Grievance, Part II – on being an underpaid arbitrator

Another type of job that I am sometimes called upon to do is checking customer complaints and serving as an arbitrator.
Like reviewing the work of prospective translators, this too is a serious responsibility. And like in the case of reviewing prospective translators, here too a Nameless Agency pays a flat sum that would barely buy you a shawarma & pop.

This is how it usually goes:

Scene 1: Typical day at agency
The client, Mr. Israeli, gave the agency his company profile to be translated from Hebrew to English. Maybe he agreed to pay extra for editing, maybe he didn't. In case of the latter, and if the agency wanted to make a good impression and snag the client for future work, they will have given the job to one of their best translators, to ensure a good product despite not investing in editing. If the client did agree to shell out extra for editing, the job might be given to any translator who happens to be available, but will also be edited by someone capable.

Scene 2: A few days later
Client calls, red in the face. He thinks the translation stinks. Or else he gave it to his buddy who lived in the States for a couple of years and Buddy said it's no good. Client writes scathing email, demands money back. Sometimes he supplies an alternative translation done by someone else, as an example of how it should have been done. Or else he, or Buddy, mark up the document with their changes and comments.

Scene 3: Later the same day
Clerk at agency doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. Calls me. I, sucker that I am for challenges, and curious as the proverbial cat, take the job, even though the pay is, as I said, insulting.

What do I find?
Well, obviously, sometimes the client has a good point, other times he doesn't have a leg to stand on.

The No Leg case:
Often, Mr. Israeli's English is not as good as he thinks it is. He simply does not understand the words, phrases and tone of the translated document. Or else, he had a preconceived notion of what the document should sound like, and is disappointed when it doesn't live up to his expectations. In such cases, I explain that people have different styles, and if you gave the same text to several translators each would produce a different version. Sometimes, it's the register that bothers the client. In which case I have to ask if he gave the agency any guidelines or instructions as to who his target audience is and what sort of style/language he prefers – laid-back and friendly? Jargon-laden? Formal?
A major stumbling block is the original text. It is often very badly written, but how are you going to say that to the client? You can, for example, quote a couple of obscure, ungrammatical, ambiguous sentences, and tactfully point out that it is no wonder that the translator got it wrong.

The Good Point case:
Other times, the client has a good point. The translation is of poor quality. The translator was too literal; chose the wrong words; misunderstood the Hebrew; never heard of style, can't write to save his life, and so on. In such cases, the agency – aside from reimbursing or otherwise appeasing the client – has to do its own reckoning: did they give the job to the wrong translator? (Probably.) Did they give the translator any guidelines? (Possibly.)

What do I do?
After carefully reviewing all the documents involved, marking up the offending translation and the letter/document of complaint, I type up my opinion. Generally, I also explain it over the phone to the clerk at the agency (who may have a fancy job title but usually doesn't know the difference between copywriting, marcom, rewriting, editing and proofreading.) I also add tips on how to handle the irate client and what feedback to give the translator.

What do I get for it?
Barely enough money for a pita with shawarma + can of soda pop, and a pat on the back: "Thanks, you're terrific." Or an incredible "Really? It was that bad???" Or a resigned, "Yeah, I thought that client was trouble when I first laid eyes on his ghastly company profile."

What am I going to do about this sorry state of affairs?
I can't change the way the agency works. I can't teach Mr. Israeli et al how to write. I can't weed out all inept translators. All I can do is refuse to continue doing such responsible work for next-to-nothing, and urge my colleagues to do the same.



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