When it’s time to say goodbye
I’ve always tried to avoid comparing the client-translator relationship to love and romance. I’ve seen it attempted in various places and it always strikes me as facile and strained. After all, much as I like some of my clients, I can’t think of any of them I’d want to share my life with, even if I wasn’t already happily spoken for. Nor does my wife come to me at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon asking me to work all weekend for a barrel of peanuts. But there is one thing that rings true in the love analogy, and that’s the fact that some relationships just don’t work out.
One such break-up happened to me over the summer although, just as in a love affair, the writing was on the wall long before that. My (ex)client publishes an online magazine and printed magazine a technical subject (I won’t go into any more detail for the sake of confidentiality). He it was who came to me and asked me to do his translations. I stressed the fact that I’m not a technical translator, but I was assured that it didn’t matter because the vocabulary was not difficult and what was really wanted was good English. We agreed I’d translate a few texts and we’d see how it went.
And it seemed to go reasonably well. The technical vocabulary in the translations was limited and could be mastered with reference to some websites covering the same ground in English. My client, meanwhile, seemed friendly and approachable. He didn’t send me vast amounts of work – the magazine only came out every two or three months – but it was a useful regular job that was fairly pleasant to do.
Then, the Other Man came on to the scene. He was an American who worked for my client doing page layout. I never actually met him, but I became aware of his presence several months ago when one of my translations was returned to me with the message “The American layout man doesn’t think this reads like natural English”. I reread my translation and, although there was nothing actually wrong with it, I had to admit that it might benefit from a little polishing. I did the polishing and sent it back. Maybe if I’d taken a tougher line at that point I could have nipped the problem in the bud. Instead, I took the criticism to heart and resolved to up my game in future.
This I did, and, when some of my technical terms were queried a month or two later, I managed to hold my ground, justifying my choices and explaining my use of corpora built from the Internet to make sure I was using the right English vocabulary. Then, just as I was about to go away on holiday, another translation was sent back. “The American layout man says there are mistakes in this. Can you fix them?” By now, I was beginning to tire of the game. My reply was fairly curt: “If you tell me what they are I’ll have a look at any specific points you mention, but I’m not doing a full revision based on that sort of vague criticism.” Nothing specific came, so I went away on holiday.
After a few days away, I picked up an e-mail on my smartphone. “In the end your translation wasn’t as bad as we thought. Here are the corrections made for your information.” Then came the corrections and then the killer blow “You must agree that the translation is much better now we’ve got rid of that awkward phrasing and those expressions that were damaging the flow.” I looked at the corrections. None of them actually introduced any errors, but they were almost all of the “take it or leave it” variety. Just one corrected a genuine slip of mine and none was anything to do with technical vocabulary which might have been expected to be my real weak spot.
I was furious, but successfully resisted a strong temptation to blast back with an immediate reply. I had to think carefully about this. First of all, whatever he’d done, was this customer worth fighting to keep? I decided I could probably let him go. It wasn’t that much work every year, the rate was reasonable but not high and the translations were outside my main specialist areas.
So I could fire him, but should I? I’d recently been reading social media posts in which some colleagues had criticised others for arrogant responses in what seemed to me to be similar situations. Was I guilty of a similar lack of humility? Or was my anger justified? I spent most of my holiday thinking about it, and, after a great deal of consideration, I decided with a cool head that I was right. Why? There were several reasons:
- Firstly, the client’s unreasonable behaviour. It simply isn’t reasonable to say vaguely that there are faults in a piece of work without pointing out what they are. And, while any client is entitled to change any translation in whatever way he wishes, it isn’t reasonable either to insist that such changes are improvements unless you are a native speaker of the language with some qualification to make such statements.
- The person who had made the “corrections”, although he was a native speaker of English, was not qualified to criticise my work any more than I was to criticise his layouts.
- I couldn’t learn from the changes because they were, as far as I could see, entirely arbitrary. It wasn’t the case that once I discovered the kind of style the infamous American liked I’d be able to adjust my writing because the changes didn’t seem to impose a particular style, they merely seemed to be a reaction to mine.
- Most importantly, it was bound to happen again. The American wasn’t going to shut up and he wasn’t going to go away, while my client obviously had more faith in him than he did in me, the translator. That was an untenable situation.
I decided, though, not to directly fire the client. A better path, I thought, was to express my grievances but to leave the way open for reconciliation. So I wrote an e-mail first of all apologising for the one mistake I had made and then setting out everything in the bullet points I’ve mentioned here, ending by saying that I didn’t see how I could go on working with someone who didn’t trust my work. There could have been a happy ending, but there was none. A simple e-mail reply came back: “OK”. We won’t be speaking again.