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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Why am I writing this blog?

I haven’t really got into writing a blog yet. I spend too much time thinking about what to write and then rejecting it. So I’ve decided to try a different tack, I’m going to try writing the way I go for a walk: just set out and see where I end up. It has to be better than agonizing over every word. More like writing an email to a friend.

My aim at the moment is to post something once a week, and hopefully when I get into it I’ll write more. Why am I doing this? For my own benefit, I suppose, to impose some discipline on myself, to prove I can. I’ve been keeping a diary for years, but it’s not the same. Even if nobody reads your blog, you know they might. And I’ve had one comment so far, so somebody’s read it. At the moment I’m making no effort to acquire new readers, but if anyone happens to find it, that’s fine by me. I just don’t feel ready to announce it to the world at large yet.

It’s one thing to translate, quite another to write your own stuff. With translation you’ve got something to start with, the text you’re translating. Your job is simply to express what the writer wants to say as clearly as possible in another language. And a lot of it seems like shunting the words around to get them in the right order, like that game that consists of 15 little plastic tiles and one space in a square that you have to move around to make a picture. Nice when you get it right, frustrating when you can’t seem to get the last piece to fit and have to pull the whole thing apart.

So maybe if I throw something together I’ll have something to start with, then I can treat it like a translation and try and rework it into something that at least satisfies me, and I won’t be ashamed off is someone else happens to see it.

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There was an English guy in front of me in the chemist’s the other day, struggling to make himself understood.

“What’s this say?” he asked the chemist, pointing at his prescription. The chemist looked blank.
“Quiere saber que dice,” I told him.
“Dice ‘uno por día’”, said the chemist.
“It says ‘one a day’” I told the customer.
“Thank you. Not many people round here seem to speak English…”
“Well, you are in Spain.”
“I know, but it’s difficult, especially when you’re older.”

I’m ‘older’ too (older than what, anyway?) but it’s not a legitimate excuse, it’s a cop-out. “Can’t you bloody well try?” I’m tempted to retort, “after all, what else have you got to do all day?”

Some people do learn Spanish when they retire and move to Spain, but a good many don’t. If they live on the coast they don’t need to, they’re surrounded by other Brits, so why bother. When friends moved house, they discovered that their next door neighbour was English. They asked her:

“Do many foreigners live round here?”
“Oh no,” she said, “we’re nearly all English here.”

In my head, in the kind of rants I don’t actually inflict on anyone, I say “Don’t you think you should try and learn the language of the country you’re living in? Is it really so hard to learn enough to string a sentence together? Make some bloody effort! Are you too stupid, or are you just too damn lazy! Get off your backside and go to a class! Don’t be so pathetic!”

You think I exaggerate? I overheard a woman who’d been living here for years complaining to a friend she hadn’t been able to find the local bar she’d been told about. “We looked all over for Bar Casa Pepe, but we couldn’t find it anywhere. We went all round the village, and the only bar we saw was Bar Abierto”. I rest my case

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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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