pay the upfront costs end up spending more in the long term.
I also have my own insurance for sick leave. So if you break an arm, you’re not without income for a long time. I’d advise any independent worker anywhere to do that for him or herself, even if the country doesn’t require it.
How did you end up working as a field organizer for the Obama campaign?
I went back to the states to visit my parents two months before the election. My best friend worked for the campaign in my hometown, Asheville, NC, and there was an opening on the staff. They asked if I wanted to do it—so I called my husband back in France, and he said go for it.
What skills did you pick up?
I learned a lot about managing people, and working with volunteers. It was an incredibly well-run campaign. I learned the importance of saying thank you, taking the time to listen, and to smile.
Barrack Obama has a method of communicating with people: You start by talking about the story of you, then you talk about where we are—me as a staffer, you as a volunteer—then what we are going to do together. That’s incredibly effective in all situations. You talk about who you are and what you have to offer, and from there you build a direct relationship with the people you’re talking to—which in my case is often a client.
This work showed me that, in the long term, I’d like to have an activity that involves working with people, unlike translating.
Do you see opportunities in France for recent graduates of the top U.S. colleges and universities?
I would say yes, by way of a little story: I just went to my five-year reunion. You go to your reunion with some anxiety: Your classmates are sure to see what a failure you are. So I show up in my cocktail dress thinking all my friends are getting multiple degrees, they’re in med school, law, or finance, and here I am, Sally Bohemian, scraping by in Paris.
But when I told people what I do they all said the same thing: “I wish I could do that. I dream of doing that.” I tell them, “You have an Ivy League degree. You can go anywhere with that degree!” Not just law school or med school—anywhere!
People in foreign countries have heard of your school. They trust you to work for them. I think we often don’t take advantage of the recognition our degrees get. The first advice I’d give is, give anything you want a shot. Your degree is an asset. Use it!
That said, in France, you have to sell the fact that college in the U.S. is not the same thing as university France. In France you prepare for a specific degree, so they’re not used to a multidisciplinary academic background. You need to work that angle—talk about all the experiences you’ve had and your capacity to be versatile.
What do you wish someone had told you before you moved to France and looked for work?
One thing I learned quickly is that it can be extremely useful to say, I’m sorry, I’m American, I don’t understand. Reminding people that you’re a bit vulnerable gets you help and advice—and patience!
It’s amazing that Miranda gets any work done in Paris, “the city of a thousand clichés.” But she has a work ethic that puts writing at the top of her “to do” list.
And remember: Use your assets!