Don’t bank on it

Our first real encounter with Spanish banks was in 1980 when we’d only been in Madrid a few days. We’d found a flat, and we needed to change the last of our travellers’ cheques to pay the deposit and first month’s rent. We’d checked the board outside showing the exchange rates and calculated that we’d have just enough left over to keep us going until the end of the month, when Dave would get his first pay cheque.

But when the cashier gave us the slip to sign, it seemed we’d living on bread and water for the rest of the month. We’d changed travellers’ cheques before, but the commission had never been that high. They couldn’t charge us 50 quid to change £400, could they?

“Shouldn’t it come out to more than that?”
“That’s the rate – 150 pesetas to the pound”
“But it says outside it’s 175 pesetas to the pound.”
“Oh, that’ll be yesterday’s rate. 150 is today’s rate. It’s changed.”
“That much? It’s a big change in one day, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. “Well, that’s the rate – I just asked my colleague.”
“But…”
“It’s probably something to do with the recession in the UK,” he said, with all the assurance of an expert economist. “But that’s the rate.”

At which point I burst into tears.

“Look, those are the rates there”, he said, walking over to the screen in front of his colleague to prove his point to the couple of idiot Brits at the counter making a fuss. “Oh.”

His mate had quoted him the rate for the Irish pound.

So we got our 70,000 pesetas, and he was very happy to have solved the problem for us. He turned to me and asked, “¿Estás contenta?” It didn’t occur to him that he might have had something to do with me being descontenta.

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Learning to drive the Spanish way

When we arrived in Madrid we didn’t have a car. In fact, neither of us knew how to drive. I had taken few lessons when I was eighteen, but all I could remember was that my feet barely reached the pedals of the Ford Anglia and that the driving instructor smoked more cigarettes with each successive lesson. I think I made him nervous.

But we didn’t need a car anyway: there was a Metro stop round the corner and plenty of buses. Dave was happy to get the bus to the school so he could do his marking on the way. The number 26 left from Sol so he always got a seat.

Ten years later, things had changed. The school had moved out to the suburbs, and Dave had two children to take with him as well as the marking.

Matters came to a head one day as he was crossing Plaza Mayor on the way to the bus stop, the marking in his backpack and carrying one child, the other trailing reluctantly behind him. It was winter. It was drizzling. A drug dealer came up to him and asked him if he wanted to score some smack.

“I must have looked like I needed it,” he said when he got home that afternoon. “I think it’s time I learnt to drive.”

So he did. After passing the theory exam, they told him he could start the practical lessons the following week. He’d got a slot for 7.00 p.m. every night, but when he arrived for his first lesson the place was in darkness and there was a sign on the door saying it was closed in honour of the Saint’s day for driving instructors. We never discovered who the patron saint of driving instructors was, but on reflection it seems only fair they should have one. They probably need to pray to him daily when they go out with their novice drivers.

Two years later we wanted to move out of Madrid altogether, and then it was my turn. After my previous experience, I’d always claimed I wasn’t cut out to drive, but it’s amazing how you can change your mind from one day to the next: I just woke up one day and thought, ‘Well actually, there are plenty of people stupider than me who’ve managed to pass a driving test’ and took myself off to the nearest autoescuela.

The day eventually came to take the theory exam. There were four of us from the same driving school taking it that day, so I got the bus with them out to the ‘Centro de Examenes’ in Alcorcón. Two of them had taken the test several times already without passing it, which wasn’t very reassuring, but I was glad someone knew where we were going because I didn’t. The Centre turned out to be a huge official building in the middle of a barren landscape just off the motorway, somewhere to the south of Madrid.

A couple of hundred people were already there. The place was heaving, and everyone seemed to be having animated discussions with their friends or shouting to someone they knew the other side of the vast hall. Some of them were standing around under the No Smoking signs puffing away on a last cigarette before the exam started. Others were at the bar for a last-minute coffee or something stronger. It was a normal bar with hissing coffee machines, trays of crockery crashing in and out of the dishwasher and paper all over the floor. Why was I surprised? Madrid has more bars than any other city in the world, six to every 100 inhabitants. I read that on the Internet, so it must be true.

Eventually we were herded into the examination room: a couple of hundred small desks and a raised platform at the top where three or four invigilators sat, with a picture of the king, a clock and a wooden crucifix on the wall behind them. Silence descended while we went through the multiple-choice questions, trying to remember the difference between what you were supposed to do and what drivers actually did.

They marked the papers right away and I’m glad to say I passed, but the two girls who had failed before failed yet again.  While we were waiting for the bus back, one of them said sadly, “I don’t know what I’ll do now. Maybe I should see a psychiatrist or something.” Her friend opened her bag and pulled out a Saint Christopher, a head of garlic and several mini gonks she’d taken along for luck. “They didn’t do me much good, did they?” she said, “By the way, what’s a clutch?”

Now I only had to learn to actually drive a car. In Madrid. Out on the M-30. On day three. My slot was at 8.00 in the morning, at the height of the morning rush hour. That first day was a hair-raising experience: I started shaking uncontrollably as cars whizzed past me on either side, their horns blaring. “¡Tranquila!” said the driving instructor, and reminded me I was in a dual-control car. He seemed remarkably calm, not at all like my previous chain-smoking driving instructor back in England. I wondered whether he was getting any assistance from the patron saint of driving instructors.

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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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Mine

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.

Posted in Life in Spain, Translating | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments