“Treasured Guests” and Other Trials

I love Disneyland. It’s hopelessly uncool, I know, but the irony-free “Happiest Place on Earth” is a refreshing change from the cynicism required for survival in the rest of the world.

So it was a bit of a “what?” moment when a friend told me that Disney employees have a special code for referring to difficult or unpleasant visitors. So FIY, the next time you send back your burger at the Galactic Grill for the second time and ask to have a sandwich from the Blue Bayou sent over instead, do not be flattered when the waiter calls in a special request for a “treasured guest”; you’re being marked as a certified jerk.

On second thought, though, it makes sense. Disney employees work hard to create this happy bubble for over 40,000 visitors a day, and it’s impossible to keep this up if you don’t have a way to blow off some inconspicuous steam every now and then when fantasy and reality collide. It’s also a heads-up to colleagues so they can mentally prepare for said treasured guest or hide behind a Mickey keychain display until you’re gone.

Come to think of it, I’ve had my share of “treasured guests” as well.

Interactions with project managers are usually fairly painless, because both parties know what to expect. A PM from an agency I have a long-standing relationship with may send me the following e-mail: “Marie, I have CaliClinical project of 6,000 words; can you take care of it for Thursday morning?” There is no need to explain that I will have to use the CaliClinical terminology glossary and style guide, that the document is a pdf so payment is based on the final word count of the translated document, and that Thursday refers to Central Standard Time, which means that I will actually have to deliver by Wednesday night my time.

difficultl-clientsSo any problems that arise are usually due to inadvertent communication mix-ups. Case in point: last week I was asked to do the final “reconciliation step” on a very small (70 words) back-translation project. At first I declined because I had never done the reconciliation step before and I was going out of town so I didn’t want to deal with it. The PM was desperate to place the job, though, and the instructions sounded simple enough so eventually I agreed to help out and completed the job that same day.

I didn’t give it another thought until a few days later, when I started getting calls and e-mails with further feedback-on-my-feedback in the middle of the night and during my trip when I was frequently out of cell-phone reach and could not respond right away. Mutual frustration finally came to a head, and I told her I would not have accepted the job if she had told me beforehand that I would have to be available 24/7 for a week afterwards. That’s when I found out that she had been under the impression, based on another PM’s recommendation, that I had done reconciliation jobs before and knew what to expect, and that it was my lack of availability that was a puzzle to her. Since it turns out I was as much of a “treasured guest” from her perspective as she was from mine, I guess this ended up being more of a “treasured learning experience”.

Communication can be even more of a challenge when the person you’re dealing with isn’t a project manager but an individual client who is instructed by some institution to have his official documents translated, but who really thinks that anyone could do the job — for free.  A few weeks ago I was contacted by a young man who needed his grades and diploma translated so he could submit them to an American school he was applying to.

The first “uh oh” bubbled to the surface when I asked to see the documents and he assured me it would only be a tiny job because he had “already translated most of it.” The pdf file turned out to consist mostly of numbers and complicated formatting, all of which would have to be reproduced and re-keyed to meet the requirements of the institution in question. The only words he had translated (in a separate Word doc) were the course titles, i.e. about 5% of the actual work that needed to be done. As politely as I could, I explained that

  1. I could not use his translation and pass it off as my own, nor would I certify any translation I had not actually done myself, nor would that be in any way acceptable to the institution;
  2. Re-keying the numbers and formatting the pages was not a “tiny” job but rather a time-intensive undertaking and that it was going to cost a lot more than the minimum charge he was envisioning.

Up to that point he had simply been speaking from ignorance, not ill will, but then, instead of listening to me or hiring a more affordable translator (which would be fair enough and more power to him), this treasured guest asked if I had ever heard of those programs that convert pdfs to Word docs, and if he couldn’t just do that and paste in his translation.

[Long baffled silence]

In a last-ditch effort to shake him out of his dream world I converted the pdf for him myself and sent him the crap conversion full of spelling errors, missing text and crazy text boxes, pointing out that trying to salvage that disaster would be much more expensive than translating the thing from scratch. And that was the last I heard of him, so for all I know he did just copy & paste his own translation into this monstrosity and sent it off to be wondered at by the university officials with the power to accept or deny his application.

I’ve been very fortunate that 99% of my clients have been a pleasure to work with, but after this last incident I’m tempted to order “Treasured Guest” t-shirts and keep them on hand for those special people you run into now and then. Then again, that would make me the jerk and I’d have to wear it myself. I need another day at Disneyland.

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