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fighting dogs

You might think that bullying is a phenomenon restricted to the schoolyard or to the world of employers/employees. Freelancers, surely, are free to throw off the shackles of a restrictive working environment and treat “school bullies” with contempt. You might certainly think so…. but a recent experience leads me to the conclusion that there is an undercurrent of bullying behaviour across society, and freelancers are by no means immune.

Whilst I personally didn’t experience any form of undue pressurisation to accept certain types of work when I translated in-house, there is often the sense that in-house translators should tackle anything that comes their way – and frequently develop their skills in the process. With experienced translators and experts in the field on hand to guide you, it can be a very good way to learn exactly what you do and don’t enjoy translating. I learnt, for example, that financial accounts are definitely not for me, despite being sent on an ITI weekend workshop on the very subject many moons ago! Legal documents too are beyond my capabilities; I’d much rather leave those to the linguist-lawyers amongst us.

As for technical translations, although I describe myself as a technical translator, specialising in energy and nuclear technology, there’s no way that any one translator, especially one with a linguistic rather than technical background, can hope to tackle every aspect of all technical subjects. Knowing your limitations is key in my opinion. Indeed, the ITI Code of Professional Conduct clearly states that “…members shall refuse work that they know to be beyond their competence either linguistically or because of lack of specialised knowledge, unless the work is to be subcontracted to another translator or interpreter who has the necessary competence…”

All of which explains why I was so shocked recently to be put under considerable pressure from a regular direct client to accept a translation job, even when I’d clearly said that I didn’t feel qualified to tackle the very specialist subject matter. I’d given no firm undertaking to accept the work before seeing the files (which were delayed – and longer and much more complex than originally stated) and the deadline was over a month hence, but the client still took great offence when I eventually received the files and felt obliged to turn them down. I’d even recommended a couple of colleagues who would have been better qualified than me. To cut a long story short, the client decided not to renew my contract for this year.

Now, whilst the client may well have been disappointed not to be able to place the job as hoped, trying to force a contractor to do something beyond their capabilities is tantamount to imposing an employer-employee relationship. As freelancers, we have every right to turn work down for whatever reason we choose, but especially if we don’t feel the work in question lies in our area of competence. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where clients, often hard-pressed project managers, have begged us to accept certain jobs against our better judgment, be it due to tight deadlines, complex formatting or subject matter. In my experience, though, saying that a job is outside your comfort zone is usually the best way to make them back off – why on earth would you want your text translated by someone without the necessary experience or skills?! Quoting a long deadline is a risky business if you really don’t want to accept a job in the first place: how many times have we groaned inwardly when the impossibly long deadline we’ve offered is blithely accepted after all?

Many freelancers haven’t had vast experience in the gritty world of business and do find it hard to say no when put under pressure, especially when they’ve built up a good working relationship with a client or when working with a new client they are trying to impress. It’s not easy sticking to your guns when a client is pleading with you to help them out of their predicament or if a client is being particularly forceful. Yet if it’s a choice between saying no vs. ending up compromising your professional integrity, or saying no vs. ending up stressed and exhausted with too many jobs to squeeze in and too little time, realistically, there shouldn’t be a choice to make!

My mistake, if indeed it was a mistake, in this particular case, was merely agreeing in principle that I had translated in a certain (huge) field and could theoretically translate a certain number of words by a specified date. I did ask, several times, to see the files first, but when these were delayed, I perhaps didn’t make it sufficiently clear that my acceptance was conditional on the subject matter being suitable. After all, when you’ve worked with a client for a number of years and always had sight of the files first, you tend to assume that the same rules will apply…. It’s not an assumption I will ever make again: in future, no matter how long I’ve been working with a client, I will clearly state, at every juncture, that I cannot commit until I’ve seen the files.

In some respects, when a relationship turns sour, as happened in this case, it may well be for the best. A good working relationship should be even-handed, with both sides knowing that the other is prepared to give and take. I pride myself on going the extra mile for my clients, if at all possible, but there are some boundaries you just cannot cross. It’s disappointing to lose a client, of course, but what price the alternative, I wonder?

Of course bullying isn’t just limited to working relationships; it’s rife in online forums and even some professional networks too. Somehow, the extra distance granted by posting remotely, rather than speaking face-to-face, seems to cause certain individuals to forget the standard social codes and go straight for the jugular in putting colleagues down or casting aspersions on their behaviour or standards. I’ve withdrawn from a number of online forums where people’s conduct towards their peers would undoubtedly be regarded as bullying in any other sphere. Of course, when you write a blog or post online in Facebook or Twitter, you are in a sense putting your views out in the open and your head above the parapet – but there’s no excuse for rudeness or abuse in my book.

As freelancers, we have to know where to draw the line and avoid unnecessary conflict-ridden situations wherever possible. We often don’t have colleagues close at hand to discuss problems with, so they can quickly assume mammoth proportions in our minds. There are supportive communities out there where we can seek advice, and I have a number of close colleagues who I can consult if I’m tearing my hair out – a must for the self-employed, I think! Professional associations offer legal advice lines if problems really escalate and professional indemnity insurance offers legal support too, as do many household insurance policies.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. The whole point of freelancing is that you have the freedom to choose. Don’t be sucked into the alternative.

no thanks