Posted by: patenttranslator | December 18, 2014

The Many Faces of Arrogance

I think it was Shakespeare who said that love has so many faces that the whole world is just a carnival. But, be that as it may, so does arrogance. Shakespeare probably said as much too, in another play.

Everyone who has been in business for a while can probably remember a few customers who were very difficult to deal with due to their shameless arrogance and hubris.

The case of one particularly arrogant SOB, owner of a small translation agency, is still vivid in my memory, although the event that I will now describe happened about 25 years ago and this particular person died about 10 years ago – the agency is now run by a relative of his. I am being intentionally vague here … after all, as they used to say in ancient Rome – de mortuis nihil nisi bene [nothing unless good things should be said about the dead]. Since I can’t think of anything good to say about this man, I will instead not disclose his identity in deference to the old and wise rule about how to speak about those who are no longer with us.

I was translating for his agency Japanese patents back then regularly for quite a few months. Every time when I would finish one batch, they would send me another one, by Federal Express, because this was in 1988 or 89, before the Internet. And they would then regularly mail me a check after a month or so. Until at one point, when the agency owed me close to three thousand dollars, no check arrived to my mailbox even after about 6 weeks.

So I called the agency to politely inquire what happened. I normally dealt with a project manager there who was always very pleasant and polite, but since she had no idea what happened, she said she would let me talk to the owner. Within seconds after I explained to him again that I was calling because I had not received payment yet for my work, he said, while raising his voice to an unpleasant pitch:”What are you insinuating? We mailed the check to you two weeks ago!”

Insinuating? I was “insinuating” that I needed the money because I had a bunch of unpaid bills on my desk. But I was trying to be polite, although it was hard for me to control my anger at being treated this way. So he said that he would look into it. Next day he called and said that after checking with his bank, it turned out that the check that was (allegedly) mailed two weeks ago indeed had not cleared yet.

I knew that, of course, and he too must have known that I knew that – otherwise I would not be asking about it, unless it somehow slipped my mind that I already got the money and deposited the three thousand dollars, right?

He then magnanimously offered to send me another check, by Federal Express this time, but only if I agreed to pay the bank cancellation charge for the first, phantom check, and also the FedEx charge. I accepted, of course – what else was I supposed to do? But inside I was seething with anger.

I received the new check, minus the two charges, next day. And lo and behold, a few days later the phantom check did turn up in my mail. The postmark on the envelope was two weeks old, but I didn’t know whether the letter was really in the mail for more than two weeks. It was certainly possible. But it was also quite possible that he only mailed it two days ago because the postage was printed on a mailing machine in his office and he could probably change the date on the machine quite easily, or print an envelope and then sit on it until he himself got paid.

Maybe he found a brilliant technique that he invented to make translators wait for their money one more month while being able to humiliate them to his heart’s content, and yet appearing completely blameless for the delay.

An although I will never know for sure, I think that this was what was really going on.

A few days after that, the pleasant project manager called me again from the office of this unpleasant man. (Incidentally, I found out by Googling her name that she now has her own translation agency). She told me that she was about to send more Japanese patents for translation to me, and seemed genuinely surprised when I told her that I would never work again for her company because I did not appreciate the way I was treated by her boss. “He can be a bit gruff”, she admitted as she was trying to no avail to soften me up to accept a new  job.

**************

Although there would be later quite a few of similar cases when I was treated like a piece of garbage by a dear customer, I am not going to try to list all of those that I remember.

Most of them are not seared permanently in my memory as the first one is anyway, probably because that was the first case when I was treated in such a manner by a customer. A good thing about our memory is that we tend to remember the good things more than the bad things that happened to us, especially from the time when we were much younger.

So I will now fast forward 25 years to another example of the many faces of arrogance. This one is from October, 2014, a little over two months ago. Every week I get a few requests to submit a price quote from people who find my website while looking for a translation of a patent from Japanese, German, French, Russian, or another language. I give them a price, based on the estimated word count in English, and sometime I get the job, and sometime I don’t.

When one of the customers who sent me one of those requests to bid in October told me by e-mail to go ahead with the translation, I started doing a little due diligence to find out who they were.

I have different rules for different customers when it comes to accepting a translation. If it is a private individual, I generally ask for a down payment of 50%, and when the translation is done, I e-mail them that the job is ready for delivery upon payment of the remaining balance to my PayPal account.

But when it is a translation agency, or for example a corporation or a law firm, I simply bill them and hope to get eventually paid after 30 days, because that is how these things are done.

From the look of their website, this customer was a major patent law firm in Holland, with dozens of patent lawyers. I was dealing (by e-mail only) with a “trainee patent attorney” at the firm, but since I had all the requisite contact information, the e-mail, phone and fax number, mailing address and the file case number, and the law firm seemed solid, I did not ask for down payment and I did not use the routine that I reserve for private individuals who are completely unknown to me. A few days later I delivered my translation, which was received with thanks, along with my invoice.

When no payment was received after five weeks, I sent them my first reminder. That is my standard operating procedure. Then a second one a week later. It is not unusual when the first reminder is ignored. But when I send a second one, the customer usually responds with some kind of a face saving excuse, such as “the checks for the last batch were already cut, we will pay you with the next batch”. That is mostly what large companies do, while small companies sometime say things like “my accountant is on vacation, so you will have to wait a little longer”.

But there was no response at all this time. So I tried to fax and e-mail at the same time. But their fax for some reason did not want to “shake hands” with my fax, it just kept on ringing. I did eventually get an automated response to my e-mail from the trainee patent attorney who placed the order which said that she was going to be away until the end of January. Since that e-mail also had the contact phone numbers and e-mails of two other attorneys on “her team for emergencies”, I sent my third, fourth, and fifth past-due invoice reminders (I always number them) to all of them and I tried to call them to find out what was going on.

At first, my telephone calls went straight to voice mail, which had not identifying information whatsoever other than the telephone number. The fifth time when I tried to contact them, the phone numbers just kept ringing, just like the fax, and there was no answer.

So here I thought that I was pretty safe because I had all the contact information that I needed to demand payment from the company, but it seemed that there was nobody to contact. Even the mailing address was just a P.O. Box number. So I e-mailed as well as mailed my fifth past-due invoice reminder to all the three attorneys and adjusted the amount of my receivables downward by reducing it by about a thousand dollars, because that was the amount the law firm owed me and I did not know whether I would ever be reimbursed for my work.

At that point I realized that it was very likely that I would never get paid for this translation. Perhaps the trainee attorney ordered the translation without proper authorization. Or perhaps the company was going bankrupt. Or maybe there was another reason why they were ignoring me, although I could not figure out what that would be.

I decided that I would try to deal with this problem next year, when the trainee attorney who ordered the translation came back to work – if she ever did. In the meantime, I had to concentrate on other translations that had to be taken care of immediately.

**************

Last week when I was checking my bank account balance, I noticed that the available balance was a little higher than what I thought it would be. At first I thought that maybe a translator who did some work for me did not deposit my check yet. But then I saw that my check was received by the translator, but there was a transfer of about a thousand dollars to my account from Holland.

And that was when I realized that the law firm did get all of my reminders, including my voice mails, and the invoices I mailed by snail mail. But in the absence of the trainee patent attorney, nobody wanted to talk to me as I was not important enough to them to let me know what was going on, namely that this company pays in 60 days, regardless of what is on invoices of their “vendors”.

Still, I realized that I got lucky this time. They could for example have gone bankrupt on me, because that is one way how any company can get out of its obligations. In fact I did think that this was most likely what was happening.

They could have saved me a lot of anguish and time with a few words in an e-mail, but why bother. They just let me stew in my own juices instead.

Arrogance has so many faces that the whole world is just a carnival. But maybe arrogance of others is just another test of who we really are. If we can deal with it without losing our cool, and without heaping our own arrogance and hubris onto others, we are on a winning streak in the game of life.

And since money is a good way to keep score and it so happens that I did get my money in both cases described in my two examples of hopefully entertaining and highly educational encounters with arrogance and hubris, both of these examples, one from 25 years ago and one from 2 months ago, were just 2 of countless life lessons which are no doubt meant and designed by a higher power to educate and enlighten us.

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Responses

  1. An excellent article, and I really like your conclusion here:

    “Arrogance has so many faces that the whole world is just a carnival. But maybe arrogance of others is just another test of who we really are. If we can deal with it without losing our cool, and without heaping our own arrogance and hubris onto others, we are on a winning streak in the game of life.”

    Like

  2. Thank you, Chani.

    Like

  3. “Arrogance has so many faces that the whole world is just a carnival. But maybe arrogance of others is just another test of who we really are. If we can deal with it without losing our cool, and without heaping our own arrogance and hubris onto others, we are on a winning streak in the game of life.”

    Very well said indeed! 🙂

    Like

  4. Thank you, alchymie2013.

    Based on two comments so far, it seems that I still have my moments of clarity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry! – I didn’t see the comment parallelling mine till I’d already posted – and today I don’t the chutzpah to claim that this shows that great minds think alike – just to hint at it.. 🙂

    Like

  6. @alchymie2013
    Well, you are the third person so far who agreed with my conclusion cited by two people so far in the comments here. So maybe great minds do think alike.

    (The third one is on Facebook).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. For the latest ordeal: Did you BCC all those people or address them by name?

    Whenever I send internal mail in my *own* company, everyone ignores me. Not very satisfying after spending an entire weekend working out the details of something to share. I think some companies have a culture of apathy. They won’t deal with something they are not specifically paid or asked to by someone important, because this might cut in on their precious spare time, or the extra effort might not be logged in internal productivity. *Gasp!* what would happen if some people worked a few hours of overtime now and then?

    In Japan, I am sure you would not have this problem (although with corporate behemoths there, perhaps mails could end up not getting followed up on.)

    I think Europeans are hard-working and serious, but the whole “must not work one minute extra” mentality is hard to swallow for me after having worked with teams of “work zombies” in Japan who really have no concept of “going home early” – except that they feel guilty when they only work 1 hour of overtime some days!

    In an ideal world of course, everyone would get paid well and only work 4-6 hours a day, then go to Disney Land every day after work. But you know, it’s just hard for me to take the rest of the world seriously after observing the most extreme and dedicated version of corporate Japanese culture.

    Indeed, Europeans (particularly where I come from, at least) just seem like self-centered holier-than-though spoiled brats who couldn’t give a damn about the company – unless they have an angry boss ready to strangle them if they don’t toe the line.

    Corporations don’t have a human face, even if the individuals composing it do so in isolation. Perhaps organizational factors are to blame for the problem 2 months ago? Or perhaps evil had besieged the minds of the people working there.

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  8. “Corporations don’t have a human face, even if the individuals composing it do so in isolation. Perhaps organizational factors are to blame for the problem 2 months ago? Or perhaps evil had besieged the minds of the people working there.”

    Corporations may appear to be arrogant, but nothing is personal to them, it is just business. They don’t care about individuals at all. That is why I prefer to deal with very small companies where accountability is still surviving as people in small companies still have the right to be honest.

    I believe that if it were possible to revive Il Duce, he would very much approve of the system that he named “il Corporativismo” and that after his death took hold in most of the world after communism was defeated, including in addition to North America also most of Europe and Asia, including Russia and China.

    Only Latin America seems to be pulling apart from the corporatist system now, but I am not sure that it can last there because they don’t really seem to have a system with real guiding principles. Now that the price of oil has dropped by 40%, the lack of guiding principles in less corporatists or non-corporatist countries is causing major problems in some of these economies.

    It will be interesting to follow the developments in Cuba as it becomes more open to the world if the US blockade of Cuba is in fact replaced by something that has a better chance to work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cuba was a real surprise to me, although I doubt anything will happen as far as Guantanamo – which is a war prize from about a century ago and used to carry out extrajudicial operations. It seems highly inappropriate to keep this war acquisition, although as usual every nation in the world will do as told, as long as the deals favor them at least a bit better than the present arrangements.

      I wish this marked a shift in US foreign policy, but it’s more likely that Cuba is changing because Castro is gone, and it is now time to put up the Coca Cola vending machines and extend foreign investments there.

      When we consider the alternative of drone strikes or shooting down airliners (that CIA operation), and then perhaps blaming Castro’s descendents for it, this seems like a very good development however it ultimately turns out for the residents of Cuba!

      In what way is Latin America pulling apart from the corporatist system…? Does this involve state-socialism akin to Venezuela and Cuba In the past (or Norway!), nationalist self-determination, including the extension of social welfare benefits to the people? There used to be A government by the people, for the people, etc… Gettysburg Address.

      National self-determination with a poor investment/exploitation climate is the ultimate evil, as far as CEOs of faceless corporations are concerned, as these nations provide very poor investment/exploitation climates because workers are given extensive rights, and the profits from the country’s major resources are returned to the people instead of to the corporations.

      Oh, and thanks for your fearless and informative blog written from the perspective of an experienced freelance translator.

      I read everything I could come across on your blog until a few months back when I was still just starting up to become a freelance translator. Now, I have one full-time client for English -> Norwegian translation. I have shelved my Japanese… but perhaps I would be wise to keep studying it and eventually accept some work in the language, so that I will not soon one day be out of work and back to doing only the odd job here and there! 🙂 If my language combination’s rate was to drop over the next years, I would soon have to consider a new line of work, as rates are already quite pushed considering the exorbitant costs of living in my home country.

      Since you like words, what do you think of companies referring to translators as “resources”? (Including Human Resources, etc., which makes me think of the growing of humans in a field á la The Matrix)

      “Dear Sir,

      I am a highly-developed resource, and I would like to be allocated to one of your projects. Thanks!

      John Doe”

      Like

  9. Since you like words, what do you think of companies referring to translators as “resources”? (Including Human Resources, etc., which makes me think of the growing of humans in a field á la The Matrix)”

    I think “resources” is a much better choice than “vendors” if they can’t stomach the word “translators”. Vendors makes me think of translators either as vending machines: you drop in few quarters and a coke falls out, or as prostitutes: poor souls selling their bodies on the main drag through pimps who are overseeing and managing the transactions from back alleys and keeping most of the money.

    This is pretty much how the translation business works too, except that we are selling our minds rather than our beautiful bodies.

    I don’t want to talk to much about politics on my blog, although obviously, I can’t really help it because politics is always connected with everything, including translation.

    And thank you so much for reading my silly blog posts and commenting!

    Like


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