Over the last few years, a very curious change has taken place in the many congresses I have attended in the EU and Spain. As the economic crisis deepened, I found that the general attitude of the translators and interpreters attending these gatherings actually improved. Why is this?
Several years ago, I remember attending congresses where the general topics of conversation focused on the controversial practices of a few large, infamous agencies, and on fees, which were generally considered to be too low. Many attendees assumed that the few “big, bad” agencies out there were representative of the industry in general and they also became embroiled in never-ending, bitter arguments about fees. It disheartened me to see so few attendees talking about the undoubted advantages of our profession, enjoying the congress itself, networking (for work and socially) and discussing practical matters to improve their services (CAT tools, associations, courses, specializations, techniques, news etc.). But as I have said, this seems to have changed. The reason, I believe, may be that those vociferous, negative attendees have not survived the economic crisis.
A few years ago I was asked to give a talk about the business side of translation to a large gathering of translation and interpreting students at a university. As I prepared my presentation, it struck me that ours is a very peculiar profession compared to many others in one respect. Most university students, be they engineers, computer programmers or economists, start sending their résumés to big companies as soon as they graduate, if they do not already have a company post lined up. Most translation and interpreting graduates, however, are condemned to be freelancers or start up their own company. In other words, being an entrepreneur seems to be part of our job description.
Of course, there are a few big translation multinationals out there and a great many small and medium-sized ones where young professionals can seek an internship as a way of learning the ropes in the “real world”. But I find this is a profession where business nous is essential if you are to make a good living. We have no unions, big labor agreements or countless other “privileges” that other professions enjoy. Nonetheless, not wanting to daunt the students who were going to be listening to me, I also emphasized the positive side: vacations more or less when we like, travel opportunities, colleagues all over the world, no glass ceiling, always learning new things...and I soon realized that, for me, the pros far outweigh the cons. It is surprising, then, that so few congress attendees seemed happy — before the recession.
I pondered the negative comments I had constantly heard from the translation trolls, one of which was the exhausting need to chase up bad payers. Over the years, I myself have only had one client who didn’t pay. Actually, he paid most of the invoice, but baulked on an extra, urgent job I had done at the eleventh hour, wrongly claiming to have paid it already. I should stress that this was a direct client, not an agency. An architect, in fact. A world famous architect. In other words, this was a client who could easily have afforded to pay me and save himself legal hassles. Taking into account the fact that this happened in economic boom times, the experience reinforced my belief that bad payers are generally bad payers whatever the economic climate (and the same goes for the good ones). In other words, it seems to have more to do with their character, organization and professionalism than with external economic pressures. A good payer will always ensure they have the liquidity to cover your work before giving you the job, whether or not their end client finally pays up. As an outsourcer myself sometimes, I apply the same work ethic and common sense. My debt is to the translator who works for me; the payment situation with my client is my problem and it should not affect my translator. Again, since the economic crisis began, I have seen fewer of those late-paying agencies using the excuse that “the end client hasn’t paid us yet”. You are free to guess why.
Of course, tough economic times bring out the stoic character in most of us, but a stoic attitude can also be a very positive, cheerful one. I try to follow a piece of advice from one of the most renowned stoicists, Marcus Aurelius: “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness.” It sounds pretty negative, yet the effect is positive. If we expect a difficult client, a rude phone call or a ghastly source text at some time over the coming day, then it doesn’t take us by surprise or get us down. Just as Marcus Aurelius also says later in that famous quote, I have found that negative people are generally not happy for some reason in their own personal lives and thus receive my sympathy. Maybe a loved one is ill, they’ve just got divorced...whatever the reason, by being negative they are not helping themselves and I certainly don’t feel offended by them, but rather pity them for being unhappy. And it is certainly true that rudeness and insults do far more damage in the long run to those who proffer them than to those who receive them. We all want to work with pleasant people.
A famous piece of sales advice perfectly exemplifies this inspiring, positive vibe that one can learn from the quote by the Roman emperor. Imagine you are a door-to-door salesperson or cold caller. The large number of doors shut in your face and phones slammed down every day by irritated potential clients can obviously be depressing. Let’s say the statistics are one sale for every hundred calls. That in itself may seem discouraging, but once we have accepted this statistic as a cold fact, we then expect to have ninety-nine failed calls before making a sale, and it no longer seems so disappointing or overwhelming. It’s just part of the job. One sale per a hundred is a success. In times of economic crisis, this may be one in two hundred, but the principle remains the same.
I have no intention of belittling the situation of those who are having a hard time to make ends meet in this profession; I simply wish to convey the importance of attitude. Moreover, this is not a patronizing case of preaching good behavior, but a practical tip. To illustrate this, let us look at another practical situation. Suppose you have a direct client or agency that is very late on your payment. Aside from legal action and other practical steps, you have two possible options in the way you react to the situation — negative or positive:
Negative: You vent your frustration by sending a threatening, rude email demanding your money, labeling your client as unprofessional and incommunicative. You may also do this on a public blacklist or in a forum.
Positive: You write them an email listing your grievances while making no character judgment, giving only the specific facts (deadlines, agreed terms that have been broken, delays in communication etc.). Again, you may decide to do this publicly.
What are the possible outcomes of these two options? Firstly, it is very important to put ourselves in our client’s shoes for a moment before jumping the gun and choosing our reaction. Why is the payment late? Perhaps the accountant had a bad day, the project manager was in a car accident that morning, or the secretary’s father passed away. Ask for the reason; it may be justified. If it is, and you have limited yourself to giving just the facts, they can then explain the situation (publicly if necessary) with no hard feelings all round. And don’t immediately answer in a bad mood; save a draft of your reply and see if you feel like removing some of those nasty adjectives tomorrow before sending it. By giving the bad payer the benefit of the doubt, our reaction becomes more positive. Above all, it is important to humanize our clients in the inevitably virtual working environment of the translator. In fact, no relationship is ever truly virtual; there is always a human on the other side of the screen who you may even bump into one day at a congress, or someone who knows them. So let us look at the outcomes that result from each of the above two options:
Negative: The client may not want to work with you ever again (or other clients if your reaction has been public, on seeing your negative attitude).
Positive: The client may want to work with you again (and others on seeing your positive, calm professionalism).
Let me stress that I am not judging whether you are right or wrong in your reaction. Indeed, you may well be justified in both cases, particularly if the client really is a rogue. But the important point to note is that the final outcome depends to an extent on the way you react to the situation, not only on the situation itself. A dishonest bad payer may simply never pay, but how that affects you emotionally and your professional image is your decision. Nobody wants to work with a bad-tempered colleague who may one day denounce them publicly if things go wrong.
In short, then, we should ask ourselves: does the situation affect us or do we affect the situation? I have found that the translators and interpreters who have weathered the economic storm are the ones who have consciously decided on the latter option. Those colleagues and friends I have made at congresses and seminars over the years and who are still in business are the ones who have never dwelled on acrimonious arguments over fees or dealing with the minority of bad payers who they have usually had the good business sense to avoid. They are the ones with whom I can chat about many other matters related to our work or not, and joke about our bad experiences and the good lessons we have learned from them.
With the social networks, forums and associations, we have the opportunity to get into arguments about fees and “bottom-feeding”, disreputable clients that will unfortunately always exist in any profession. Or we have the opportunity to find some understanding ears, advice on a myriad of matters, or simply to joke about our tough times with those who’ve also been there.
That choice is yours alone.