There are many opportunities, big and small, in every person’s life. But each time we decide to take advantage of an opportunity, the decision we make usually also negates another opportunity that is then no longer available to us.
There is an interesting English idiom that says:”That ship has sailed”. Every time when we decide to take advantage of an opportunity, we kill another opportunity – another ship that will sail without us. Some of us grow old watching ship after ship sailing away from us, never to come back again.
When we are young, we don’t give a second thought to missed opportunities because the one thing that we are not able to realize is that we will not stay young forever and there may be no more opportunities for us at some point. As the French proverb says, “Si la jeunesse savait, si la vieilesse pouvait” (If the young only knew, if the old only could). Or as Mark Twain put it “Youth is wasted on the young”.
But as we grow older, we also realize that not every opportunity is worth taking, sometime based on bitter experience.
Translated into the reality of the life of a freelance translator, I think that this also means that while we should try to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible, we also need to carefully scrutinize every offer of potential work before we agree to accept it rather than saying yes simply because we have the time and we could use the money.
At this point in my life I may not be much smarter than 20 or 30 years ago, but at least I realize that not every offer of work is worth the trouble involved. Some jobs are too small to bother. I often bid high on short translations, such as translation of marriage certificates for agencies who just found me in a database. If I know that they are willing to pay 40 dollars and I don’t really want the job, I ask for sixty. It would take me only 15 minutes to translate it, but then it would be another 15 minutes to prepare an invoice and then I would still have to create a new file for the agency and wait another month for a pitiful check. So I only quote 40 dollars to agencies that I know and like. And if you are a regular reader, you probably know that there are not too many agencies that I like.
I also usually don’t answer e-mails asking me to quote a price for very long documents that would be really expensive to translate, for example when an inventor wants me to quote a price for translating his 3 patents (each has about 50 thousand words) into 4 languages because I think that it would be a waste of time, not to mention the potential risk. They just want my price for reference and I don’t like to waste my time creating reference points for people I will never hear from again because they don’t have the money.
Most people don’t understand it when somebody else does not want their business because all customers think that their business must be extremely desirable.
I once quoted a price through e-mail for a few personal documents to a direct customer. She called me on the phone within minutes and said the price was too high. “I’m sorry, but if you can’t afford me, you can’t afford me. I think you should be able to find somebody cheaper”, I told her to humiliate her. She said “It’s not that I can’t afford you, I just don’t think that you should charge that much.” So I hung up on her, which gave me the freedom to return to the serenity of my day as I was reading a really good book. I could not care less how much the time that I would have to spend on that translation was worth to that woman since I knew how much it was worth to me.
I have a friend who is a manager at a car dealership. He told me that last week he got rid of a potential car buyer who was just too unreasonable. The guy had a truck that he wanted to sell first to buy a new car, but only at his terms.”I told him to take his damn truck and get the hell out of my office”, said my friend. The customer was extremely irate and called the owner of the dealership to complain about the rude treatment. The owner did his best to calm the frustrated car buyer, and then he called my friend to tell him that he did the right thing.
Some ships will sail away from us never to come back to our great chagrin. But some missed opportunities, ships disappearing in the night without us, are Titanics just a few days away from hitting a big iceberg. A missed opportunity is sometime a missed seat on the Titanic.
There are some really unpleasant people out there, waving pages and pages of documents they want us to translate for them.
The trick is knowing when it makes sense to go the extra mile for a new customer, and when it makes sense to tell him:”Take your damn truck and get the hell out of my office!”.