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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4 Responses to All in a day’s work

  1. Can picture it all like it was yesterday – we knew you’d have rather been at your desk, but you did serve us Chocolate Decadence very graciously in the restaurant. I also still owe you for a translation dating back to 1998! Might have even seen you in your pyjamas! Loved the blog.

  2. Thanks! Let’s see how long I can keep it up this time – I know I’ve got a tendency to procrastinate, but four years between posts is a bit excessive, even for me.

  3. Thank for the couple of chuckles; how nice that you have an instant Sandwich Services department in your current set-up. I look forward to a few more blogs soon!

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