Some things have changed for the better

When I started translating in the early 80s, I used to write out the translations in a large exercise book and then type them up on a portable typewriter at the dining room table. The agency I worked for at the time required a top copy and a carbon copy. David remembers that time as ‘Clacketty-clack, clacketty-clack… shit. Clacketty-clack, clacketty-clack, shhhit!’ as I realised I’d just made someone sing a six-moth contract.

No keyboard shortcuts, no auto-correct. Every long Spanish name had to be typed in full, every time. Impossible to calculate how long a job would take, especially if I missed out a chunk and had to type the whole page again. So I often worked until 3 or 4 in the morning.

I usually took the metro to hand in the translation at the agency. That was the good bit: I got to read on the metro without a guilty conscience, and had coffee and tortilla in the nearest bar afterwards. If there was a really tight deadline, the agency would sometimes send a messenger to collect the work. I like deadlines; in fact I think I’m addicted to them. It’s that wonderful feeling you get afterwards. Rather like saying goodbye to certain people at the airport.

The agency kept sending me work when I was pregnant, even though I’d told them I only had a week to go before giving birth. As it happened, the baby arrived 5 days early. I told David to take the job back and tell the agency I couldn’t do it.

“What did they say?” I asked him when he came back.
“They said you can take another couple of days for it.”

Since you ask, yes, I did it. Sitting in bed scribbling away in the exercise book. Well, let’s face it, there’s not much else to do in a maternity hospital when the baby’s asleep, is there?

After several years swearing at the typewriter I got an Amstrad, the one with a green screen and printer included. It cost 133,000 Ptas. The price went down to 100,000 the week after I bought it. Typical. But never mind, I could ditch the exercise books and the typex, and there was less bad language bandied about. Now I could rearrange whole paragraphs and assign long Spanish names to the Alt keys. It was magic.

Then I got a fax machine. Remember them? Spewing out reams and reams of paper that you had to gather up and slice into pages on the edge of the table. A few more years down the line email appeared. Before that, you could send files, but it was a bit like two cans joined together with a bit of string: “Hi, I’m going to send the file now. So hang up and when the phone rings again, you’ll know it’s me so press enter and that should be it…”

Then there was the problem of reference material, or lack of it. Pre-web, pre-Amazon, it was difficult to get hold of anything useful in English in Madrid. You could consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the British Institute library (until they closed it down and replaced it with a fake palm tree) or search Turners for new dictionaries, and that was about it. I used to rummage around the second-hand bookshops near the Rastro, and buy things like “Shipping Terms and Abbreviations”. I vaguely hoped they might come in useful, and sometimes they did.

There are things I miss about living in Madrid, but they don’t include the exercise book, the carbon paper or the typex. I’ve still got the portable typewriter though.

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