As a “mid-career” translator, I’m prepared to admit that I’m still learning the ropes and occasionally find myself in over my head. A document that looks perfectly manageable when I give it the pre-acceptance once-over somehow morphs into an acronym-riddled monster full of technicians’ notes that only someone with a minimum of twenty years in a highly specialised field would understand.
Such was the horror that befell me last week when I foolishly accepted a task based on a sample source file. Month-end was fast approaching but my target earnings were still woefully short. So I panicked, and I took a job that actually turned out to be full of mathematical equations for testing a piece of machinery whose purpose I still don’t fully understand. Needless to say, what I learned from the experience was not—despite my hours of research—anything remotely connected to physics, but more that sometimes I need to “just say no”.
I know I’m not the only freelancer, or even the only self-employed person, who fears after finishing every job that they will never work again, but the struggle for me is remembering to stay true to my focus on quality while balancing productivity. As I slowly chipped away at the aforementioned brute (spending around ten minutes researching every word before it became clear in the next paragraph that what I had written was totally wrong) my overriding thought was that I needed to be able to justify what I’d written in court.
My brother—a lawyer—tells me frequently that it would be extremely difficult to prosecute a translator, as everything we do is so subjective. This is of little comfort to me. To my mind, there are translators out there with a wealth of experience in translating texts about physics and maths and they’re the ones who should have handled this. My former boss used to say that translators know a little bit about an awful lot and, while this is true, I feel that some things should be left to those who know an awful lot about a little bit.
In the end, the beast was slain. I checked every word twice to make sure I knew why I’d used it. I spent an hour phrasing queries about abbreviations—which might as well have been in Greek—in such a way as to make it seem like I knew exactly what they meant, but I just wanted to check in case the client would rather use an alternative term. I delivered the job with a list of notes, and had a mild heart attack every time the reviewer asked if I could explain one of my choices. I am obviously also holding off submitting my invoice so as not to tempt fate.
All in all, I lost money on this job. I ended up exceeding my earnings target anyway, meaning that I could have turned this one down. I missed out on a lovely looking marketing piece about visiting Canada because I couldn’t fit it in around all my extra research and obsessive checking. I questioned my skills as a translator and my ethics as a professional, but ultimately I knew I’d done everything I could (albeit at some personal cost) to ensure that my translation was accurate.
Today, I have been doing some proofreading. Around 1000 words in, I found the first of several comments left for me by the translator: “I don’t understand what this means”. Not cool, man. Not cool.