Summer

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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“¡Muy castizo!”

I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia recently, remembering when we lived in Madrid in the ’80s, in a fourth floor flat overlooking the Rastro. The great thing about nostalgia is that you can pick and choose, and even if you remember the not-so-good bits, like hauling a sleeping child in a buggy up four flights of stairs, you don’t actually have to suffer being knackered again.

But in general I just remember the good bits, it was great living in Madrid. “¿Han nacido en España?” taxi drivers would always ask me when my kids were small. I assured them that they had indeed been born in Spain, right here in Madrid in fact. “¡Muy castizo!” they would say approvingly, “They’re real Spaniards!”

Yes, real little Spaniards and, like all other Spanish children, admired, approved of, indulged and entertained. Is that just nostalgia talking, or was it really like that? What I remember is shopkeepers, waiters and neighbours happily talking to children and delighting in their company. They seemed to have infinite patience with them.

If Leah tried to pull the tablecloth off in a restaurant along with everything on it, an indulgent waiter would come along and take her off for a tour of the kitchen. She’d come back clutching an enormous peach or an entire box of toothpicks to play with. The portera who looked after the building next door let her slosh the mop around in the bucket and wash a bit of the street…

I took all this for granted until we went back to the UK on holiday. I just thought it was normal for kids to be treated as if they were the centre of the universe. In England life was much more complicated. There were lots of places you couldn’t take kids, and lots of others where it really wasn’t appreciated if you did.

This came home to me the first time I went back and met a friend in the coffee bar of the local theatre. Leah made a bee-line for the stairs to her practise crawling. The place was virtually empty, and she wasn’t in the way, but someone immediately rushed up and said, “Oh, you mustn’t let her go up the stairs – the bar’s up there!” Presumably they thought she was going to climb on a stool and order herself a gin and tonic. It was a great relief to get back to Spain.

In comparison with trying to fathom the unwritten rules of how English toddlers were supposed to comport themselves in public, such things as dealing with Spanish officialdom was a walk in the park.

When Sandy was two months old, I had to take him with me when I went to renew my residencia. It  turned out to be an unexpected advantage. I had to hand in my papers on the first floor, up a staircase crowded with people, so I asked someone in uniform if there was a lift. “Come with me!” he said, sweeping everyone aside as he led me and my pram to the lift reserved for staff, and whisked me up to the first floor. He then escorted me to the top of one of the extremely long queues of people who’d been waiting for hours and announced to the woman behind the counter “I’ve brought you a customer!”  as if I was the Queen of Sheba with the heir apparent.

“Sorry…” I said guiltily to the person who’d been peremptorily pushed aside to make room for me. I hadn’t been expecting special treatment, I just didn’t want to haul the pram up the stairs. But in that situation you’d have to be a saint to say, ‘Oh it’s quite all right, I’ll go to the back of the queue’. Especially when the queue goes halfway down the stairs.

Of course there were drawbacks to living in a small flat in a big city, but I can’t think of any right now. We had everything on the doorstep, even if the doorstep was down four flights of stairs. And OK, we didn’t have a garden, but the children didn’t seem to mind. They’d never had one, so they didn’t know what it was; and anyway, who needs a garden when you can sit on your balcony and throw Lego down into the street?

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Bailout? What bailout?

I don’t often stray beyond my own little world on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice what’s going on around me. At least when I’m brave enough to take my head out of the sand for long enough to turn on the telly.

It’s just that there seem to be plenty of other people out there who are better qualified than I am to comment. I start to write something and then realise I just don’t know enough about the subject, and I don’t have the time or, to be honest, the inclination to spend all day trying to find out enough to make sure I’m not talking rubbish.

However, every so often something takes my breath away and once I’ve got it back I feel the urge to rant coming on. Last night’s performance by the Spanish Minister for the Economy was a case in point. There he was, telling the world that what was never going to happen had happened but it hadn’t really because we’re going to call it something different. If you don’t use the B word, it doesn’t count.

If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think he was your local bank manager telling you the powers that be had considered your application for a mortgage and in view of the fact you were such a good, reliable customer and they were very impressed with how you managed your bank account, they’d decided to give you one. Congratulations, sir! The terms are excellent and you’re very lucky to get it with such a good rate of interest. It’ll help you get your business back on its feet and everything will be hunky-dory.

It’s only when you’ve left his office you realise he didn’t tell you how long you’ll be paying for this wonderful mortgage the bank has so graciously given you, or how much it’s going to cost you each month. And what happens if your business doesn’t get back on its feet and you can’t pay it? Will they throw you out of your house like all the other poor sods that have been evicted?

 

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I don’t often stray beyond my own little world on this blog, but that doesn’t mean I don’t notice what’s going on around me. At least when I’m brave enough to take my head out of the sand for long enough to turn on the telly.

It’s just that there seem to be plenty of other people out there who are better qualified than I am to comment. I start to write something and then realise I just don’t know enough, and I don’t have the time or – to be honest – the inclination to spend all day trying to find out enough to make sure I’m not talking rubbish.

However, every so often something takes my breath away and once I’ve got it back I feel the urge to rant coming on. Last night’s performance by the Spanish Minister for the Economy was a case in point. There he was, telling the world that what was never going to happen had happened but it hadn’t really because we’re going to call it something different. If you don’t use the B word, it doesn’t count.

If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d think he was your bank manager telling you the powers that be had considered your application for a mortgage and in view of the fact you were such a good, reliable customer and they were very impressed with how you managed your bank account, they’d decided to give you one. Congratulations, sir! The terms are excellent and you’re very lucky to get it with such a good rate of interest. It’ll help you get your business back on its feet and everything will be hunky-dory.

It’s only when you’ve left his office you realise he didn’t tell you how long you’d be paying for this wonderful mortgage the bank has so graciously given you, or how much it’s going to cost you each month. And what happens if your business doesn’t get back on its feet and you can’t pay it?

Posted in Life in Spain, Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Translating vs. running a restaurant

Having been a freelance translator for 30 odd years and reluctant sidekick in my husband’s restaurant business for nearly 16, I’ve often reflected on the respective advantages and disadvantages of these two ways of earning a living. So if you’re contemplating what kind of career to embark on, take note.

The Workplace. Ideally a translator will have an office: you can work there in peace with everything you need close at hand. It’s also somewhere to keep people out of while you fart about and pretend to be working. But in fact you can work practically anywhere that has a chair and a flat surface. Obviously some arrangements are more comfortable than others.

A restaurant, on the other hand, requires premises. And my premise is that premises cost a lot of money and are a liability. Never mind the civil liability you have to insure against in case a customer falls down the stairs.

Equipment. A translator needs a laptop and a printer. Practically everything else you need is in your head or online.

To equip your restaurant premises, however, you need fridges, freezers, fryers, and lots of other things that begin with ‘f’, like dishwashers, coffee machine and cookers, particularly when they refuse to cooperate and break down on you. Which is usually at the height of Sunday lunchtime. They also consume vast amounts of electricity.

Stuff. Or stock, if you want to be technical. A translator doesn’t need much. It’s probably a good idea to have some paper for the printer, a spare cartridge and a couple of pens. But that’s about it.

A restaurant needs large amounts of stock. Food and drink. On good days lots of food gets eaten and the empty bottles pile up; then you have to buy more food and throw out the bottles. On bad days you throw out food but keep the bottles.

Opening hours. Translators can work whenever it suits them. If I wake up at 4 in the morning and can’t get back to sleep, I get up and work for a couple of hours and then go back to bed. This doesn’t work with restaurants.

Customers. I meet my clients’ deadlines and they keep sending me more work, so I assume they have no complaints about the quality of my translations; I’ve given up hoping for emotional expressions of amazement at my linguistic flair. Anyway, it’s usually the institutions they work for that actually pay. Eventually. In one case it took nearly a year for a university to cough up.

Restaurant customers say things like, “That was the best roast lamb I’ve ever had in my life!” or “That chocolate cake was truly orgasmic!” and express a desire to marry the cook. They also pay right away, and tend to leave a generous tip.

There you have it – some of the basic differences between translating and running a restaurant. I’ll stick to my office, thank you very much, and go on earning a living as a translator. Even if my customers aren’t given to exaggerated displays of admiration, take their time paying and don’t leave tips. That’s probably just because I have no way of getting a glass or two of wine into them.

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Clicking ‘Send’

I love the wonderful feeling of finishing a job, the liberation of clicking Send. When it’s too late to nit-pick any more, and I can stop doing my head in looking for precisely the right word for ‘desarrollo’ when ‘development’ won’t do. It’s a moment of euphoria; it’s done, finished, gone – and I can’t touch it again.

I enjoy translating. I like trying to resolve the little challenges along the way: finding the precise word I’m looking for or rearranging sentences to make them less confusing. But when I’ve just finished 20,000 words on Iron Age Gaul and clicked that Send button I feel as if I’ve just finished my finals.

It’s like putting down a heavy load. A lightness comes over me – I’m free! I wander around the house contemplating possibilities. I could clean up this mess in the kitchen, I could go for a walk, I could finish those curtains I started making a couple of months ago. It’s the contemplating that I like, not actually doing any of them. All that potential…

But it’s getting late, nearly time for tea, so I’ll have a glass of wine. We call it tea, other people call it dinner or supper. It’s what we eat around nine in the evening. But whatever you call it, when you’ve just sent a job, it’s a wonderful feeling to sit back and relax with a glass of wine and good food. And since Dave thinks my cooking is crap, I don’t even have to cook it myself.

In the morning I clear my desk. I put all the books away, stick the pens back in their pot and remove all the clutter. I find there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing the final corrections as just so much scrap paper to be dumped. Now I’m ready to start on something else.

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Becoming a real translator

I’d already been working as a translator for more than ten years when I decided it would be a good idea to become an intérprete jurada. I didn’t really need this qualification to translate the typical contracts, annual accounts and insurance claims the agencies were sending me, and I didn’t need it for the articles on archaeology I was translating for universities either. But we were planning to move out of Madrid, and I thought it would help me find more direct clients in a place where I didn’t have any contacts. It would prove to myself and everyone else that I was a ‘real’ translator.

I imagined myself driving around the countryside collecting work and delivering translations to local businesses that would be delighted to avail themselves of my services. Funny how totally wrong you can be when you fantasise about the future.

We already had a run-down house in the village, but we couldn’t afford to renovate it, so our ‘plan’ – if you can call it that – was to sell up in Madrid, then fix the house and live a life of bucolic bliss in the country. The children would go to the local school and play in the street without picking up fag-ends or being flattened by cars. Dave would work in one of the international schools on the coast, and I’d go on translating. I hoped I’d still get some work from Madrid, but in the days before proper email I thought I’d need to find local clients.

So before we left Madrid in 1994, I did a course on legal translation at Sampere, at vast expense, passed their exams and sat the exam set by the Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores. I failed it. In my defence, only about 3% of those who took the exam passed. I seem to remember the legal text from English to Spanish was OK, but the general piece they’d set for translation into Spanish was an article out of Time Magazine about Reaganomics. It was full of horrible American colloquialisms that I hadn’t the faintest idea how to translate. Never mind, I’d try again another year.

When we moved to the village, I went to the nearest Chamber of Commerce and got a list of local firms involved in trade with the English-speaking world. It must have been a pretty old list, because most of them had disappeared. The ones I did locate didn’t ask me if I was an intérprete jurada; for the most part their response was “Es que tenemos una chica que sabe inglés…”

But if I didn’t get any work when I was looking for it, I sometimes got it when I wasn’t. On one occasion I was ordering a pane of glass when they got a phone call from a supplier in the UK, and I was swiftly spirited into the back office and handed the phone. After that I translated their orders and queries for a few years until they decided it was cheaper to buy from Germany in euros.

Fortunately it turned out that I didn’t need to rely on local work, although it took a while to get re-established with my previous clients. I’d bought a new computer before we left Madrid and had a modem installed in it, thinking this would solve all my problems, but that turned out to be another delusion. I had a modem, but not many other people seemed to have them. Or at least, they hadn’t reached the archaeology departments, which seemed to work on a different time scale from the rest of the world. And the agent I mainly worked with hadn’t got round to getting one either. In the end I said, “I’m coming to Madrid next week. If I get a modem for you, will you plug it in?” He agreed. Finally!

When I got back to the village we spent several frustrating sessions trying to get connected. It took the techie two hours to discover that my modem hadn’t been configured properly when it had first been installed. And there was me thinking I was a moron. We eventually got it working, and then I started getting more work from Madrid, and later from Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante. But round here the chica que sabe inglés still reigns supreme.

I never did get around to sitting that exam again, although I intended to. As with most things, time and money came into the equation and I decided that I really didn’t have enough of either to pursue that particular dream. I don’t think it’s made a lot of difference to the amount of work that’s come my way, but sometimes I still hanker after that respected qualification. And the rubber stamp with my name on it, of course.

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