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.

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Only three weeks to go

Yes, just three weeks to go before Dave retires and we close the restaurant. The end of an era. It’s very gratifying when customers say “You can’t close! What are we going to do without you?” but I keep thinking of all the things I won’t have to do any more and I won’t miss for a minute: emergency waitressing, washing aprons and shopping, to name but a few.

Large-scale supermarket shopping is definitely top of the list. Some stuff gets delivered, but somehow we’ve never managed to avoid trips to Mercadona, and I usually come out of the place with a trolley laden to the gunnels. It all seems such a laborious process: first you have to take all the stuff out of the trolley and dump it at the checkout, then you have to put it all back in again. Then you have to go through the whole procedure again in the car park, and again when you get home. And even then you haven’t finished, you still have to put it all away. It’s repetitious just writing about it. You’d think someone would have come up with a solution by now. Maybe some day there’ll be an app called “Shopping Solutions” and you’ll just point your mobile at the pile in the trolley, key in the address and say “Beam it that way, Scotty!”

Then there are the panic phone calls. Another thing I won’t miss. They tend to go something like this:

“Can you come over? Everyone’s coming in at once!”
“Oh, all right.”
“And have a look and see if there’s a spare lettuce in the fridge.”
“And bring that jar of mustard that’s lying around.”
“Anything else, dear?”

So, I’m not sorry we’re closing, although I dare say nostalgia might kick in a few years down the line when I’ve forgotten how annoying it is to be summoned to help just when I’m trying to untangle some particularly convoluted sentence. We haven’t managed to sell the restaurant – nobody in their right mind would buy a restaurant in Spain right now, especially if it’s in the middle of nowhere – so we’ll still have it, it just won’t be open. This has certain advantages, in my opinion, the main one being that we’ll still be able to make ourselves decent coffee.

As far as I’m concerned the best thing about having a restaurant is that you get to make your own coffee with a proper espresso machine. It’s like going out for coffee, even if “going out” is actually just the two-minute walk from the house to the restaurant.

According to Dave my way of making coffee amounts to skiddling, a word he had to explain to Sandy: “Scotland’s the only country in the world that has a word for farting around with water, and your mother’d be the winner of Scotland’s world famous skiddling championships…”. That’s fine by me. I’d rather be a skiddling champion than a shopping champion.

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Working from home

I work from home. Home’s a great place to work, you can stumble out of your bed and work in pyjamas if you want to, you can stop for a sandwich whenever you feel like it, and if you start falling asleep over the keyboard, you can always go and lie down for twenty minutes. The only downside is that you sometimes have to drop everything to deal with minor interruptions, in my case usually a call from the restaurant: ‘Did you remember to order the meat?’ ‘Have you got any spare carrots over there?’ ‘Everyone’s come in at once. Any chance you can come and help?’ That may have a question mark, but it’s not a question.

But apart from that, I’ve no complaints. The village is quiet, there’s no traffic to speak of, the birds are singing. I like sitting down at the computer knowing I’ve got work to do, it makes me feel secure, especially now, when ‘crisis’ must be the most over-used word in the Spanish language. If I have a couple of days with nothing to do I feel as if I’m staring into the abyss. Just give me a deadline and I’m as happy as Larry, slavering to meet it like a Pavlov dog.

Now and again the idyll is interrupted. Maybe the next-door neighbours will decide to remodel their kitchen. You can always tell when some such project is in the air because the builders dump a pile of sand in some strategically annoying place when you’re out. You come home to find you can’t park your car and they’re nowhere to be seen. In fact, the pile of sand is usually abandoned without explanation for several weeks. My theory is that it serves the same purpose as a dog peeing to mark out its territory. My patch, mate.

The neighbour on the other side doesn’t live here all the time, but takes up residence when it’s time to get in the olives or attend to his almond trees. His arrival is usually an ominous sign, as he’s a hyperactive 70-year-old who takes his tractor out at the crack of dawn and has a very noisy machine for removing almond husks that sounds as if it’s breaking rocks.

This is when I decide it’s a good time to go away for a few days. After all, I do need a dose of city life occasionally. So I pack my laptop and go visiting. Last time it was back to Madrid to catch up with ex-members of the Friday night brigade. We used to meet on Friday nights to drink wine while our kids created havoc in whoever’s house we happened to be in. Now they’re all at university, abroad or looking for work. One’s actually got a job.

I set up my laptop on someone else’s desk or table and translate while my friends are at work. It’s a different kind of peaceful. Madrid is a noisy city, but somehow it doesn’t impinge, there are fewer distractions. It’s all someone else’s noise, and if Dave runs out of carrots he’ll just have to find some himself. And I have to get on with my work so I’ve got time for everything else: going out for tapas with my friends, wandering around the barrio where I used to live to see how it’s changed, or buying a new pair of jeans. It’s a great antidote to the peace and quiet of village life; after a few days I’m totally talked-out and know that when I get back to the village I’ll be glad to be home.

Or maybe not. That time I got a call from Dave the day before I left, just as I was trying to squeeze into some jeans in a Zara cubicle. We’d run out of Visa rolls, he said, and they’d spelt the name of the restaurant wrong on the new signs and the sink at home was blocked. When I got home I was greeted by “Come and look at your blocked sink!” I pointed out that it wasn’t my sink, and I hadn’t even been in the house when it got blocked, but that didn’t go down very well (rather like the water in the sink).

So I did what I usually do in a situation like that: I announced “Some of us have got work to do!”, retired to my office and shut the door.

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Time and Motion Study

I’m keeping a record of how much time I actually spend working. This is because I’m doing a revision, and I charge by the hour instead of by the word. So I need to know how long I actually spend doing it. It’s quite a revelation.

I thought I worked more or less solidly all day, with just a break for lunch, but it’s not like that at all. It seems I am incapable of working for more than an hour and a half at a time. I start off well, but after half an hour or so I begin to slow down. Then I get stuck. I look up something online, and then I find I’m reading an article about dissecting brains on the Guardian website. It has absolutely nothing to do with the paper on Bronze Age Greece I’m supposed to be revising. Before I know it, the best part of an hour has disappeared.

Back to work, for a bit. Ah, I need a pee. On the way to the bathroom I see the washing bin’s piled high, so I think I might as well put on the washing. And since the kettle is near the washing machine, it seems a good moment to have a cup of tea. I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, so while I’m here I’ll just wash these few dishes. That’s another hour gone.

Right, I’m definitely going to get on with it now. I note the time and decide I’ll work for a whole hour before I allow any more distraction to creep in. I remind myself how much an hour represents in euros: every time I get side-tracked I’m throwing money away. And since I’m thinking about money, I decide to check my bank account and see if anyone’s paid me. They haven’t. Back to work.

Distraction comes in many forms, digital and otherwise, although when I start looking up my clients’ addresses on Google Maps I know I’m suffering from an acute case of procrastination. This blog is a form of procrastination, in fact I suspect it’s my attempt to raise procrastination to a fine art. You’re a procrastinator too, or you wouldn’t be reading it. You’re probably another translator.


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There was a nice juxtaposition of headlines the other day in “El Pais” on-line. Translated, they read:

“Rajoy, perplexed by the markets’ lack of support”

Underneath is a photo of Rajoy pensively stoking his beard, with his sidekick Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria sitting beside him. She looks as if she’s biting her nails. Below the photo is the next headline:

“Two years of extreme austerity and a bleak outlook
Cut-backs haven’t succeeded in improving the situation: more unemployment, deprivation and thousands of businesses going to the wall.”

Says it all really.

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