All in a day’s work

When I used to be summoned to help out in the restaurant on a busy Sunday, customers who knew me were inclined to ask, “Are you still doing your translations?” Which sounded to me as if they thought my chosen profession was some kind of genteel pastime I engaged in from time to time, like weaving or embroidery. Something I did in my spare time when I wasn’t doing my proper job, which was evidently unpaid waitressing and washing up.

“Yes,” I’d say, “I’m still doing them. When I’m not doing this.”

“That’s nice,” they’d say absentmindedly, as they debated whether to order the Italian meringue or… “I think I’ll go for the Chocolate Decadence served with ice cream and raspberry coulis, dear. And then coffee.” Usually with saccharin, to prove their self-restraint.

I’ve always worked from home, which beats working in an office, as far as I’m concerned, or a restaurant, come to that. The irregular hours suit me, and some of my clients as well: there are those that think I start working at 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon and continue without interruption until 9 o’clock on Monday morning, when I go into hibernation until they need my services again.

My erratic working life means that sometimes I’m free to go out for the day or stay in bed reading till lunchtime in exchange for staying up late some other time to finish a translation. Well, I used to do that, but now I prefer to get up early to check the final version without any distractions. I don’t need an alarm clock, I seem to have some internal mechanism that calculates how much time I’ll need to finish the job and meet the deadline. Sometimes I wake up at 4 or 5 am. That’s all right by me, because I can work in my pyjamas, finish the translation and then go back to bed. It’s one of the perks of the job.

Most of my clients contact me by email, so I’ve no idea what they look like. They can’t see me either, of course. Which is probably just as well since I’m sitting at the computer bundled up like a bag lady. But for the most part I’ve worked with them for a long time, so I know what to expect: I know the ones that will send me their text in good time and the ones that will send it to me a page at a time – with the last page arriving at midnight the night before they need it. In the days before faxes and emails I even had a client who took so long writing a conference paper that the only way I had enough time to translate it was for him to collect it by taking a detour past my house on his way to the airport. I’d be waiting outside so he could snatch it from my outstretched hand as the taxi slowed down.

The main problem when someone new approaches me to do a translation is that I don’t know what I might be letting myself in for. I don’t know what they expect, what their assumptions are about how I work or what I will charge. Take, for example the fact that I need to see the document they want translated in order to give them a quote. Pretty obvious, you might think. But sometimes a potential client seems extremely reluctant to send me the text. They’re vague about how long it is or when they can send it, and the only information they’re prepared to part with is that they absolutely must have it by a week on Monday. Which suggests they haven’t written it yet. When I get this sort of enquiry, I try to be as non-committal as they are. “Well,” I say, “it depends.” I explain that I really need to see the text in order to give them a quote, and they say, like politicians evading an awkward question, “It’s about 10 pages.”

Now that’s a suspicious statement. What does ‘about 10’ mean? From experience I can tell you it can mean anything. It can mean nearer 20. Or possibly 30 with the Appendix. Maybe 40 with the footnotes (but they haven’t written them yet, so they don’t count). And what do they mean by a ‘page’, for that matter? It’s not the number of pages I care about, it’s the number of words and the nature of the text. Just for the record, I prefer words to come in coherent sentences less than a mile long and if there’s a verb in there somewhere so much the better.

When I finally succeed in dragging the text out of them I may well find that they’re not lying: it is only 10 pages. But that’s only because it’s in single-spacing and they’ve reduced the font size to 8-point in a delusional attempt to make me think that their article is shorter than it actually is and I will therefore miraculously be able to finish it by Monday.

Then there’s goalpost moving. Having agreed that I’ll get it finished it by Monday, it suddenly becomes imperative to have it by Sunday night, or preferably Friday. Or they just need to send me an extra couple of paragraphs that they’ve suddenly realised are vital, or they’ll send me the final version tomorrow. There had, of course, been no previous mention that what I’d been knocking my pan out over for the past three days was not, in fact, the definitive text.

And the price. Sometimes I get a client who wants to bargain, and their arguments can be quite ingenious. I normally quote a price per word, which seems to suggest to some people that if a word is repeated they won’t have to pay for it again. One woman asked me if I could bring the price down a bit “to take account of the large number of names you won’t have to translate in the footnotes”. “I’m sorry,” I said, “it doesn’t work like that”. What I was thinking, though, was “That’s a very long straw you’re clutching at, dear”.

Another contentious issue is revisions. Some people want to improve their English and think they can kill two birds with one stone: they’ll write that application for EU funding in English. What a brilliant idea! They’ll get to practise their English, and it’ll be cheaper because it will “only” need to be revised, not translated. If they run out of time, they can always feed the rest through Google Translate and think I won’t notice. Take, for example, the following description of a business project:

The main objective of this project is the development of a deep analysis and a finished study for the commercial throwing of the product, which will contemplate not only the definition of the variables of market for his throwing but also financially in that the conditions are identified by clarity to reach the break point, an analysis of risks that allows to manage appropriately the throwing, identifying critical points and strategies of performance and, finally, a system of monitoring and control in which an exhaustive planning will be included for his deployment and the measurements for his monitoring.

Now, you may think (if you got past the first line) that this is about the commercial production of pottery. However, when I consulted the author I discovered “throwing” was his (or more probably, Google’s) translation of lanzamiento. It can be, but not here; it turned out he meant “launch”. Well, at least we got that clear. Then there was the rest of it to unravel.

Apart from these minor quibbles, I like being a translator. It gives me an excuse to stay in my office surrounded by books, some of which I still consult despite the Internet. Sometimes I even do some work. And since David has retired now, I don’t have to help out in the restaurant any more. He hasn’t given up cooking though, and sometimes brings me mid-morning snacks. A grated tomato, bacon and aubergine toasted sandwich while I’m sitting at the computer beats serving other people’s lunches any day.

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I never quite forgave my mother for giving away my Water Babies book to someone collecting for a jumble sale. Which is why I don’t throw out so much as a to-do list belonging to one of my kids without due consultation. It’s not that I’m being especially solicitous, it’s just that I don’t want to face the sort of fury I unleashed on my mother:

“But you didn’t read it, dear, did you? It’s much too young for you now…”
“But it was mine! How dare you! I hate you! I want it back! It was mine! Mine!!” I did a good line in histrionics.

So when we were finally able to reclaim the flat that first my daughter and then my son had occupied as students with a succession of friends and flatmates, I duly enquired about all the stuff they’d left behind there. Did my son want any of the disorganised heap of design notes, or the box of topple blocks sitting on top of them? Did my daughter want all those clothes scrunched up in the top of the wardrobe? I couldn’t recall seeing her wear any of them. Or her economics notes? Which were ring-bound and neatly stacked in a 3-foot pile in the wardrobe. Presumably she’d thought they would be of some interest to posterity.

They said they’d “have a look” or “think about it”, but displayed no evidence of doing either, so eventually I said to Sandy, “Take what you want when you go down there at the weekend, because anything that’s still there when I go down next week is going out.”

My daughter was in Germany. She didn’t want the clothes, but decided she might need some of her notes again, she didn’t really know, she’d have a look when she came back in the summer. So I lugged them all back to the village and stacked them in the corner of her bedroom. That was three years ago; she hasn’t looked at them since.

Now I was free to get rid of several years’ worth of accumulated student tat that they and their flatmates had left behind: assorted mugs, some unchipped, in a variety of nasty colours, plastic flowers, candle sticks that looked as if they’ve been given away free with something, a large collection of burnt frying pans, assorted socks and long-forgotten items of underwear gathering dust under one bed or another.

To start with I went through it all carefully, in case something was worth saving, but in the end I decided it could all go. If no no-one else had saved the orange and purple plastic star-shaped tea-light holders from oblivion, why should I? So out it all went, bin-bags full of the stuff: the rejected clothes, broken handbags, old magazines, flyers for take-away pizzas, sushi and kebabs, assorted bits of make-up and half-full tubes of toothpaste, spent light bulbs, lumpy cushions, plastic bread baskets and fruit teas that were best before 2007.

Finally all the bin-bags were in the bin, a kind neighbour had disposed of two broken TVs and Sandy’s girlfriend had removed her exercise bike. Now there were empty drawers! And empty cupboards! It felt as if the flat had become my own territory at last rather than a neglected outpost of the kids’ bedrooms. Now I could imagine spending some time there; I could escape from the village, go out for a coffee without getting in the car, have a beer and some tapas at the bar round the corner. I could go to the cinema.  I could bring some clothes down, some books, get some decent mugs…

I could start cluttering it up with my own stuff, in other words. Mine, all mine.

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Ask a stupid question

I changed my mobile phone plan recently. A few days later I was enjoying a pleasant siesta when I got woken up by the sound of a text arriving. It said:

“Help us improve. Reply FREE OF CHARGE to rate the service you received from our shop a few days ago (0 Not at all satisfied, 10 Very satisfied)”.

What is it with this obsession for getting us to attribute numbers to everything? Stupid question. I know perfectly well why they want numbers: it’s easy to feed numbers from 1 to 10 into some program or other. Whether it actually serves some useful purpose is another matter.

If you phone Movistar on 1004 with a query or a complaint you’re asked to rate the attention you have received after you’ve spoken to one of their agents, even though the person you actually speak to in the end is not the problem. There are no questions about how long you were put on hold before you managed to speak to someone, or whether you were shunted around from pillar to post and had to repeat your query in detail several times in the process.

Anyway, back to the text that woke me up:

The service was fine, but your text woke me up from my siesta.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering,” said my daughter, “you’re talking to a computer”.
“I know.” Which was borne out by the computer’s response to my complaint:

“Did the shop have an adequate stock of terminals, SIM cards, dongles. (Yes/No)”

You haven’t read my previous answer.

“Thank you for your reply. To end, your comments are very important to us. How do you think we can improve?”

Give more and charge less. And stop sending texts that wake people up from their siestas”.

Now I remember to turn off my phone when I want a siesta.

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The website project

I’ve decided I need a website. “You’ve left it a bit late, haven’t you?” said David, “at your age”. Charming. Just the encouragement I need. Well, OK, it has taken me rather a long time to get round to it, but I’ve got an excuse: every time I make a start some work turns up without me looking for it. But this month has been pretty slow so far and it’s been a week since I finished my last job.

That’s as far as I got with this post before some work arrived in my Inbox. Three contracts for tomorrow. I’ve done the drafts and feel like a break before I check them so here I am, blogging again. Finally. I always find it easier to get on with something when I’m trying to avoid doing something else. And if there are two things I’m trying to avoid, it’s easier still.

So why can’t I get on with it? The website, that is. You’d think it would be easy enough, wouldn’t you? Just write a bit about yourself and say what a wonderful translator you are, list your areas of expertise, rates, etc. You must be joking. I’ve been at this for weeks, on and off (not to mention previous abandoned attempts) and I’m stuck.

To start with I can’t decide whether I want to present myself as an individual and speak in the first person, or give my enterprise a name and talk about myself as if I were somebody else. I don’t really like either approach, but there don’t seem to be any others.

And since most of my clients are Spanish, I have to have a version in Spanish. After much mental flailing about I did manage a first draft. I even got my daughter to check it, since she lived in Spain all her life until she joined the brain drain to Germany. She changed a few things, but said it was OK. Then I gave it to three Spanish friends to look over, one of whom is a fellow translator. One could only find a minor error, another suggested several changes “to make it more convincing” and the third (the translator) hasn’t had time to look at it yet.

Anyway, I’ve just read it again and decided I still don’t like it. Where do I go from here?

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Hurray for deadlines!

Hurray for deadlines!  They hang over you and make you put off the procrastination for another day and actually get down to work. And not only that, you feel so good when you meet them and even better when you’ve met them and moved on.

I’ve been translating a very long thesis for the last five months, and it had to be in by the end of September. I made it, and I finally feel as if I’ve got my life back. Maybe I can even get back to a bit of blogging now, instead of slogging.

One way and another the summer was a bit of a dead loss this year. It was too bloody hot for a start. I mean, I like the sun, but 42º C is pushing it a bit in my opinion. Then they didn’t open the village swimming pool until 1st August to save having to pay a lifeguard in July. I was down there like a shot on the 1st to cool off and lounge on the fake grass for a bit.

It’s just as well I was quick off the mark, because on the 2nd the pool sprang a leak and all the water drained out. So much for my plan to go down for an hour every afternoon. The pool was only built three years ago, and there are conflicting accounts circulating about whether it was the alcalde, the local plumber or the construction company to blame for the chapuza. But the builders have gone out of business, so that might be a clue. Whatever. It wasn’t fixed and that was that. No pool for the hottest summer in living memory.

So I moved myself downstairs to the old part of the house where it’s cooler and closed the shutters during the day and opened them at night. I felt like a mole. Or possibly Dracula, hunched over my laptop. But at least I could get on with the thesis with nice cool tiles under my bare feet. Although the noise from outside was a bit of a distraction.

For some unknown reason the powers that be – in this case the provincial government in Alicante – decided that August was just the month to fix the church. Quite why this was so high up their list of priorities in the present economic climate I haven’t managed to fathom. So we had sandblasting machinery going on for several hours a day, plus what sounded like scaffolding being dropped from a great height and the builders’ radio going full blast. Not to mention (but I will) the clouds of dust produced in the process, which seemed to get into everything.

So I was glad when August came to an end and we quietly slid into September. And I’m even gladder now I’ve finished the thesis. Although I know if no translations appear in the next couple of days I shall start worrying about whether that’s it, I’m washed up and nobody’ll send me any work ever again.

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So much for my determination to write a post every week – it’s now four weeks without a peep. I blame the summer. Too many guests, too much eating out (too much eating in, for that matter) and then fiestas. And while all that’s going on, I’m still supposed to be working.

I like working from home, but when we have visitors I spend half the time in my office feeling guilty for not spending more time with them and the other half enjoying their company and trying to work out how much time I really need to get my work finished.

And it’s hot. So I close my office door during the day and open it at night to let some air in. But everyone else is doing the same thing. So while I’m trying to concentrate, not very successfully, I can hear a full-blown argument from next door about Spanish politics. Lots of ‘¡sin verguenzas!’ ‘¡no tiene cojones!’ and ‘¡este país es una mierda!’ being bandied about. You get the general idea.

There’s only one thing to do at this point: leave the office, grab a glass of red wine and join everyone else…

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So, you want to become a translator?

A few days ago I received the following comment in response to one of my previous posts, Becoming a real translator:

you have piqued my curiosity. I have had ideas in my head for translation that I want to do once I retire to Spain. how interesting that you’ve done this and that you can work from home doing it!! did you do some course of study prior to becoming a translator? I’d love to hear details-if you can email me, that would be great. thanks!

It’s not the first time people have asked me this sort of thing when they hear I’m a translator, so rather than emailing a few lines, I thought I’d write a post about it.

Some people I meet seem to have a rather quaint notion of what being a freelance translator entails. They vaguely think it sounds like a cushy number because you get to work in your pyjamas (true), you can do it when you’ve got an odd moment or two (no, sorry, it doesn’t work like that) and people (unspecified) send you interesting things to translate (well, sometimes) that you effortlessly (no!) turn into Spanish, and get paid handsomely for (you must be joking).

Have I made myself clear? Sorry, I’m not trying to put you off!

To work as a translator in Spain you don’t have to have an official qualification, but it helps. Having a degree in translation and interpreting from a Spanish university, or a similar qualification from your home country, would probably be a good idea. The alternative is to sit the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs exam to become a registered “Traductor-Interprete Jurado”. But to get that particular qualification you need to be an EU citizen and have to hold a university degree.

However, unless you want to translate official documents there’s nothing to stop you working as a translator if you can find clients who will pay you. I hadn’t done any courses on translation when I started out, although I did do some studying along the way. Despite being told “you’ll never get any work in Madrid unless you know someone with contacts” – enchufe – I got my first serious work by answering a newspaper ad for translators. The agency gave me a test, I passed it and they gave me some work. It took me hours, because I wanted it to be perfect. They were paying 1.8 pesetas a word (this was 1983, but not exactly profitable even so).

When Dave heard what I’d be paid and saw how much it came out to per hour, he said “I don’t know why you’re bothering – I can get 10 times that doing private classes – tell them to get stuffed!”

When I took my translation in to the agency, I told them that in future I wanted 3 pesetas a word, because it wasn’t worth my while working for less. I didn’t think they’d send me anything else, but they did. For a few years they sent me a fair amount of work, and then it came to an abrupt stop. Presumably they found someone cheaper. But by that time I’d found other clients anyway.

Most of the work that came my way was standard commercial stuff: contracts, insurance claims, annual accounts. I also did some revision and typing for another translator: she’d been living in Spain so long that sometimes Spanglish would creep in when she wasn’t looking. It was through her I got my first archaeology paper to translate, which was a pleasant change from company by-laws.

I’d studied history at university, so the ‘style’ of language was similar. The archaeologist in question was pleased with my translation, so she recommended me to colleagues. So it went on, and over the years I’ve translated a fair number of conference papers and articles for academic journals. I like to think of archaeology as my ‘niche’, but to be honest the work’s not sufficiently regular to be a reliable source of income on its own. So I still do commercial translations as well.

Then there’s the question of how much you charge. That’s up to you. You can ask what you like, but whether you get it or not is another matter. You have to work out whether what you can get reflects the work you put in – is it worth it, or would you actually be better off cleaning floors?

For example, a few months ago an archaeologist I work with wanted me to translate a book he’d had accepted by a British publisher, and the firm asked me to quote. I sent them my quote, with what I considered a reasonable discount in view of the length of the job. It wasn’t low enough – the boss had found another translator whose quote was less than a third of mine. The commissioning editor then asked if I “could somehow manage to dramatically close the gap between the two quotes”. Doing that would have meant earning about 600 euros a month after paying Social Security. Can you live on 600 euros a month? Didn’t think so. So I turned it down. Sometimes ‘No’ is the only reasonable answer.

As a rider to that little story, I got an email back that said, “Thanks for your reply which, regrettably, is exactly as I expected. I completely understand your position. The other translator lives in Argentina – perhaps the money goes further there.” There you have it – the global economy in action.

The actual process of translating is the good bit: that’s why you wanted to become a translator in the first place, after all. It’s not just a question of having a good knowledge of Spanish, you need to be able to write good English too. You have to constantly prove you can turn in good quality work and meet deadlines. People will only give you more work if you solve their problems, not create more.

And I suspect that translators need to have a particular kind of mentality. We tend to be a bit obsessive, especially about grammar, spelling and punctuation. I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person on the planet who revises and spell-checks their emails and text messages. I can’t help it.

You also need to be fairly organised because there’s all the other stuff that goes with the job, like keeping accounts and making sure your clients don’t ‘forget’ to pay you. As well as translating, you have to issue invoices, pay tax, collect VAT for the government and cough up 254.04 euros every month for Social Security.

Still want to be a translator?

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