Reflections of a translator

As many of you know, I am slightly obsessed about languages. About a year ago, I began turning such passion into a job, and started working for several translation agencies; I passed exams and interviews, and my work is regularly reviewed for accuracy.

Despite what some people think and claim, it’s not just a matter of reading in one language and writing in another: especially when dealing with legal or technical documents, even a short text can require a substantial amount of research. Of course, over time it becomes easier, as one learns where to look for reliable information, and simply stockpiles commonly used turns of phrases to look up in a pinch.

I have worked on projects big enough, sometimes for huge companies whose products you most likely use or have used—I cannot be any more specific due to non-disclosure agreements I have signed—to realize, first-hand, that translation is way more than that. Each individual project, no matter how big or small, has its own peculiarities. Translating a mobile app for children requires a different approach compared to the technical manual of a safety valve testing rig, for instance, and a certificate of pending charges has very little in common with the product descriptions of an online shop specialized in DJ equipment.

While mistakes can happen, translation is one field in which striving for perfectionism is a very basic requirement. It is true that once the project is delivered, never hearing again from the client is a good sign (it means everything went fine and no revision is required!), but sloppiness is never a good way to start. This is especially true for certified translations, a field I recently started working on.

Knowing that a translation is going to be certified by the agency means that, as a translator, I represent the agency; and the agency is solemnly claiming, to the full extent of the Law, that the translation faithfully matches the original text. Nothing is allowed to go wrong. And this opens up a whole new can of worms for each project: should I use the American date format, with the month before the day, or the European date format, with the day before the month? Should I use the British or the American spelling, if I’m translating into English? What is the best way to rephrase this without drifting too much from the original, while at the same time being fully clear for the reader? And what if something simply does not exist in the countries where the destination language is spoken?

It can be daunting. And it’s a good idea never to feel too confident, for overconfidence is the root cause of catastrophe (“look ma, no hands! look ma, no teeth!”). I was lucky to have wonderful supervisors and coordinators for all the agencies I work with: they guided me as I took my first few steps and encouraged me, putting up with my incredible level of early paranoia. Sometimes I still worry when I pick up a job: the customer may not be clear in her requests, or something may be unreadable if it’s a scan, or I may just have no idea how to translate a specific passage until I research it in detail.

But I always made it work, and it’s very rewarding on many levels. Sometimes I stop and think about what I do, and what it means to me—why I love it so much. Translation is the ultimate tool for communication. When you speak one language, your message has a limited pool of potential recipients: those who understand that language. By translating it into other languages, the pool grows considerably, and your message gets one step closer to being universally understood.

As a translator, I am enabling people to achieve that goal, whatever their message may be. It’s often commercial in nature: press releases, apps, websites. Sometimes, however, it’s not: I have translated texts for charities, for projects that involved or were targeted at kids. I distinctly remember one Sunday morning, when I almost accidentally picked up one such job; I couldn’t stop myself, and left a comment to the customer simply thanking them for what they were doing, and for allowing me to be a small part of it.

And then of course, there’s the other kind of material: the certified documents that end up on the desks of notaries, lawyers, ambassadors. Each one of these, no matter how small or short, make me feel honored, and that’s for a simple reason: because they all tell a story. Sometimes the customer shares a few basic details: “I need this to apply for citizenship”, or “this is for my son’s passport”. Other times I can infer it: a university transcript is the prime sign that the student is packing to work abroad, for instance.

Yet many times, there’s not enough context to tell what it is for, and my imagination runs wild. I wonder why this person with a French last name is requiring his father’s birth certificate to be translated, or what the property mentioned as being for sale looks like, or whether there is any update on the prognosis described in this medical report. I wonder, and imagine, and dream. Like when I was thrown all the way to a hundred and thirty years ago, trying to read the gorgeous but amazingly cryptic cursive of a birth certificate from the 1890s. That was barely thirty years after Italy was united into a single country. That was before the first modern plane flew. That was before the world knew what the Great War was. That was when school was something for the rich, and the common folk couldn’t even sign a certificate because they simply couldn’t read or write. I have no idea why this stuff needed to be translated, or what the customer’s ultimate goal was; I cannot come up with any reason beyond genealogy research.

But at the end of the day, as curious as I am, I do not even want to know. I’m content with knowing that someone’s communication need was fulfilled, and I was the one who enabled them to do so. That’s why I do this.

20 tips to run a business without committing suicide

Starting earlier this year, I have been a “professional” IT consultant (libero professionista in Italian.)

In practice I mostly deal with web development and computer repairs. It’s what I’ve been doing for over a decade now, since I was still in school, only now I get to pay my own taxes (yay) and therefore I get angrier when people try to rip me off. So, here’s a collection of tips about running a business I put together based on my experience. Note that I refer to the client as a “he,” but that’s just for simplicity.

  1. Befriend a lawyer. You will need one sooner or later. Most likely sooner.
  2. Assume the client doesn’t have any clue on the details of your job. Listen to his ideas, make a mental note of how you’ll approach the problem in practice, and be ready to explain to him why his “perfect” solution just doesn’t work and needs to be achieved differently.
  3. Use lots of metaphors to explain to the client why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why you’re not doing what he thinks you should be doing. Cars and houses are what people understand the most.
  4. Always require an advance payment to start a job and always require the settlement to deliver it. This protects the client from an unfinished work, and protects you from an unpaid work: if the client doesn’t settle, he loses the advance and doesn’t get the job delivered.
  5. Approved and signed quotes are fine for small jobs, but for anything more complex, a full written contract is best. Be shielded from requests that were never discussed in the first place.
  6. Don’t be afraid of writing long contracts. Rather, make sure you cover everything in clear terms. And use a big font. Contracts in small fonts are scary to most people.
  7. Assume all clients are going to try and rip you off: give little trust to strangers, trust friends even less, and just avoid relatives altogether.
  8. If a client asks for a discount, especially if it’s the first time they come to you, deny it and remind them that discounts are a (rare) privilege, not a right.
  9. Do not give discounts on the first job upon the promise that a client will come back to you, because they most likely won’t. Rather, have him pay full price on the first job and promise a discount on the next one.
  10. If some problem arises during the execution of the job, let the client know immediately, even if it’s something trivial. They will appreciate the openness and it’s a good long-term marketing strategy. By the same token, give the client as many details about the work as he needs, but no more. Too much information yields the opposite effect and confuses him.
  11. Do not plan your financial life around prospective clients. Until a quote or a contract is signed, there is no client.
  12. Realize that most clients do not check e-mail regularly or that they are unable to use it properly. You will be in touch with your clients over the telephone.
  13. Take note of the timeline of a job, ie. how long the client takes to do his part (send you materials, issue the payments, etc.) This will let you profile the client so that you can subsequently offer discounts or raise the price accordingly.
  14. Set a base price for the job, and always give a higher quote. Even if the client accepts it as it is, it leaves you room to reduce it and make a good impression on him. Again, this is good long-term marketing strategy. Moreover, learning the fine art of haggling allows you to anticipate your client’s moves and counter them.
  15. If your area has geographical stereotypes about work ethics, be prepared to see them reversed.
  16. Round prices so that they are more client-friendly when including tax, but always think before-tax for your own planning.
  17. Use legalese only when things get rough and you are getting ready to call your lawyer into the game.
  18. If possible, send printed invoices by mail after signing them. This is often pointless, but gives you the chance to add a bunch of business cards that your client can give around if they’re satisfied.
  19. Use a secondary phone number for work and give it around whenever you have the chance.  The more people have it, the more potential clients have it. And you can always turn it off if you need a break.
  20. Accept the fact that dealing with clients is like going to war. It’s bloody, messy, time-consuming, frustrating, psychologically impairing and even when you win, you wonder whether it wouldn’t have been a better idea to buy some land and grow carrots and potatoes instead. And in most cases, it would have been a great idea indeed.