It may seem very strange, improbable, and even incomprehensible, but sometime even an old and trusted customer may simply vanish into thin air like a plane that vanished from the radar screen of the control tower for reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable.
It happened to me this month, and it was not some fly-by-night operation that disappeared because the crooks did not want to pay. That, of course, happened to me a couple of times too, but that would be a different post. This time it was the patent department of a subsidiary of a large corporation that had been sending me long, juicy patents, my “meat and potatoes” kind of work, usually several times a month since they discovered my website in 2007.
I normally communicated with a secretary at the company who was in charge of translations only by e-mail. I would confirm receipt of new patents for translation and she would then confirm receipt of our translations, either the same day or the next day. I talked to her only a few times during the period of seven years. I had her telephone number and it was her direct line, but we only used the phone when something went wrong – once when the cost estimate for translating a number of patents was too high and the company decided to translate only claims instead, once when she did not receive my translation (their server must have rejected my file because its size was over the limit due to many scanned-in graphics – so I sent it as a PDF file instead of in MS Word).
Last month I translated three patents for them, one from French and one from German, and another one was translated by a patent translator who I generally work with from Chinese and I just proofread it.
So the company owed me about three thousand dollars for the month, out of which I owed about 500 dollars to the Chinese translator.
The secretary confirmed receipt of the first two patent translations – the Chinese and the French one, but not the third one which I translated from German. Oh, well, I thought, it’s Thursday today, maybe she is not coming to work until Monday. But when radio silence continued also on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … and then the whole week, although I sent her three more e-mails and left two messages on her voice mail, I knew that something was wrong.
But what? My three e-mails asking for confirmation of safe receipt, not counting the original e-mail with the translation and invoice attached, should have been delivered since they were not returned. And every time when I called the secretary’s number, the recorded message asked me to leave a message, so the number was still valid, wasn’t it?
I try to have a backup plan for everything that can go wrong on my side. For example, because we sometime lose power here in Eastern Virginia when rains and storms topple trees and power lines, I have two corded phones in my house, one downstairs and one upstairs so that I would still be accessible by phone even if there is no power, and I can use my iPad as a personal hotspot for Internet if I lose power. I have of course several computers and printers and scanners so that if for some reason something goes wrong with one machine and there is no time to figure out the problem, I can just move the job to another machine to finish a rush translation on time.
But I had no backup plan prepared for something as unexpected as this. I went to the website of the company and called its main number, which gave me another recording. Option number 7 was to talk to an operator “in case of a real emergency”, but when I tried to talk to a live person in this manner, my call was disconnected after a few rings.
This happened three times.
Now I knew for sure that there was something wrong, not only with my contact person, but probably with the whole company.
About fifteen years ago an electronics company that owed me money for translation of a phone manual from German to English was bought out by another company. That was how I discovered that it is perfectly legal to buy only assets of a company without assuming any obligations for its liabilities. At least that was what a lawyer’s letter that I received instead of a check said.
And about seven years ago I lost about three thousand dollars for two long Japanese patents I translated for a translation agency in Belgium. What was their name …. can’t remember now, except that it was such a cute name. I did several translations for them on several previous occasions and they did pay me on time. But instead of receiving a transfer to my bank account for those two long Japanese patents, I received a letter in French from a bankruptcy lawyer instructing me on how to register my claim.
After I did so, the lawyer started sending me letters in Flemish to make sure that I would not be able to understand them. In a way I did understand – there was no way I would receive a penny from that lawyer.
So I know how these things go: when you least expect it, somebody hits you under the belt with a mighty punch that may knock you out, at least for a while.
I tried to assume a Zen stance to this seemingly intractable problem. It’s just money, I kept telling myself, and I really would only be losing the 500 dollars that I have to pay the Chinese translator out of my own pocket, the rest is basically the time that I spent working on two translations – for free.
Truth be told, I did not feel very Zen about it at all. But I could not think of anything else to do. Let’s wait and see, I told myself.
A week passed and nothing happened. Then another week passed, and still nothing. Then finally, at the end of the second week, there was a message on my old-fashioned answering machine (I use answering machines because I believe that they are more private than voice mail) from the elusive secretary who left her home number and her cell phone number for me to call her back at any of these numbers.
Man, was I glad to hear her voice after two weeks of waiting!
When I called her back, she told me that she did not get my third translation, or any of my phone messages and that the last translation probably disappeared into Internet’s black hole because the subsidiary was no more, her job was eliminated by the company and she lost access to her company phone line and company e-mail address.
She was basically forced to retire, she said, although she did not want to do it yet, because she loved her work and could not imagine what she would be doing without her job. But she was more or less OK with it, she said, and financially she was going to be OK. We chatted for a while, and she said that she had five grown children, so she would be probably visiting them a lot.
She did not sound very enthusiastic about it, I thought.
And then she said that her boss, or former boss, took her to a dinner before she was “eliminated” and one of the things he told her was to make sure to tell the translator who was translating all those patents for them all those years to contact him directly because more translation would be needed again. And she gave me the phone numbers and e-mails of two people in the company who were in fact the recipients of the translations.
“They really like your translations, so make sure to call or e-mail”.
After I did that and resent my translation of the German patent, the next day I finally had a confirmation that the third translation was received along with the words:”I too am sorry that [insert name] is gone, but I am pleased with your work and will send all future translations directly to you.”
It turns out that no matter what we do, we cannot have a backup plan for every eventuality because too many things are beyond our control.
I know now that in addition to a backup plan for every eventuality, it is a good idea to have more than just one contact person for every customer. But in the end, the best backup plan is to do good work. There will always be a need in this world for people who do good work.