Riflessioni di una traduttrice – Part 1

Con oggi apriamo una nuova rubrica tutta anglofona, dedicata al misterioso mondo della traduzione. Il lavoro del traduttore è fondamentale, non solo in ambito letterario, ma anche in quello commerciale, sociale, giuridico, e via dicendo. Perciò è piuttosto sorprendente considerare quanto poco si sappia delle gioie e dei dolori che comporta questo immane lavoro – e quanto sia misero il riconoscimento che queste figure ottengono da parte di chi si serve del loro lavoro.

Abbiamo chiesto a Kira (nome di fantasia), italiana da poco impiegata presso una delle più grandi aziende di traduzione del Regno Unito, di raccontarci le sue riflessioni in un post. Ne è venuto fuori una specie di racconto a puntate, uno spaccato di vita quotidiana di otto ore al giorno, fatto di open office, di scrivanie rumorose, di cartelle e sottocartelle e musica a tutto volume. Godetevi la prima parte!


Or: That day when nothing really happened but I was in the office anyway.

Part 1/2

So, for some weird reason that I’m not exactly able to pinpoint at the moment, the summer after my high school graduation, I decided to study foreign languages instead of aerospace engineering. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret it one bit. It was one of the best decisions I had ever taken in my life, but I don’t know exactly what made me suddenly realise that a lifetime of plans and expectations was absolutely wrong. I blame Divine Providence and the fact that I cut my hair for the first time in 10 years, that summer. Maybe the fresh air did my brain some good.

Consequence of this is that 5 years later I ended up on the other side of Europe, with an almost-over master’s degree in Professional Translation and one crazy, amazing internship in a translation company. Now, all this is great because I like the university, and I like the work, and I like my friends here and I kinda really like that tall guy in church too. Pretty smart combination of factors, eh? But then again, I’m infamously easy to please.

So, let’s skip my daydreaming with pink glasses for a second, and get down to the dirty bits of an everyday adventure in the magical land of Grownup People That Work In Offices And Act Mature. Like the fact that it’s 9:25 in the morning, I have just dropped my not-fancy-enough-for-this-company backpack under my desk and Despacito is already blasting at full volume from the sales corner. What on earth is wrong with those people? Like, seriously. Are they lacking ears? The same 10 songs have been playing on repeat for the last two months now. Good Lord, there must be a different radio station somewhere in the ether where we are blessed with something a little different, like Mozart, or Johnny Cash, or the Pink Floyd. I could even go with Katy Perry right now. It bugs me that there is a girl in the sales department who is allowed to blast her music on stereo. Like, she’s the only one who does it (in sales, I mean. There are three other radios playing in the office, one for each department. Unfortunately, it’s an open space, so you can hear all four of them from my desk). I don’t know if she has a special status inside the sales team or if people just assume that she lost her headphones and put up with her because people are polite in this country. She hums along too. Loudly.

And oh my God, the guy from accounts is not wearing a tie today. For the first time since I started working here, the guy from accounts is not wearing a tie today. I think I am about to have a stroke. I hope this is not at all related to the fact that just yesterday I told him, with my exquisite tact, that he should dress less formally every now and then. Surely it’s not related? Oh, man, I’m that bad, ain’t I?

So, I swear this is not something I normally do. Whining about office music and staring at my computer screen, I mean. Normally, I work really hard. I am trying to convince everyone in this place that I really am an asset and that they should give me a job! I work twice as hard as any other intern and probably harder that some of the employees here. But today there is really nothing to do. Like, seriously, absolutely nothing to do. I have tried. I have even asked my tutor if I could help him with something, but he didn’t have any task to give me. So I’ve been waiting for the past three hours more or less. Trying to kill time by googling random stuff like the size of the biggest jellyfish on earth and the ten secrets you never knew about plumbers. Trying to get my desk mate to chat a little (but she is busy today, the lucky girl). Trying not to stare too intensely at the guy from accounts who is frigging not wearing a tie today! So don’t think too badly of me if I silently hum along to Maddy and Tae (I’ve got headphones on now. Symphony’s endless whine was just too much to bear) and let the hours pass by. I swear I am not doing this on purpose.

Finally, my Skype account flashes yellow. Work! It’s one of the PMs (Project Managers), who asks me if I can revise a document in 0.5 hours. Like, what on earth is that supposed to mean? Who even knows how much exactly is 0.5 hours, without having to spend the same amount of time calculating it? That’s the catch about people working in the translation business without being translators themselves: they have this scary tendency of assuming that those who are function like some sort of human Google Translator. Input, push the button, get the results. Pity I don’t have a button to push. Or well, I do, but you don’t really wanna see the results.

I finally get a task. It’s a boring one, basically emailing people and archiving their answers. But at least I’m not just keeping my chair warm. In the meantime, my mind wanders off to ponder essential information, like the way Canadian people tell each other to go to hell. (If you wanna know, they say I’m gonna fix your wagon. I’m not sure how useful this piece of knowledge is going to be in the short term, but I think swear words tell a lot about a culture).

Translators are also a lot of help in keeping me amused. For instance, there was the incredibly funny moment when one of my linguists signed off with an ‘X‘ as her signature. I’m not joking. She really did sign with an X. Like an illiterate person. If that was supposed to be a joke, I didn’t get it. And one of the translators I had contacted sends me a photo of the document he was supposed to scan. It’s blurred enough that I can’t read the words, but I can see his bed pretty clearly in the bottom half. Wtf? What am I supposed to reply, “I really appreciate the elegance of your linens, but could you please send me an actual scan now”? There is a guy in our directory that is listed under a completely different name than his real one – they both start with G, though. I really don’t want to be cynical, but I have the vague impression this is the perfect metaphor for exactly how much a translator is worth in the eyes of a translation company.

Actually, this is the perfect moment to open a line of thought about project management. Project managers are like movie directors – you never see them but they pull the strings of the entire film. They recruit the translators and give them jobs. They make sure the files for translation submitted by the clients are legible and as formatted as possible. They make sure the translated texts get delivered on time. They send cookies to the poor souls that slave on the translations for very little money (did you know that freelance translators generally live on air and love? That’s only because they can’t really afford the more expensive luxuries, like fish sticks or potatoes).

Project management is one big oxymoron. Without it, translators would have very little work, because there’s a reason why someone would voluntarily choose a job that requires very little human interaction and can be done from your laptop at home. Translators aren’t generally the best marketers of themselves. They choose isolation due to different reasons – shyness, the desire to have a flexible job you can do from home while juggling the kids, the house and the spouse at the same time; and a strong love for quiet spaces like libraries and computer labs. But they all share one trait: they have trained very hard for a very long time in a job that requires mental flexibility, creativity, precision, strong focus and the capacity to perform under pressure all at the same time. Often, they have worked hard to obtain qualifications in different specializations and different languages. Still, they get paid the piece rate of a handful of pence per word, like jukeboxes – or beggars. Their work is never really considered or even recognised – in literary translation, the translator’s name ends up on the back of the first page, in the smallest caption you can afford. As a result, translators develop a deep, unspoken hate for business. Their profession is a form of art and they get treated like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. They don’t want to spend any time advertising their abilities or “selling” themselves, even though it would help them get more work, more money and probably a lot more recognition. But it’s a hateful process, and it feels like sleeping with the enemy. So they reject it. And that’s where projects managers come in. They are also known as the PM(S) of the translation world, because when you feel them coming, you know there’s trouble on the way. They are the ones that take on the responsibilities that translators reject. They find them work and make sure they do it instead of going into an endless protesting hunger strike.  They sustain and enslave them at the same time, like the iconic donkey with the carrot and the stick.

Project management is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

And the wide world of project management feels very much like Bachata class sometimes. You dance with lots of people you never really get to know. Only without the dancing and with a lot of emails. After a while you become friends with some – or at least, you feel a sort of kindred spirit to them. You’re not really friends because you’ve never met then, and quite often they don’t even remember you exist. But for you, they are like a collection of friends, or even better, old relatives. You know, those aunts and uncles you sort of collect, and vaguely remember from when you were little, or see in pictures.

Look, here is uncle Yjivengji. He speaks seven languages, between which ancient Greek, Aramaic and Assyrian. Oh, this is aunt Genna. She’s the one who’s going on maternity leave next month. Yes, that one there, right next to uncle Ramirez, the one with a Spanish surname but a very Polish identity. He’s the one who told me – when I was asked to find out translators’ availability during the Easter holidays – that he had “no idea if I’m going on holiday, and you have asked me already anyway” (I hadn’t). Then he told me to have a nice day. Well, have a nice day too, mister! There are the Italian aunts, who make me feel like maybe I should try and tell them that I’m Italian too, maybe they would like it. We could bond a little. We share the same glorious history, after all. It’s a wide world, with all different kinds of people.

And some are struggling, like everybody else. Some deep-rooted pity wakes up when I send inquiring emails to a long, endless list of translators and one of them actually replies in earnest, saying that she’s so happy to hear from us but that she wonders if it’s a mistake, by any chance, because we told her that the quality of her translation was awful and that we never wanted to work with her again. Which is probably true, don’t get me wrong, I have seen the atrocious work of some translators, but when she says it like that you’ve got to be soulless not to get your heart broken. She might have had trouble paying the bills since we stopped working with her. I wonder if she was really that bad.

Others have rates so low I felt a chill down my spine the first time I read them – 1 eurocent per word, man, are you crazy? That is beyond exploitation. That is borderline slavery – and they even say crazy stuff like “Please, feel free to amend my rates. I hope this way we can work together more often. :)”. Please feel free to amend my rates? Like, are you for real??  And the smiley face is just the cherry on top. It is not surprising, though, considering how little importance is really given to their (our) work. It’s all about splitting the text into thousands of smaller pieces so that it can be translated faster, more efficiently, maybe throwing a little bit of machine translation here and there because the main focus is productivity, which is apparently the most important thing in the world. As long as you’re fast, quality is secondary. Even our evaluation sheets are mechanised – an Excel spreadsheet decides if you’re good enough for a translation company to work with.

Give me this crazy open-space office where we’re all in the same room so we can communicate better (a.k.a., production is faster) and we’ve got a dystopic sci-fi novel. Only nobody would ever really write a sci-fi novel about translators, because let’s be honest, it’s not cool enough of a job. Ever seen a movie about this profession? They are always about interpreters. Like, always. Nobody really cares about watching three hours of a guy sitting at a table, typing his soul away. Hell, I wouldn’t care to watch it either…

A settimana prossima per il proseguo!

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