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.


Loans to Whom???

That's it – Isracard has lost any shred of respect I ever had for it, if I had any.
Bad copywriting reflects badly on the company, in my book.
Their crude Hebrew slogan, "halva'ot le-kooooolam" הלוואות לכוווולם, is bad enough. Yeah, I get the point, I get the visual, I get the message. It's still annoying and infantile. I can ignore it. But when this "gem" gets translated literally into English, the mind boggles.

The offending ad takes up practically an entire page on yesterday's (November 17th) Jerusalem Post. At the bottom, in big red letters, is this scintillating copy:
Loans to a-a-a-all – that's Isracard.

Now, the Hebrew le-kooolam is bad enough. But at least it's idiomatic; people actually talk that way. You can just imagine a kindergarten teacher smiling at her flock and saying, "hineh balonim le-kooolam!" i.e., "Here are balloons for everyone!" That's about how sophisticated this slogan is. But what's this a-a-a-all ??? It's so totally meaningless that it defies contemplation.

I am currently translating one book about advertising & copywriting – Vered Mosenzon's The Yellow Tool Box – while reading another: Don't Mess with the Logo, by Jon Edge & Andy Milligan. I found the following paragraph very appropriate:

"Well, anyway, when you thought of all the reasons you would recommend [brand X] to someone else, were any of those reasons 'You'll love the advertising'? If you answered yes, then you work in advertising or you used to work in advertising or want to work in advertising. Any other sane person would say no."

See, that paragraph describes me. A company's advertising, to me, is definitely part of its brand value. Any company with lousy copywriting loses points and loses some of my trust. Why on earth does Isracard treat us like kindergarten kids? Why don't they care enough to have their ads and slogans re-invented in English? Don't we English-speaking customers count? Don't they want our business? Obviously, paying a copywriter to re-create their message in English is more expensive than telling the J. Post (or any other publication) "oh, just have it translated, I don't care if it's literal, so long as it doesn't cost me extra" – or something to that effect. Yet it irks me. It is unprofessional and short-sighted.


Hey, Daria -- you're the tops!

I wanted to give my entrepreneur daughter a compliment. I wanted to tell her she's the tops, she's terrific, she can take over the world. Or that part of the world in which she's most interested, anyway. I was lost for words, and went to my Poetry & Lyrics folder where I keep some of my faves. Below is an excerpt from Cole Porter's You're the Top, from Anything Goes; and here is the whole thing. I'd forgotten how deliciously funny it is:

At least it'll tell you how great you are.
You're the tops ...
You're the top, you're the Colosseum,
You're the top, you're the Louvre Museum,
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss,
You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile, you're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa,
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if baby I'm the bottom, you're the top.

You're the top you're Mahatma Gandhi,
You're the top, you're Napoleon Brandy ...
You're the top, You're an Arrow collar.
You're the top, You're a Coolidge dollar.
You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire.
You're an O'Neill drama, You're Whistler's mama,
You're Camembert.
You're a rose; You're Inferno's Dante,
You're the nose of the great Durante.
I'm just in the way, as the French would say 'de trop'
But if, baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top.

You're the top, You're a Waldorf salad.
You're the top, You're a Berlin ballad.
You're the baby grand of a lady and a gent,
You're an old Dutch master, You're Mrs Aster,
You're Pepsodent.
You're romance, You're the steppes of Russia,
You're the pants on a Roxy usher.
I'm a lazy lout, that's just about to stop,
But if baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top.

Now, you tell me: Can I call my firstborn Camembert? Will she really consider it a compliment if I compare her to the Coliseum? Can I tell her "You're Pepsodent" with a straight face?... Perhaps I'll settle for Napoleon brandy. Or just send her a link to the clip on YouTube:…

Open letter to the Grievance Committee (that's you guys!)

I have a grievance I want to share with you all.

A certain translation agency, which shall remain nameless, sometimes asks me to evaluate the work of prospective translators or editors. This involves receiving from the agency a sample text, say two pages long, and its translated or edited version. I'm asked to check the translation or the editing done, and give my opinion in writing, in some detail. I.e. not just "yes, he/she's okay" "no, don't bother with him/her." I think you'll agree with me that this is a very responsible task. For this type of job, they are willing to pay only NIS 30. Flat rate; not even "per unit". I tried to argue, but in vain. Anything higher is considered "exorbitant".

Last time I turned them down, the project manager shrugged her shoulders and said never mind, she'd give the work to someone else.

Obviously, there are "someone elses" out there who take on such work for this ridiculously low rate. I even know one personally -- a highly educated person, a very good translator, who is a member of the ITA and is far from being a starving student who must take any work at any price.

Now, obviously I can't tell people what work to take and what to turn down... But I think anyone who agrees to do this very responsible work for 30 shekels apiece is doing harm to the entire community of translators, and reinforcing agencies' practice of exploiting translators. Mind you, if all good translators/editors refuse to undertake this type of work, the agency might lower its standards and give it to mediocre translators/editors, who might misjudge the work of aspiring translators and thus cause a different kind of damage.

To be fair, I'll add that despite my disapproval and resentment I have in the past taken on such jobs, out of sheer curiosity. I wanted to see what kind of translators and editors are out there, looking for work. I wanted to see for myself how good they were. And if they weren't that good, I wanted to know what kind of mistakes they made, what are the most common pitfalls. I find this kind of information very useful in my work, and in helping other translators avoid said pitfalls. The agency in question was only too happy to take advantage of my weakness and curiosity. Can't blame them. But I have decided to be a collaborator no more.

I actually thought of airing this grievance on the ITA Group website on Yahoo Groups, but was not sure whether there was any point and whether it would serve any useful purpose. At worst, it would trigger a long thread of arguments, stirring up the embers of resentment and discontent without doing anyone any good.

So I thought I'd post it on my blog and get it out of my system. Constructive suggestions welcome.


Signs Abroad - part II

... and below is another sign that I liked, because of its casual, chatty, friendly tone. I shall type the text under the pic, because it's a bit fuzzy, even if you click and enlarge it.

This photo was taken at the Lost Gardens of Heligan -- a beautiful place, if you love green thingies like gardens, trees, bushes, hothouses and sample-jungles.

Here's the text:
The Crystal Grotto
I'm sorry that it's still a little mucky in here but
restoration isn't complete yet. The Crystal Grotto is
at first glance a charming, plain, traditional grotto
of the late 18th century, however in its roof, hidden
by gunge, are set crystals. we are reliably informed
by people who visited the gardens in the 1920s
that on summer evenings candles would be
brought out here and the crystals would reflect
light onto the paths. We are setting out to achieve
that again.