It could happen to you!
In 1995 several incidents forced me to re-evaluate the way I was conducting my freelance business. I began an introspective journey that taught me a lot of lessons. I discovered that I had the qualifications I needed, but I had to quickly grow and learn if I was to survive in the competitive world of freelance translation. A world that has been described variously as "jungle" and "paradise," characterized by "freedom" and "survival of the fittest."
Regardless of which of these labels seemed more fitting to my reality at the time, one thing I knew for sure: if I continued to do the same things in the same way, I would obtain the same results. Naturally I wanted to change, and so I forged my way into a better world: One that was fulfilling and, actually, enjoyable—a world in which I could see myself spending the rest of my life.
This article was spurred by a recent event that took me back in time, and which allowed me to be thankful once more for having been diligent in learning about the scope of practice of a professional translator. I am hoping that by sharing certain aspects of this recent episode, I will encourage colleagues and aspiring translators to do the same and thus avoid being trapped in "the jungle."
There was a time in my early days as a freelance Spanish translator when receiving a phone call from a prospective client was a rather infrequent event, the highlight of the week. Partly for that reason, and partly because I believed that as an inexperienced, just-out-of-school translator I was supposed to succumb to all sorts of demands, my conversations with prospective clients would start with happiness and end in regret as I could see I had gotten myself into "another unfair deal." These "deals" came in all colors, shapes, and sizes, such as translation projects that were too long to complete within the given deadline, forcing me to stay up until the wee hours of the night (or the morning) and frequently spend the whole weekend glued to an uncomfortable chair (note the "uncomfortable" chair!). Projects for which the project manager would make me commit myself to a price and deadline without showing me the entire original—which of course, I did not insist on seeing because he would say the sample was a good representation of the whole and I would simply "trust" him. And, of course, there were my rates which were so low that they hardly covered my expenses as I tried to stay abreast of the latest technology for the industry, and I was still building my reference library. I remember some of the tales I would hear on the other side of the line: "You know Natasha, this industry is very competitive. We had to lower our quote in order to get this client. I am sure you can understand and help us this time." Or, "for this particular project we are on a tight budget, but I am sure we can pay you a better rate next time." (Needless to say, the next time would bring another "tight budget" situation, and—you guessed it—so would the next...)
After almost a year of all these shenanigans I was ready for a major change. I would either quit getting myself into these muddy waters or, if this was what it was all about, my dreams of becoming a successful freelance T&I would quickly be replaced by a more fulfilling career goal. You see...I believe that it was at this time when I, perhaps unconsciously, began to develop the "professional" in "Professional Freelance Spanish Translator."
I realized that while I had received extensive training in translation skills, I still knew very little about other aspects of my profession, such as whether there was a code of ethics and professional conduct, and what exactly, was the scope of practice of a freelance translator. Fortunately, there were organizations such as ATA which were trying hard to raise the bar of our profession by defining clear standards to guide those who were coming into the profession, and those who needed a compass to get out of the jungle.
Becoming familiar with existing Codes of Ethics for Translators1 was therefore very important and it provided invaluable insight. Consider this point from the Code of Ethics of the Argentine Association of Translators and Interpreters (AATI). In its 22nd paragraph under the heading "Principle of Professional Dignity" the following words provided relief to my difficult situation:
"22. Es deber de todo profesional abstenerse de aceptar condiciones que no garanticen la calidad de su trabajo. Esto implica negarse a trabajar en condiciones inaceptables en términos de tiempo, ambiente laboral o remuneración. El traductor deberá oponerse a todo aquello que menoscabe su propio honor o buen nombre o el de su profesión." 2
"22. The professional translator shall refrain from accepting conditions that may affect the quality of his/her work. This means that the professional translator shall refuse to work under unacceptable conditions with respect to deadlines, work environment, or compensation. The [professional] translator shall not engage in any practice that may undermine his/her own good reputation, honor, and the practice of his/her profession."
Among all the useful and enlightening language I have encountered in existing Codes of Ethics for T&Is, none speak so loud and clear to the conundrum I was facing a little while ago. The situation was as follows: A gentleman found my contact information on the Internet. In a message characterized by a somewhat informal tone, he requested a quote for a set of documents (transcripts) that he briefly mentioned and described. However, the documents were not attached to the message. I kindly thanked the gentleman for his inquiry and politely took the opportunity to explain that as a translator I needed to see the document in order to provide an accurate quote. As I had hoped, the gentleman had no problem understanding what I had explained and he was more than willing to let me see the document so I could provide my quote.
The problem was that he was living in Central America and the person who had his original lived in U.S. Rather than getting a hold of his own document and then requesting a translation, the gentleman "instructed" me to get a hold of his contact in U.S. and ask her for his document. In order to orchestrate this venture, he sent an e-mail to me with a copy to his contact in U.S., and gave each of us instructions on what we should do—all in a surprisingly informal tone, as if we had known each other for years and I was just doing him a favor. He thanked me profusely in advance.
Needless to say, I quickly replied indicating that my services included only the translation and notarization, and that I understood how busy he might have been, but getting hold of the original himself was in his best interest. Furthermore, such administrative dealings were not included in my services. I specifically told him not to send me the original document because I did not want that responsibility. He completely disregarded my recommendations and went ahead and asked his contact in U.S. to send me his original via air mail.
As the original documents made their way through the mail service, he contacted me again to "warn me" that once I translated and notarized his documents, he expected me to hand deliver them to a government agency in Columbus (a 2-hour drive from my location). He added that he had chosen me to do his translation because he noticed I lived close to the place where the documents had to be submitted. "I do not want to risk loosing those translations," he said, "so it is better for you to drop them off."
Yes, you can guess my reply... No, I never did that translation for him. I refused to do it. As it turns out, his contact in U.S. was the head of an academic department at the college where he had obtained the degree in question. The kind lady whom I contacted after the man made a threat because I refused to do his translation, sadly indicated that this man had been a "living nightmare" for them while attending courses at the institute. They had also been threatened, and they had been close to initiating legal action against him.
I cannot imagine what I would have gotten myself into had I not had a clear understanding of my role as a professional translator, and of my scope of practice. This gentleman operated in gradually escalating increments. It would have been so easy to fall in his trap.
The fact is that as awful as this story may sound, many of our colleagues are trapped in similar, and even worse, scenarios. It is naturally easier to fall into these types of traps as a rookie, but, if we are not careful enough, they can happen to any of us regardless of our years of experience.
I have found that when facing these situations it is always best to step back for a moment and re-think our role. Clearly, we all want to do good and help others, but in practicing our profession we will never be as helpful as when we have a clear idea of the limitations and standards of our practice and adhere to them strictly. We may believe that we are being helpful by stepping out of those boundaries, but the truth is that it is a disservice to our profession and to the colleagues who work hard to raise the bar. It is also a disservice to ourselves because this type of "helping" usually leaves a bitter aftertaste. We are less likely to get trapped in the jungle if we have a clear idea of our standards of practice, and of the ethical guidelines that underpin our profession.
Finally, as I sit in a more comfortable chair now, (I had to make the investment if I was to live in paradise) I'd like to share some tips that I have learned over the years. Many of them have been passed on to me by more experienced colleagues, and they have served as my guiding posts through this much more enjoyable journey:
1 ATA. Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices. 27 September 2006 http://www.atanet.org//certification/online_ethics_overview.php
AUSIT. Code of Ethics for Interpreters and Translators. 27 September 2006 <http://www.ausit.org/eng/showpage.php3?id=650>
2 AATI. Code of Ethics. 27 September 2006 <http://www.aati.org.ar/home.htm>
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