Learning from the big firms’ mistakes… or what good freelancers can teach BT.

As I may have mentioned a couple of times, we have recently moved house. It’s a cliche that this is one of the most stressful things you can do, but it’s certainly been true in our case.

As a freelancer, I have been fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the total disregard big firms have shown for customer service; in contrast, the smaller removals company we went with stood out in the opposite direction. They were thorough, friendly and helpful, which made a pleasant change.

I have long-since regretted falling for the line that it would be easier and more efficient to use our estate agent’s in-house conveyancing service. As our sale went through, we had an endless series of delays and miscommunications, even between different teams within the same firm. Information wasn’t passed on, deadlines came and went, nobody thought to check up that documents, however important, once sent had actually been received, and so on…

We survived the experience, and managed to move, largely thanks to one dedicated individual at our sellers’ agency, who repeatedly went above and beyond to get things done, even where it wasn’t strictly her job to do so.

Now, we are at the mercy of BT, trying to get broadband set up in our new house. This ought to be straightforward, yet somehow it is still dragging on weeks after we moved in. And nobody can apparently give us a straight answer about what is going on. We can’t get to speak to anybody apart from call centre staff in India. They are lovely, and unfailingly polite, but completely unaware of the situation on the ground in the UK and can only repeat what they are told by the technical teams – a series of changing stories about faults on the exchange, mistakes when the order was first put through, etc etc – and issue a series of promises of “updates” in a couple ofdays time. And it takes endless automated menus, and hold music before you even get that far. There is no way of contacting anybody in actual authority. And meanwhile, BT are taking our money, not providing the service we’re paying for, and depriving me of the means to make my own living. I have no idea how long it will take to resolve this situation and no confidence that anything is actually being done.

So as not just to be ranting, what can we freelancers learn from the big firms’ mistakes? And what could they learn from us, the removers, or the one helpful estate agent?

1 Be available and responsive! Make it possible for clients to contact you. Seems obvious, but apparently, it isn’t.
2 Be up front with clients about any issues ahead of time. Likewise.
3 People and firms who provide good customer service are remembered in a much better light than those who don’t…
4 If you care about your work it really does show!

If I were to model myself on the lawyers we’ve dealt with, never mind the stunningly incompetent BT, I wouldn’t last long in business. It’s incredible that these things need saying. The way we have been, and are still being, fobbed off is a disgrace. But hey, if I want tips on customer service now, I can start by thinking “what would BT do?” – and then do the opposite.


Posted in Idle musing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Miss Queenie Hennessey and Mr Harold Fry

I finished reading Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (Transworld, 2014) a little while ago. There haven’t been as many book The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessyreviews on here as I’d like lately, because of the summer holidays, and trying to move house, which isn’t leaving much space in my head, and this isn’t really a review either… But over the summer, mari and I went separately to the library for some books to take on holiday, and both came back with a copy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Transworld, 2012) . I’d gone specifically to look for it, having missed it when it first came out, and wanting to read it before Queenie, about which I’d heard a lot of good things.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce I found it gripping, yet almost unbearably poignant in parts, and was often reading in the middle of the night while fighting back the tears – I blame stress and sleep deprivation for that bit. I ended up finishing the book sitting in the car in a queue at Calais ferry port, trying not to smudge my make up and wondering what I was going to fill the time on the boat with now…

Queenie’s story is described as a companion rather than a sequel and, fortunately, it didn’t have the same lachrymose effect. It is, however, also wonderfully told and gives a real human voice to its characters, and the difficulties of relationships, whether marriage, unrequited love, or family ties in general. And despite the sadness, which I found real and deep, there is also hope, and life, redemption and release.

These are wonderful books and highly recommended. You just might want a box of tissues to hand!

Posted in Books, Reading, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ITD and ITI – a whirlwind weekend, part 2

London Wall/Barbican

London ancient, new, and 20th century, at London Wall

After spending Friday at the British Library for ITD 2015, Saturday was spent at the Museum of London in the company of the ITI German Network for the annual Work and Playshop. Having walked from Liverpool Street, the first challenge of the day was finding the way in – the warren of walkways and absence of doors at street level put me strongly in mind of UEA – but I managed it eventually and was able to get a coffee before the first session.

The morning involved a presentation from GerNetter Laura Byrne on Dragon Naturally Speaking (voice recognition dictation software), which revealed a familiar sounding love-hate relationship with technology, and a talk from Charlotte Ryland, editor of New Books in German about the work they do in promoting German literature in translation.

Then, in the afternoon, came the potentially nerve-wracking part: going head to head with Alison Layland in a translation slam. Less violent than it sounds, this means that we had both translated the same text (in this instance the opening to Winterkartoffelknödel by Rita Falk) and would read out our versions a paragraph at a time, while the audience were invited to comment and ask questions. We were actually up second, though. First of all, Judith Sauerzapf-Christopherson and Isabel Brenner discussed their translations of a Financial Times article entitled David Cameron and the Weaker Sex. It was particularly interesting to see the translation process out of English, given a text that was full of sly humour, irony and very British cultural references and there were a few light bulb moments for those of us who work from German as we saw how phrases travel the other way.

Anyway, getting back to Rita Falk – the book in question is the first in a series of Bavarian krimis, so the text was loaded with dialect and sausage alike. I had read the book a year or two ago, and thought at the time that it would be both fun and extremely challenging to translate. And so it proved. It was fascinating to see where Alison and I had come up with similar solutions, and equally, where we’d gone in completely different directions. Whether or not my attempts to turn Bavarian dialect into non-specific non-standard English were successful, I don’t know. I was afraid it had come out Cockney, but apparently not. Anyway, people seemed to enjoy both our versions and it was a very enjoyable and actually very encouraging experience.

After a quick “any other business”, we adjourned for drinks at Haz St Pauls where we were having dinner later on. When I finally rolled home, I was incredibly full, physically and mentally, and I ended up bailing out of the next day’s walking tour.

It was, as always, good to put faces to names, and to meet in person people I’ve been chatting to via email and social media for some time.

Posted in A-Z of Children's Fiction in Translation, Books, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

ITD and ITI – a whirlwind weekend, part 1

The past weekend was full of firsts for me – I was on the panel for one of the seminars at this year’s International Translation Day conference at the British Library; I attended the ITI German Network’s annual workshop and social weekend for the first time, and in the course of it, I participated in a translation slam for the first time.

Having got out my irritation at comments from the opening session at this year’s International Translation Day conference, I was intending to write up the rest of the day. Kristen Gehrman has saved me the bother, however – you can read her excellent notes here. So instead, I’ll write a little about the rest of the weekend.

British Library and blue sky

Takes something special to be indoors on a day like this!

“My” panel was on self-publishing and how it can work for translators. I’ve written about this before, but since then, have had less positive experiences, which act as a cautionary tale, the moral of the story being to remember your own advice! In the latest instance, I failed to establish clear ground rules at the beginning of the process, or to define “reasonable” when it comes to incorporating author feedback into my translation. My key piece of advice from my old post is:

… make it clear right from the start that as the translator I retain copyright over the translation and thus have the final say over what goes into it. Obviously we both want to get it right, but there has to be a cut-off point somewhere if it comes to haggling over words or beloved phrases.

There was also discussion of potential platforms for self-publishing one’s own translations, but the technicalities are rather beyond me. The important thing to note is that you must have the rights cleared, approval from the author or their estate etc. before you can do this.* There was also a note of caution around the fact that conventional publishers might not be willing to pick up books that had previously been self-published, as that might mean they were ineligible for prizes and/or funding. It has happened though – the panel was chaired by Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories, who published Southeaster after it had been self-published in Spain by translator Jon Lindsay Miles. The difference there being that the AOS edition was still its first UK publication.

And of course there’s the issue of whether or not you’re prepared to put your name and reputation to the book in question…!

Anyway, the seminar was well-attended, and generated a lot of interest and discussion. And as always, there was plenty of coffee, plenty of lunch, and plenty of time to eat, chat and get out into the fabulous sunshine. The day was rounded off by drinks, at which point the low ceiling of the bar area made things almost deafening, and eventually, a small but select group of us made it to the pub for dinner and more discussion of things literary, linguistic and translational.


  •  No translator on the opening panel => idiotic remarks per previous post.
  • Milling around space is too small compared to the capacity of the lecture theatre.
  • Lack of ordinary tea!

Apart from that, the conference was as fabulous as ever and here’s to 2016.

* For more on this, see this post by fellow panelist Tina Tenneberg.

Posted in Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

On being more than a dictionary: translators as poets

I’ve jusInternational Translation Day Flyert got back from a weekend of translation events, socialising, networking. There was the annual International Translation Day conference at the British Library, and then there was the ITI German network workshop. They were both great events and I will write about them shortly. But at the moment, I am feeling increasingly cross about a remark made during the opening session at ITD.

The discussion was on the “Rise of the Reader”. I can’t remember how it came round to this, but somebody spoke about “exciting collaborations” between translators and poets, where the translator provides a literal version of the text and then the poet “turns it into literature”. This isn’t a new idea. It was around when I was doing my MA years ago, and I was offended by it then.

The thing is, I thought we’d moved on. I thought the work we’d done since then (by we I mean the translation community, advocacy organisations, individual translators, events like ITD itself etc) had successfully promoted the idea of the translator as writer in their own right. Indeed, that idea was stressed at all the other sessions I went to that day.

“I am a writer. I just don’t have to come up with my own stories!”

So why celebrate such a backward step? Why put the translator back into the role of a mere hack while a “real” poet or playwright turns their words into “literature”? I don’t translate poetry very often; it isn’t a field I feel very comfortable in. But if I do, I produce a rough draft, a literal version, and then I, not someone else, turn it into a poem. Or, if I don’t feel that I can, then I find someone else to do the whole thing from scratch.

Everyone’s favourite lazy cliché is, in full, that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. But I don’t believe that. And if other people do, we need to educate them out of it, not go along with the idea. Otherwise, we are just dictionaries, just doing Google’s job for them. Whereas if we believe that a human translator is needed to tease out nuance, understand metaphor or allusion or whatever, then we should also accept that a human translator also has the skill to be a poet, to make literature.

French and English dictionaries

A translator is more than a walking dictionary

If someone sets out to translate poetry, they should have confidence in their own writing ability. They should be a good enough poet that their translation is literature. When I translate a book, I have confidence in myself as a writer, and it should be the same for poetry and theatre translators, and for the people who commission them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to collaboration, I can see how an English-language poet and a translator-poet working together could produce something very interesting and exciting. But let it be a relationship of equals, of two poets. Otherwise, we’re undermining ourselves, putting ourselves at the level of a machine, whose translation needs post-editing.

We have more to offer than that; we just need the confidence to stand out and say so.

Dictionary image by Tim Green, (CC BY 2.0)

Posted in Books, Idle musing, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Love in Small Letters


Love in Small Letters by Francesc Miralles, tr. Julie Wark, Alma Books, 2014

I saw this book in the library as I was looking for lighter reading matter to take on holiday, and it seemed like it would fit the bill. Cats on the cover are always a good start.

Samuel is something of a loner and as new year comes around that seems unlikely to change. Yet a stray cat, which he names Mishima, comes into his life, prompting chance encounters that in turn bring about other new developments and friendships.

According to the author bio, Francesc Miralles has “published extensively in the self-help, coaching and inspirational field” and that certainly shows in the text. Samuel is an academic who finds himself ghostwriting an anthology of inspirational quotes, and the book is full of characters offering nuggets of wisdom in the Paulo Coelho vein. I found it a little tiresome to be honest, and rather getting in the way of the story, but there we are.

It is translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark, and while she generally has a light touch, I found some of the linguistic choices interesting. I’m not sure that “nap” and “siesta” carry quite the same connotations, and I presumed that the repeated references to an “afternoon snack” related to a specific context that wouldn’t be conveyed by afternoon tea, or similar. It just jarred slightly for me as a phrase.

I was puzzled by the absence of acknowledgment for quoted authors and their translators. I would have thought that there was a duty to honour the translator of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, for example. Maybe these excerpts were translated by Wark from the Catalan versions, in which case that ought to be specified somewhere, surely? I have done similar myself, but not out of choice, and would always prefer a pre-existing translation done by someone with access to the full text and context.

These quibbles aside, this was an entertaining and mildly thought-provoking book, that is maybe not quite as profound as it would like to be.

Posted in Books, Reading, Reviews, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aufräumen – Angelika Waldis

Aufräumen (Piper Verlag, 2014) means “to tidy up”, and Luisa is having a clear-out. But the first thing that needs to go is her husband Alfred – an “artist”, who despises yet sponges off her – after almost 40 years of marriage. Then there is her son-in-law who has worn down her daughter, and the incompetent doctor who blighted the whole family’s lives with a botched operation on her other daughter. So she buys a little bottle of poison and sets off by train to begin this overdue de-cluttering.

Angelika Waldis, Aufräumen (Piper Verlag)

I prefer this cover, I think

Angelika Waldis tells the story of Luisa’s travels and intentions interspersed with an account of the many events and tragedies that have brought her to this point. It could make for very heavy reading, and yet somehow it doesn’t. There is a deceptive lightness about the beginning of the book – at first I thought it was going to be a rather dark comedy, which it certainly is not – but although the mood changes, the ironic, humorous tone is there throughout to prevent it from becoming overwhelmingly depressing. Above all, this book is beautifully written, with carefully crafted sentences. Indeed, one of Luisa’s hobbies, her distraction from the sorrows of her life, is to collect less felicitously expressed phrases from newspapers and magazines etc.

At times, as the NZZ reviewer Beatrice Eichmann-Leutenegger has pointed out, you wish you could shake Luisa, now aged seventy, for having spent forty years in the wilderness of her marriage, especially as the pattern seems to be repeating for her daughter. Yet at last, she has broken out. Will she really go through with her plan though?

This is not a crime novel. Instead, it goes deeper, as a reflection on mortality, aging, mental health and how to deal with the curve balls life can throw at us. I found it sometimes hard, yet never difficult, and it lingers in the mind, leaving the reader with unanswered questions but on a note of hope.

Posted in Books, Reading, Reviews, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment