My favorite mistake

No, not the Sheryl Crow song, the Newsweek/Daily Beast Column. Maybe I just love reading about other people’s mistakes, but the last-page “My Favorite Mistake” essay is my favorite part of the redesigned Newsweek. Written by famous people of various flavors, these columns just reinforce the fact that whether it’s Madeleine Albright wearing her “three monkeys” pin for a meeting with Vladimir Putin, Ricki Lake doing online dating or Dennis Quaid using cocaine, we are, as my yoga teacher would say, all on the path.

This week’s essay, by violinist Joshua Bell, particularly grabbed my attention. Although I’m not a rabid fan of Bell’s music, he’s the subject of one of my favorite newspaper articles ever, Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pearls Before Breakfast, in which Weingarten chronicles Bell’s incognito performance in the Washington DC subway at rush hour. Bell’s “My Favorite Mistake” column tells the story of his first international violin competition performance, in which he flubbed the opening of his piece and decided to stop, apologize to the audience and start over rather than soldiering on through the performance. This got me thinking that we translators and interpreters, who by nature thrive on being right about everything, could also benefit from hauling our favorite mistakes out of the archives. Here’s mine. I told this story during the “Smart Business” panel at the Boston ATA conference so it’s not totally fresh, but this is its first time in writing!

I started freelancing in 2002, right after my daughter was born. I had a Master’s in French and had done a translation internship, but I really had no clue about the conventions of the translation industry. Plus, I was very, very hungry for work because I knew that my goal of working from home to be with my daughter was completely dependent on my success as a freelancer: if I didn’t make it, it was off to full-time daycare for her and off to a cubicle for me.

One of the first assignments that I received was from an agency, a very simple birth certificate translation, maybe 100 words total. I think that my minimum charge at the time was $30, and the agency didn’t give me any special instructions, just asked me to “translate the birth certificate.” So there I am at my computer, thinking that this is the easiest $30 I’ve ever made. I mean, for 100 words, why even put the translation in a Word document? Why not just type it into an e-mail to save the client some time dealing with the attachment. Obviously the missing link here is my lack of knowledge of the conventions of translating an official document: the big time investment isn’t translating the 50 or 100 words, it’s re-formatting the translation to look as much as possible like the original. So off I go, typing the translation into an e-mail and firing it off to the client, feeling really proud of myself (aren’t I efficient?!).

I have to say that the client was fairly understanding; probably more understanding than I would have been had I been on the receiving end of that e-mail. In any case I think they paid me the $30 we had agreed on, which was more than generous on their part since they ended up hiring another translator to do the job. But when I think back on this Favorite Mistake, I think that it really helped me. Obviously I learned something about official document translation, but I also learned a few larger lessons:

  • Knowing how to translate and knowing how to run a freelance business are completely different things; to succeed as a freelancer, you need to know both.
  • Try as we might to forget it, we were all new, inexperienced freelancers once. Maybe someone else’s stupid mistake wasn’t quite as stupid as mine, but we’ve all made them.
  • When translation newbies ask uninformed questions (Why doesn’t my TM tool spit out a translation after I type something into it? How much do I have to pay to get work from an agency? I charge 2 cents a word, is that about the industry standard? I’m looking for a business that’s easy to run in my spare time, would conference interpreting be good?), it’s hard not to be condescending, but it’s important to at least try. Whenever I answer a question like these, I think back to my “this is the easiest $30 I ever made!!” moment and try to give a thorough and non-condescending answer. Although these questions (and my birth certificate mistake) are completely off the mark, I also think it’s fair to ask how someone who’s never worked as a translator would know that TM and MT are two different things, or that agencies don’t charge up-front fees, or that the highest-paid freelancers make 40 or 50 cents a word, or that conference interpreters go to school for years  just to learn the basics of the job.

Readers, any other Favorite Mistakes out there?

11 Responses to “My favorite mistake”
  1. Simone January 9, 2012
  2. Emma Goldsmith January 9, 2012
  3. Carolyn Y. January 9, 2012
  4. Judy Jenner (@language_news) January 10, 2012
  5. Alison Hughes January 10, 2012
  6. Diane January 10, 2012
  7. Kari January 10, 2012
  8. Ruben de la Fuente January 10, 2012
  9. Corinne McKay January 11, 2012
  10. Rebecca January 16, 2012
    • Corinne McKay January 17, 2012

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