Cheap is not chic: Translators and interpreters do it better, hire them instead!

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I am so mad today, that I cannot avoid writing a nasty post. I don’t know how bad mood works, but apparently makes you find angry complaining articles by chance when scrolling down updates on your profiles. Today, two articles inspired me: the first one is about bigotry in interpretation, and the second one is about clients’ requests to lower our tariffs. Now, here are some of my experiences.

I have told some stories already in my posts, but I want now to talk about the disturbing responses that I received to my tariffs or to my offers of service. I have to admit, even if it is something hardly to brag about, that I have a relevant number of bad experiences compared to the actual working experience.

My last interpretation was, quoting myself, “a lot of fun, but an awful experience interpreting-wise.” The fact that I was expecting something of that kind didn’t make it any easier, because the whole managed to exceed my expectations. I hoped for one of the parties to be used to interpreters, but I did a pre-session anyway, explaining to both that I was the interpreter, and that I was going to translate verbally what they were saying, and that they had to talk as if I were not there. Considering the fact that my client was in fact a group of Italian speaking people, and the English speaker only one, I opted for chuchotage in English, and short consecutive in Italian. I also explained that clearly to them. It was not working, the Italian party kept stopping in Italian even if I had no need for that, and the English one was not letting me finish interpreting into Italian what he said, correcting what I was expressing, and rephrasing, even if he had no idea of Italian whatsoever. Exasperated by that, I opted for the short consecutive in both directions, trying to forget that they could not shut up at all at any point.

Not happy with that, my client started being sarcastic and saying to me: “But you don’t need to translate this!” I was starting being really upset. Then, we all found out that the whole meeting was based in a huge misunderstanding caused by a third part, and they started trying to fix that before the deal was over. The problem was that no one was listening: both parties were talking incessantly without listening to each other. After being completely stuck for a whole afternoon, they started asking me: “Do you understand what is happening? Can you explain him/them?” Are you kidding me? Of course I do understand, and you would also, if you would listen; and no, I don’t explain, I translate. Either you say what you want to be understood, or it is not going to come out from my mouth! I was so mad after an afternoon like that; I was exhausted, and that is not what happens during the interpretation, not when the adrenaline is flowing. I had to step out from my role, and I still hate myself for that, and say: “If I may, and this is not my role, but I am stepping in because we are stuck, I want to say that this is what is happening, and that there is a misunderstanding that is not being solved. This is the question.”

For three days, I had to repeat that I was not part of the company, that I had no interest in the deal, and that I was not going to be following the subsequent steps. That was of no concern for the English part, who kept including me in the deal, and giving me tasks, that I had to promptly refuse, repeating myself over and over. For my personal interest, I offered to redact in English a short text that was to be added to the conclusive work. Maybe that was my mistake, or maybe no one cared about what I kept saying, but I kept receiving emails about the agreements when I went back to London. Exasperated by that, and simply ballistic because of the latest email asking what was going on with the communications, and if I was translating all the emails for the company, I sent an email saying that, once again, I wanted to make clear that I was not, in any way, part of the company, that I had been hired for three days, and that I had no further commitment with them, apart from the text that I offered to write. Meanwhile, of course, my invoice reached the client, who forgot that he was able to save the deal thanks to my presence, and who looked upset and said that for the next meeting he would have possibly used an acquaintance who was able to speak English because she was working in a resort!

Of course, I am not surprised, I had other similar experiences before. I keep telling the story of the cousin, a story that I will now share with you. I had just finished my studies, and I was back to Sardinia with my fresh degree. Actually, we were two, because the guy I was dating back then was also an interpreter, and we had both been called for what seemed to be a huge project. The client’s exact words were: “It is a huge project that can bring us millions of Euros, and we don’t want to mess up!” That sounded amazing, until he added: “Of course, my niece has been 3 months in Barcelona with an Erasmus grant, and I could ask her, but I don’t want to look less than the Spanish guys, they are going to bring an interpreter!” We should have just stood up and left, but we were young and we wanted to know more. We started listening in details to what the project was going to involve for us. It was about the construction of a huge installation of solar panels, and the client said that he was going to need one person to stay in the office to do the paperwork, answer the emails, and translate the contracts (of course that was going to be me, the woman!) Then, the second person had to be in the field, with the engineers, to interpret, and that was going to be my boyfriend, because they were not going to send a woman in the countryside with all those men. I was already offended by that misogynistic vision of the world and the profession, also because they had no way to know that the Spanish engineers were not going to be women. In fact, I know first‑hand that two great experts on solar power in Sardinia are women, so that was a simplistic and retrograde vision of the working world.

To this offensive presentation, the person also added that, of course, we could receive text messages and emails at any time of the day and the night that we had to translate immediately. Keeping all that in mind, he wanted us to give him a forfeit. We were astonished, we had no idea for how long that could be, one, two, or three month, he said, and it was supposed to be 24/7, with car and fuel to travel to the different sites paid by us, and he wanted a forfeit! Fair enough, I contacted my professors to know what to do; after considering everything, we sent him a detailed budget with different options, for hours or days, for weeks, and for months, depending on what the agreement was going to be. The response we received was: “Dear X and Y, We cannot afford your rates.” I thought it was a project for millions of Euros… You can imagine my amusement when, a month later, talking to the person who introduced me to this possible client, I found out that he didn’t obtain the job in the first place; I guess he and the cousin were cheap enough to mess up!

What could I add to this? A quick quote from the email I received from a translation agency: “Dear Emma, we are interested in your CV, but your rates are higher than those we usually pay. Could you kindly lower them and fill the form again?” This, of course, is what I would have loved to answer: “Dear whomever you are, I am not interested in your shit, could you please raise your fees and pay translators a decent price for their work?” Instead, I expressed my rage in an angry tweet and just kept going my way.

I had a lot of training, and I have finished my studies some years ago now, but I keep struggling finding translating and interpreting jobs. Partly it is my fault, but a huge part is also because of the market. Colleagues are a breath of fresh air, always ready to help and share tips; to find private clients is difficult; and agencies are a mixed bag, and there is a lot to skim before we find our good ones.

My rage is not all gone today, but I feel a lot better now that this is published! This post is dedicated to Cristina and Deividas, thank you both for what you said about my blog in these days. Also, I would like to thank Scheherezade Surià, who was so kind to allow me to use one of her delightful pin-ups to add the icing on the cake of this post, and who always share something funny and punny.

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