Not going to lie, April was shaping up to be a bit of a rubbish freelancing month.

Firstly, Mr H and I were about as ill as I can remember being for a very, very long time. We were struck down by the type of flu that leaves you feeling as though you will never leave the sofa again, let alone the house. The kind of flu that actually takes weeks to recover from and leaves you feeling a bit shaken and a bit down on life in general. Plus, the fact that self-employed freelance translators do not get sick pay was suddenly an all too real issue for me.

The second, and I do not say this lightly, truly horrendous thing that happened was that, while in the very darkest hours of flu-fighting, I received an email from a translation agency to tell me I had failed their translation test. Even typing it now sends a ripple of horror through me. How can I be trying to establish myself as a freelance translator when I can’t even pass a simple translation test? How awful at my job must I actually be? After crying for about four hours and feeling ashamed for, well, I’ll let you know how that one turns out, I began to try to dissect what had happened.

The reviewer of my (technical) French to English test had commented (in French) that my English did not flow well and that the piece read like a literal translation. Now, I am sure that you don’t need me to tell you that this is just about some of the worst feedback a translator can receive. Translation 101: Must not read like a literal translation. Devastated, I picked over the corrections and then realised what had happened. I had missed an idiomatic expression that, hand to God, I had never heard before in my native-English speaking life. As a result, the reviewer had branded my work “too literal” and I had been kicked out of the club. Apparently, the fact that all the technical terminology was correct or that I had checked the client’s website to make sure I was using their preferred terms or that I had converted all measurements accurately and into the right units counted for nothing.

My new best friend the Internet is rife with the musings of spurned translators on the subject of test translations. I saw every side of the argument and comments ranging from “my translation was sabotaged because the reviewer knew I’d done an amazing job and was afraid of the competition” (hmm) to “no good translator has ever failed a test translation” (ouch).

Now, while I would love to believe that my translation was so stunningly good that the rest of the freelance community now fear for their livelihoods, I unfortunately tend to react to criticism in a more “oh my God I am terrible” kind of way. With that in mind, I replied to the agency in question and said how disappointed I was with the outcome but thanked them for their time.

For the next couple of weeks, I dreaded the chirp of my work email. Please, no one send me translation: I suck! This agency told me so. Feeling betrayed by my profession, not to mention a crushing sense of humiliation and failure, I retreated into myself and decided I would never make it as a freelance translator. That was it. The dream was over, I was rubbish at everything. I began Googling admin jobs.

Then, I met up with my former boss from my old agency. She was astonished that I had simply rolled over and taken the rejection and hadn’t put forward any arguments as to all the things that I had got right. Translation is so subjective, if someone else had marked my test then maybe the outcome would have been different. I get it, but the fact is that what I was offering didn’t work for this agency and I started to think that maybe this had happened for a reason. This agency had already negotiated my rate down by 33% and, if they were so quick to fail me based on something that wasn’t really related to the test I was taking, then how quick would they be to refuse to pay me for work because they didn’t like my style? Yes, I had failed and yes, it felt horrible but these things happen. I had to pick myself up and get on with it. I may not know every idiomatic expression in the English language, but I do know what all the parts of a tractor are called and how to interpret technicians’ notes on what’s wrong with your intake manifold. I just needed to find some agencies that did like what I had to offer.

The next week, I got a call from a different agency. They had an urgent job that would take four days and pay me half the monthly income of my previous in-house role. I was nervous, but determined to do the best that I could. One day into the job, I got another email. I had done a translation a while back for a certain client, and they had contacted the agency to request me personally for another one. In the “feast or famine” way that seems to define freelancing, I had to turn it down but, honestly, it was a bit of a career highlight and exactly what I needed to lift my spirits.

This industry is tough. You’re never going to be able to please everyone all the time. You just have to do the best you can, always act professionally and learn to take the rough with the smooth.

Mrs H

 

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