Patricia Hawkins de Medina

Interview with ITIA member

Patricia Hawkins de Medina

from Members' Corner in ITIA Bulletin 2015/3

How did your career as an interpreter and translator begin?

Sheer chance catapulted me into the world of translation. It was the month of January, in Granada, and I had just commenced a year-long post-graduate course at Granada University.

One evening, sitting in the draughty lobby of the small hotel, where the university had found me lodgings, I noticed two policemen (the infamous grises) approach the receptionist. They murmured something to him and he waved towards me and beckoned me over to the desk. The police knew there was an extranjera in the hotel (me) who spoke Spanish fluently and they needed an interpreter to assist in the interrogation of three Germans they had caught breaking and entering, a very serious offence back in those days.

I smiled nicely, from sheer relief probably, and said I would. A refusal would have been out of the question. One of the Spanish chaps I had been chatting with in the lobby said he would come with me, and I was glad of the support. The comisaría was down the street from the hotel, and there I was being escorted by two grises in the pitch dark. It was 11 p.m. and I didn’t leave the comisaría until 4 a.m. The questioning was slow and grinding. The comisario asking in Spanish, I relaying to the Germans in English, the Germans talking among themselves in German, then replying to me in English and I back to the comisario in Spanish. It was as good as two months’ training in a school for interpreters!

I dare say if I had not been there the police would have given them a few wallops to speed up the process.

Anyhow, a statement was written up and signed, I left, and I don’t know what happened to the trio of Germans after that. Probably deported.

Money was not mentioned at any point in the proceedings. But, being in the good books of the Spanish police was worth 10 kilos of gold. Some six months later, when the time came to apply for what was then called the permanencia to allow me to register and remain in Spain, I took myself to the appropriate police department in Granada. Who should be there but my friend the comisario I had assisted that night. He spotted me, rushed over to attend me himself, I didn’t even need an application, and he told me to just come back two days later and my permanencia would be waiting for me all stamped and sealed!

So, that was my introduction to the world of interpreting.

I was employed later on by a Spanish law firm, and remained with them for a few years. However, before that I worked as a tour guide on the Granada run, which combined with my main duties on the hospitality desk in a 5-star hotel. It may be hard to imagine but back then it took almost four hours from Málaga to Granada, on a bad road, particularly during the winter months. Our American clients had probably never seen anything quite like it. After hours of sight-seeing (and shepherding) we had to face the same gruelling journey back, disembarking the weary travellers at their hotel at 10 or 11 p.m. Having lived and studied in Granada I was the candidate for the job and I do have good memories of that time.

On foot of that job I subsequently worked as a P.A. to the Italian project manager on the construction of a 5-star property. He was a terrific employer, yet his previous P.A. had left as it seemed he and she quarrelled all the time! I found we got along famously. A little Irish wit, nerve and humour can take you a long way. Much of my day was spent liaising between him and the foreman up on the site. A whole new vocabulary, a whole new world. And the vocabulary on the site between project manager, foreman and men was not always construction-related…… I also discovered that the best lunch to be had for miles around was in the workmen’s ramshackle on-site canteen, and early in the day the foreman would drop by the office and whisper to me what the cocinero was preparing for that day. As the building started to take shape my duties began to include conducting inspections within the building by visiting engineers, officials and potential buyers from abroad.

In due course I went for interview to a new law firm from the north of the country which was opening a local office. They were only interested in how well I could write Spanish, and the interview consisted in the dictation of a legal text to me as I typed, with the dictating solicitor looking over my shoulder. He read the typed text, looked at me over his glasses, smiled and said: “Can you start next week?”

Name the most important “thing” that helped your career.

Having a university degree, particularly in Spanish. A further post-graduate year at the University of Granada (Spain). Being employed for a few years by a Spanish law firm.

What is your favourite type of text?

I only translate legal texts, which generally do not make for fascinating reading, so there are no favourites. It has crossed my mind now and then to try literary translation. I took the literary translation paper when I did sat the Diploma in Translation examination many years ago. I am too aware that literary translation is very poorly paid, and nowadays few of us can indulge in a labour of love.

Do you work in a team or on your own?

I have worked for decades with my Spanish associate, Teresa. She translates into Spanish and I translate into English.

How do you / did you find clients?

They found me! As I was employed back then by a firm of Spanish solicitors, other solicitors and/or their clients visiting our law firm for meetings and negotiations would see and hear me. It was also my job to interpret at meetings held in the office. Having the documents relating to the meeting to hand well in advance and being briefed by the lawyer or lawyers conducting the proceedings meant one was prepared. At first it was quite daunting to be seated at the head of a table with six, eight or ten people and interpret while keeping them all in the loop. Great training in self-confidence and assertiveness, not to mention stamina.
My employer, the senior partner, would warn any visiting parties, half in jest, that there was to be no ‘head-hunting’ to lure me to their firms, but I could and did accept work from those other solicitors and/or their clients. This meant moon-lighting after work until I had enough clients to go it alone. I can remember having to buy an electronic typewriter – the most sophisticated equipment available then – and it cost the equivalent of 750 pounds, more than a desk-top would cost nowadays!

Is it really necessary to specialise?

In my opinion, a resounding yes. In fact I think it is unethical to attempt to translate something in which you have no knowledge or expertise, or maybe never even heard about I know I couldn’t translate texts about farm machinery, nuclear physics, medical research, cattle breeding, washing machines, Tudor architecture, or even brochures/advertising. A bad idea to be a jack of all trades and master of none.
I think one can maybe specialise in a couple of related areas. I translate legal texts, but I could also translate, for example, a psychologist’s report (these often go hand in hand with court cases and the like), but then I have a deep interest in psychology.

How important is the client perspective?

In the legal field the client wants a competent, clear and accurate translation.

How do you convince a client that you are worth your salt/better than the competition?

It isn’t a beauty contest. As the majority of clients out there have no idea what translation means or the often pain-staking work involved, it is not my place to educate them. Nor would I have the time. Besides, particularly nowadays, all the client seems to be interested in is ‘bueno, bonito y barato’ and not whether I am qualified, capable and competent. In general, because I have my own clientele, the convincing situation does not arise. Also, lawyers generally do have an understanding of the translation process, unlike the general public.

Very often these days, we never get to see or meet the client, all communication is done by email or phone or skype. Is that a good or a bad thing?

I have met many of my clients, some I haven’t. It is not strictly necessary to meet the client in person, but it can be helpful from a networking viewpoint. You can be in a client’s office and s/he may introduce you there and then to a colleague, another lawyer, or to a client who happens to be there at the time, and ….there you have a new client! Make sure to hand out your business card all round, or give them two each to pass on to others.

What is the worst / best thing about being a freelance translator / interpreter?

The best: being one’s own boss. There is no ‘worst’. It’s a question of temperament and one must have the discipline to sit down and put in the hours. I don’t mind working alone, I quite like it, but many would prefer an office environment. Many people are not cut out for being freelancers in anything.

What major changes have you noticed in the world of translation / interpreting since you started out?

I fear the profession has fallen into disrepute, due mainly to the proliferation of macro-agencies (and I hasten to add there may be some excellent and ethical agencies), and non-professionals with no qualifications who pose as translators and interpreters. One has only to glance at any translation-related site on the internet and note the torrent of spammers and scammers either offering their services or seeking translators to work for them. Worse still are those calling themselves translators who offer to translate for 1 cent a word or less. Many are quite bare-faced about it and say it’s a good way to make some quick pocket money. It is a fact that certain agencies or ‘translation companies’ outsource translations (for example, Spanish/English/Spanish) to places like India.
Given that clients in general have no idea of what translation involves many will take the cheapest option available, with nefarious results.

Is it possible to have a good standard of living as a freelance translator/interpreter?

It was, particularly a decade or more ago. For someone starting out today in the profession I am not so sure. Graduates and those new to the profession would need to have a day job, perhaps a part-time job, until they can build up a clientele. In any case it is a good idea to work for a company engaged in the business in which you intend to specialise. For example, if you intend to specialise in translating civil engineering texts, then go abroad to the source language country, get a job with a civil engineering firm which has clientele/colleagues in English-speaking countries. Stay with them for a year translating their documents, doing their English correspondence, dealing with phone calls. The training will be invaluable. As you go along you will be able to build up glossaries, terminology banks, have access to their reference material, ask them questions…