Remember: the expert is you

Remember: the expert is you

I’m going to remember 2019 as the year of nightmare jobs. I’ve already written earlier this year about taking work I might have known I shouldn’t have accepted. This is a tale of two jobs that have more than qualified for the nightmare category, but which have ended up in very different ways.

The first was just a simple-looking job involving translating a few certificates. There were no red flags or warning signs; the only complication was that the translation itself needed to be certified. Now, unlike many countries, the UK doesn’t have an established system for certifying translations. The Spanish system, for example, is well-established and the procedures are absolutely clear for those who have passed the exams to be “sworn translators”. The British system, on the other hand, is vague, with single set of proper guidelines. What filters through to translators and clients is that translations made by members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Chartered Institute of Linguists are accepted by official bodies if they include a certificate giving the translators’ details and confirming that their work is a complete and accurate rendering of the original.

I am a member of both organisations and I’ve done a good many of these translations, so this particular job didn’t seem any kind of risk. I quoted a price, did the translation and the client – a colleague who runs a small agency – came to pick it up. Her question to me was: what if it’s not accepted? And, based on my experience with similar translations I’d done before, I made what turned out to be a terrible mistake by promising that if it wasn’t accepted, I’d fix it free of charge.

And, as it turned out, the end client wasn’t happy. Used to the Spanish system of sworn translations, he wanted it done a different way. Having made my promise, I agreed to do it, and, because he was in a hurry and I was on the point of going away for a few days, I ended up delivering the new version of the translation, complete with a couple of ITI seals I’d found in my bottom drawer, which I never normally used but thought might appease the client, to my colleague’s office. More time spent without earning an extra cent.

When I returned from my short break, there were more problems, though. The end client still wasn’t happy. There was now an additional document to be translated and I was going to have to do yet another version of the certificates I’d attached to the others. All the pages of the translation now also had to be signed and so had to be printed out yet again.

And then there were the seals. I’d used the only two I had and immediately sent away for some more. That was just as well because I needed them now. There was just one problem – they hadn’t arrived. I waited, and waited. The postal system still failed to deliver as the end client became hotter under the collar. But there was no way now that I was going to persuade him to accept a translation if it didn’t have seals.

A week later I was still waiting. My colleague was now phoning me every day for updates on the situation. She’d already paid me for the first part of the translation, but I have to admit that for a moment I considered returning her cash and walking out on the entire project. Eventually, her patience wore out, she managed to find some seals from somewhere and I finally got the translation off my hands, having spent far more time on it than it was worth.

Now, I could stop here and bemoan my luck, or launch a tirade against annoying clients, but I think it’s more interesting if I look at what went wrong. Because I am convinced that all this wouldn’t have happened if the end client had come directly to me.

It took a discussion with another colleague – not the one I’d been working for – to identify the problem: expert status, or the loss of it. When a client comes to a translator with a job of this kind, what they are looking for is an expert – not only someone who can give them a good translation, but someone who knows how things should be done. In the case I’ve been describing, of course, the rules are vague, but when they are it’s even more important to maintain the position of expert by seeming to know them.

That’s what I would have done, with the end client, and it’s what I tried to do with my colleague, but she failed to deal with the end client effectively enough to maintain that vital expert status. I don’t blame her, of course. Used to the Spanish system, with its clear, strict rules, she found it difficult to understand the English way of operating, where nothing was spelled out. So when the client began asking “What about this?” and “Will they accept that?” and then began doing his own research and finding all sorts of conflicting information, she wasn’t able to reassure him. And, bound by my promise, I ended up having to redo the translation again and again to meet every new demand.

The other job had some similarities but has ended up very differently because I’ve managed, and been allowed, to retain my expert status. The work involved revising texts via another colleague for an educational institution. The problem was that my second-hand briefing for the work was rather sketchy, and every time I sent in a revised text it came back with comments that made it clear that I wasn’t doing quite what the end client wanted me to do.

My colleague’s attitude was exemplary: he told me not to worry about the criticism I was getting and said he had no intention of getting into arguments with either me or his client about whether this error had been missed or who was right about that particular point. Eventually, when things didn’t improve, he sensibly suggested I contact the client directly. When I did, though, they suggested I go along for a meeting.

My initial reaction was to refuse. After all, the last thing I needed on a working day was to have to take a couple of hours out to go to a meeting to be lectured about my shortcomings. Then I realised this wasn’t a threat, it was an opportunity. If I could show that I was doing my best with the job and was willing to listen to suggestions, I had the chance to impress on the client that I really knew what I was doing.

So I went to the meeting, listened for a while, made some suggestions, clarified a few points and, I believe, made a professional impression. I did not go in to be “told off” about my work up to date. I went in as an expert linguist working with the institution to make their project work. I’m still working on the revisions, but I don’t anticipate any problems now I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing and what it’s really all about.

The fact is that being seen as an expert is essential if we are to maintain the client’s respect and maintain the right sort of relationship with them, where we have something to offer. David Jemielity came at it from another angle in his keynote talk at METM19 in Split. He was talking about the corporate world, and in particular about meetings with top management at the Swiss bank where he works. And he gave some memorable advice that went against the grain for many in his audience. As translators, who can obviously speak more than one language, we have the tendency always to switch into a language that’s foreign to us when having this kind of meeting, out of respect or politeness. But David said this was a mistake, assuming the boss was a reasonable speaker of your language of course. As he put it, “Why give up home field advantage?” We are the experts in English and we need to hold on to that position.

Now, I’m not saying we should insist on speaking our own language with all our clients. It might be worth it in a few cases, but often it would be unnecessary and sometimes downright silly. What I do believe, though, is that we often don’t think enough about how clients see us and whether simple, innocent things we are doing might be losing us that valuable expert status. And that, I can assure you is the quickest way to translation nightmares.


  1. Maeva Cifuentes

    Simon, I just had such a similar experience that I posted about on Standing Up. I think that we know how things work, and we shouldn’t practice ignoring the screaming voices in our heads that say we shouldn’t do it this way. Your situation with the seals was tricky — technically, it should’ve been okay, but it’s hard to say sometimes. How would a boutique but highly professional agency approach this? How would you expect a professional from another field to approach this? These are questions I ask myself. Great article, thanks for sharing!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Maeva. As you say, it’s hard to be sure how things will turn out and the ending to this story is rather ironic. In the case I felt more positive about, with the educational institution, things went irretrievably wrong despite all my efforts and the project has been cancelled, although I am getting paid for the part I did. Meanwhile, the client with the certified translations has come back to me with more work, which I’m now able to do easily because I know exactly how she wants it and now have plenty of seals.


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