After my run-in with the Txantxategi mafia the other day, I must admit I was a mite nervous for a period as I crept around the city on the lookout for men in long raincoats pretending to read newspapers on street corners. Even when da Brudders continued to send me work as before, in their customary crusty manner, I still kept my guard up. The usual precautions – keeping my eyes peeled in the car while approaching lonely toll booths in the middle of nowhere, avoiding the sudden impulse to score a bag of oranges from the local market stall – oh, and now that Jesse James is on at the flicks, definitely never turning my back on the cleaner if there’s the odd picture to be arranged on the office wall. Time crept on, though, and eventually I stopped checking the bottom of my bed every morning for racehorses’ heads covered in blood, but no, no obvious signs of an impending vendetta.
Other jobs come in here and there, too. Now, I’d like you to help me out here, Prozians, as hard-bitten word merchants – why is it with some customers that you have to drag the information out of them? One rang last week, for instance: “Hello Little Translator, can you do a translation for me? It’s frightfully urgent.”
Which is a bit like rushing into a fishmonger’s and saying “Can you sell me a fish? I need a fish right now.”
“Let’s say you tell me a little about the job, hmm? Talk me through it, will you?" I suggested to Helen. Not her real name, of course. Discretion is everything, I know that, particularly on this site, and so the simple deontological requisites of our profession prevent me revealing her real name. “The combination? French-English? Spanish? Basque, perhaps?"
“Oh, I’m not sure, maybe, yes, could be.”
“Which? What’s it about? How many words? What’s it in, Word, pdf, Excel, PowerPoint? For when?” I asked, all in rapid succession, because with a girl like Helen, if you asked all these one by one, you’d be there until the cows go back out again after they’ve come home.
“Well, not sure, really, you see, I haven’t actually received it yet. They say they’re just putting the final touches to it, and it'll be sent anytime now. In half an hour, or maybe an hour. Or a couple of hours. All I know is that it’s urgent”, she said, giggling nervously.
As we all do on these occasions, I drew a deep breath. “So", I sighed into the phone, “to sum up, you’re asking me if I can do a translation from an unknown language, an unknown amount of words, on an unknown subject, in an unknown format, for an unknown deadline, but presumably double-quick, and your customer, Helen, is eating away at our deadline as we speak, since they won’t give it to us yet, although I imagine their own little urgency clock is already tick-tick-ticking.”
“Who’s Helen?” she asked, sounding rather puzzled. “Tanya, Tanya, my name is - Tanya Miller”.
“Sssh, I mean, it doesn't matter, Helen. I have a question for you now - how long is a piece of string?"
“What do you mean?" said she. “A piece of string? Depends on the string, doesn’t it? And why do you keep calling me Helen?”
“Look, just forget it, will you?” I asked her. “And yes, it does depend on the string, doesn’t it?”, I added. "Lots of unknowns there with that piece of string, so you can’t tell me anything about it, can you? It could be an inch long, a foot long, two feet, or a mile long. Rather like this mysterious rushy-rushy translation of yours. Tell you what, when you’ve got it, send it, and I’ll have our Estimates Department run their beady eye over it to work out our rate, OK?".
Oops, I said the four-letter word. Rate. Can you tell what's coming? …
…”The rate?” says she. “Oh no, the rate is already settled. This is a regular customer of ours, so you'd be paid x euro per word."
Isn’t it odd how the rate always comes at the end of the conversation, and isn’t it curious how it’s always the translator who mentions it first? Or is it just me?
I considered the futility of wasting more of my time and, less importantly, hers, by saying: “What, you’ve already set a price for a job you know nothing about, and you expect me to .....?", but what’s the point? I told her I’d be in touch and gently put the phone down, politely leaving the problem most definitely still with her and not with me.
Which is the most important bit.
I’ve begun to transpose this situation to other situations you might find as you go about your daily business. You walk into a bar, let’s say. “I’d like a drink, please”, you call out to the barman, busy with six or seven other customers. “What do you want?”, he says, pouring out beers and vodkas and piña coladas and grape juices. “I don’t know”, you tell him airily, "but I’m really thirsty and so I need to drink something right now. A Budweiser, or maybe a Heineken with a bit of lemonade, or a long tall glass of blackcurrant and lime on the rocks with just a dash of Angosturas. Can you give me something to drink right now? Now, let’s see, what can I have? …."
If you get this far with no problems - which you won't – and everything gets settled, and he brings you over your drink, saying “that'll be x euros, please”, would you then dare to say the following? - "Oh, x euros is a little steep, I’m afraid. I’m here because a friend of mine said have a drink on me, but he only gave me x-1 euros, so the price is all arranged, you see.”
It was all this I was thinking about the other night in a nice little watering hole in the heart of the old town, when who should I see at a table in the corner (or whom should I see, as the man himself would probably have said) but Brookesduddy!!!! “Another all-expenses paid conference visit, to Bilbao this time”, I mused. Professor Brookesduddy in the flesh. Flesh being the operative word, too, for he wasn’t alone. I didn’t know the rather pneumatic and scantily-clad young blonde who was snuggling up to him, but Mrs. Brookesduddy she wasn’t. There he was in his tatty tweedy old three-piece in the Bukoi, which isn’t just a bar, but not really a restaurant either. They have the normal bar, and also highish tables you can sit at a little further back, but rather than sitting down formally for the full three courses, the menu is full of plates of tasty stuff for you to pick at.
Brookesduddy had done himself proud at the Bukoi. I surveyed what they were tucking into, he and Miss Mysterious. Thin slices of delicious Joselito ham to be eaten with little dabs of toasted bread rubbed with tomato and garlic, tender Galician octopus with sea salt, virgin olive oil and paprika tossed over it, and I’m not sure there weren’t some fried prawns around somewhere too, all being washed down with a bottle of Lan Reserva. By the time I spotted them there wasn’t much left of the wine, and I could see Brookesduddy gesticulating expansively to his female companion. “I hope the waiters speak Latin”, I chuckled to myself, ambling over to greet the old fraud.
I could see his creased old face light up in pleasant astonishment when he saw me, but then it clouded over a little as he realised the compromising nature of the situation.
“Salve, salve, Little Translator, I’m flabbergasted. Rarely has my flabber been so gasted, indeed. What brings you to Bilbao?”
“Professor”, I told him, “even I explained it all, you wouldn’t believe me. More to the point, what are you doing here? A congress? Some research, mayhap? And …”, I added mischievously, smiling at Miss Mysterious while, though a mountainous task (if you catch my drift), gallantly keeping my eye-line a little higher than the level of her chin, “I don’t think I’ve met the charming Mrs. Brookesduddy”.
She blushed, fluttered the lashes, and giggled. “Oh no, silly. I’m Vicky”, she trilled.
“Yes, yes, my assistant, yes”, broke in Brookesduddy, “for the conference here. All the paperwork, the bookings, the schedule, ergo, deo gratias, Vicky’s here to lend a hand when it all gets too hard.”
How I wish Freud could have heard that one. “I’ll bet she is”, I chortled to myself.
Brookesduddy bent his aged features over to me a little. “Er, no need to, er, mention any of this to anyone, naturally, Little Translator. Perhaps you’d care for a spot of wine. Some ham?”
“Don’t worry Brookesduddy”, I told him. “Mater verbum est”, and sat down. It looked like it was going to be an interesting evening ...
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