Posted by: patenttranslator | February 28, 2017

Please Abuse Me, I Am a Translator/Interpreter (Part II)

Translators and interpreters are abused all the time, mostly by translation agencies as I wrote in Part I of my post with the same title. But sometimes we can fight back … although we usually have to use furtive, clandestine methods, because the first rule of the game is that we have to make sure we’ll still get paid by the client.

Once I made one of several lawyers who hired me for an interpreting session blush. It was not the proudest achievement of my short-lived career as an interpreter – that would have been when I was interpreting the nearly incomprehensible mumblings of an immigration judge in San Francisco so well that the client I was working for was granted his permanent resident visa.

But it was still enjoyable.

This lawyer, young and eager to show off his linguistic acumen, in an obvious attempt to test my knowledge of the English language and have some fun at my expense at the same time should my vocabulary be less extensive than his, asked me in a deposition about the person being deposed: “Is the gentleman ambidextrous?” while looking at me with the clear hope that what he thought was an inept interpreter would need an explanation of what that word meant.

So I inserted a dramatic pause into my performance and after a second or two of faked hesitation, I said: “Oh, you mean whether he can use both hands the same way?”

The guy turned red in the face like a tomato as he realized that the lowly interpreter was seeing right through him and daring to make fun of his client.

There were no more language tests after that one.

It so happens that English has many Latin words, or words introduced directly from Latin, and many interpreters know much more Latin than most lawyers, which is logical enough since unlike most lawyers, most interpreters are interested in foreign languages. As far as translators and interpreters are concerned, Latin happens to be just another foreign language and the fact that it is a dead one only adds to its mystique and appeal. I now sound like somebody who suffers from necrophilia don’t I? Which, incidentally, is another English word derived from another dead and extremely desirable language, namely old Greek.

I have been told by several female interpreters who work for lawyers that some lawyers like to abuse them by addressing them as “Miss interpreter”, while pronouncing it as one word. (Note: a good retort would be “it’s MIZ”.)

That is just so funny and original, no matter how many times it is used!

Once, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was interpreting for a Czech government delegation whose job was to purchase some wonderful American technology urgently needed to update major parts of the crumbling Czechoslovakian infrastructure that was back than in an even worse shape than the US infrastructure is now after decades of neglect, almost rivaling the mismanagement of communist regimes.

When the guy who hired me saw that some members of the Polish delegation who were also there with the same job were intently listening to my translation, he asked about it. So I explained to him that since the two languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, like for instance Spanish and Portuguese, he told me to raise my voice so that the Polish delegation would be able to hear me too.

But the Poles, about half a dozen of them or so, were sitting at the end of a very long table in a very big room. “Am I supposed to shout at them? It would be very disturbing” I told to my client. “No”, said the guy, “speak loud enough so that they could hear you, but not so loud that they would be disturbed by it.”

It was just like an episode straight from Dilbert’s comic strip.

At this point, my interpreting days are fortunately long over and part of the reason for that is that I don’t want to put up with the abuse that interpreters have to take like a man (although most interpreters are actually women). I’m just too old for that stuff.

Based on my very limited experience, it’s rare when an interpreter can defend himself or herself effectively.

The problem is that we don’t want to antagonize our clients, who might decide not to hire us next time, or even not to pay us for work already done, which, although it would be indescribably despicable, has been known to happen on occasion.

The abuse that translators have to put up with is different from the kind of abuse that our interpreting brothers and sisters have to put up with—or not, as the case may be—and is not as bad as what interpreters face, because translators don’t deal directly with people, only with documents. And I believe that independent—or freelance, if you will—translators are in fact less abused then most interpreters, and much, much less than most employees.

I still remember the subtle but persistent and nearly omnipresent abuse I received when I was an employee. I was an employee in several countries, and in every one of them, as an employee I had to do whatever I was told to do, without questioning anything, pretty much the same way as when I was wasting two years of my life in the army.

The only possibility open to employees to express their disagreement about the way a company is run is to quit. And because it may take a very long time before an employee finds another employer, especially a better one, it is very hard to quit a job when you are an employee.

It has often been said that many people stay on at a job they hate, despite the abuse, living a life of quiet desperation for decades until they die because they see no other way to pay their bills. And it is probably true, most of us have experienced something similar; in fact that is often the main reason why some of us are no longer employees.

All things considered, in most cases translators and interpreters are not nearly abused as much as regular employees, thanks to the fact that we don’t have an employer.

Losing a long-time client hurts if it is a customer who kept us busy at good rates for years. But unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about it, because clients don’t last forever.

And even when we sometimes do have to put up with being abused by a client, for example by having to wait months before we finally get paid, once we do get paid for our work, we can put an end to the abuse by no longer accepting more work from a tainted source, which is called firing a client.

As long as we can figure out how to hook the next fish in the sea, and there really are plenty of other fish in the sea, and provided we also learn how to stay away from the red ocean and yellow ocean where all kinds of pretty disgusting fish may be swimming, one of the advantages of our job is that we are much less likely to be abused than employees.


  1. Ich kann ja nicht so gut Englisch, aber gerade die Wörter, die eine Entsprechung im Lateinischen (oder Französischen, oder Italienischen) haben, verstehe ich meistens sofort. Irgendwann einmal meinte eine Freundin, “lugubrious” sei so ein schwieriges Wort – ich hatte es zwar im Englischen noch nie gehört, aber mir war sofort klar, was es heißen musste, da ich das italienische “lugbure” kannte.
    Latein mag ich gern, aber meine liebste tote Sprache ist das Altfranzösische und in letzter Zeit blogge ich auch häufiger darüber. Ich liefere aber immer eine Übersetzung der zitierten Textabschnitte mit, sonst könnte mir wohl niemand folgen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess I have a thing for dead languages.

    It probably has a scientific name, like necroglossaphilia or something. I used to love classical Japanese called bungo when we were studying it at university 40 years ago, dissecting haikus and stuff like that.

    In fact, dissecting claims in Japanese patents is not unlike analyzing the language in haikus and what the words and sentences in the text mean, except that unlike when I was still in school, I have nobody to discuss it with.


  3. “unlike when I was still in school, I have nobody to discuss it with.”
    Ja, das ist eben das Problem. Ich habe für Altfranzösisch tatsächlich jemanden gefunden, es hat aber Jahre gedauert. Geklappt hat es über, ich weiß nicht, ob Sie die Plattform kennen.
    Zum Thema Japanisch kann ich nicht so viel beitragen, aber da Sie ja auch für Musik zu begeistern sind: Wie finden Sie dieses Lied hier? Ich finde es toll.


  4. I also found a local group through Meetup, we meet once a month in a restaurant to speak French. Some of the people in the group are French.
    I like the song. Here it is again with a translation of the lyrics.


  5. Oh, vielen Dank. Das ist ja genau so traurig, wie ich vermutet hatte. (“Koibito yo” ist wohl noch schlimmer, da habe ich mal eine Übersetzung gelesen).


  6. Thank you! It is very interesting


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