Have the Confidence to Say No

Have the Confidence to Say No

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Starting out as a translator is hard. It’s said that, in your first year as a freelancer, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t turn over a profit at all – and this is exactly what I’ve found so far in my career. Making ends meet is challenging enough; making enough money to then re-invest in yourself is nigh on impossible.

The result of this is that newcomers to the profession can be desperate. Really desperate – not only for cash but for experience and for recognition as well. This month marks the end of my first year as a translator, and looking back at some of the turning points I’ve passed along the way, I realise that I’ve learned an incredible amount this year, not just about translating but also about being a translator (as we all know, these are two vastly different activities). One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is this: Being able to work translation miracles on occasion is much, much less important than being able to know whether or not, in a given situation, you will be able to work one of these miracles. True, everyone likes a translator who can turn around projects in record time; however, it’s also true that nobody blames a translator who can’t beat all the odds; and, what’s more, nobody likes a translator who promises miracles and then doesn’t deliver them. Here’s a little story for you.

If you can't manage a translation deadline, say so.

Say yes to saying no!

When I was just a few months into my career and desperate for experience, cash, and international renown, I was approached about a 120-minute FR-EN transcription with a 30-hour turnaround. The recording was taken at a conference and, upon listening to the file, I found that the speech was often very muffled and unclear. The agency didn’t want to split the project if they could avoid it, and asked me to take the whole thing.

Boy, was I tempted. I had dollar signs in my eyes, I could hear the voices of adulation when I submitted a spotless transcription on time against all the odds, and the thought of doubling my foreign-language transcription experience was enough to give me butterflies. But something was niggling at me – there were so many hours between that moment and the deadline, it seemed impossible that a two-hour clip could take that long to do, and yet…

Once before, during an internship, I had completed a transcription into English of a one-hour French video. It had taken me two working days, or sixteen hours, and I’d had a native French speaker sitting next to me in the office all day whenever I needed help with a tricky expression. Given what was being asked of me here, I wondered if maybe I was just a really slow transcriber. So, like any professional worth his or her salt, I Googled it: “How long does it take to transcribe an hour of audio?” The answer: If the source and target languages aren’t the same, it takes roughly 15 hours of real time for one hour of audio.

That was all the confirmation I needed to know that this project meant trouble. It was worth so much money (I was a babe of 2 months at the time, my eyes still adjusting to the world of professional, paid translation), and I could hardly bear to turn it down. However, I realised that even if I started immediately and pulled an all-nighter, working at the average speed I’d been quoted I would still be struggling to make the deadline. And without a proper night’s sleep, rushing to get the project in, and with the poor audio quality, I asked myself: Under these conditions, am I likely to produce a piece of work I’d be proud to put my name to? It took all the strength I had to convince myself that my professional integrity, reputation and unbroken streak of high-quality, on-time projects were worth more than the several hundred GBP I would be paid for this project… and to politely decline.

It’s possible that I could have done a passable job on this transcription – I’ll never know. What I do know is that I quietly worked away on a different (very interesting) spreadsheet translation project that day, that I did a great job that earned me a couple of brownie points with the same PM, and that it was me she turned to when, the following day, she received a (predictably) poor quality transcript from the linguist she’d ended up going with for the two-hour audio project.

It felt pretty good. I managed to refrain from saying “I told you so,” saved the day (or the evening, since we had to work late under pressure to meet the deadline) by fixing the transcript, and humbly accepted quite a handsome paycheque for the time I spent working on it. Between that, the fascinating spreadsheet I’d done in the meantime, and a second spreadsheet project that grew from the first, I made as much money as I would have if I’d taken on in the first place what the PM and I now affectionately refer to as the evil-nightmare-transcription-from-hell (it was actually on Hallowe’en that we’d finally submitted it); besides, the good it did my reputation as a reliable and trustworthy linguist was immeasurable. In case you’re interested, though, here are some fun words that were used to refer to me during this whole ordeal: “star”, “lifesaver”, “machine”, “amazing”… Also “Mega” but I think that was just a typo in my name.

The moral of the story: Sometimes it can be really, really hard to turn down projects, even those that involve unfavourable conditions. Obviously not every project you turn down for these reasons will have such an exceptional outcome – often it’s a very unremarkable process involving both parties saying ‘thanks anyway’ and the project never being spoken of again – but some things are always true: 1) Your professional integrity is worth more than any one project; 2) One project can be enough to destroy or seriously damage your integrity; 3) Project Managers and clients alike will, inwardly or outwardly, thank you for being honest and upfront about your capabilities. Everybody loves a miracle-worker, but nobody likes a miracle-promiser who can’t deliver. By all means push yourself to achieve goals that are outside of your comfort zone, or else you will never establish or expand your boundaries; but always do it in a situation where you have a buffer in case anything were to go wrong, for example an overnight project where you can work late into the night if you absolutely have to (unlike this one, where pulling an all-nighter was not a buffer or a last resort but a prerequisite).

I often wonder how this story would sound from the perspective of the poor transcriber who ended up doing the project: Did (s)he stay up all night, tearing his or her hair out over it? If not, how did (s)he manage to get it submitted on time, even incomplete? This person was not an untalented linguist, and yet you’d never know it from the resulting transcription. The only mistake the transcriber made was accepting a task (s)he was not capable of completing to an acceptable standard, and sadly, I expect (s)he has paid for it dearly, at least as far as this agency is concerned.

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