Just Say No!

This Weekend I did the unthinkable.

I told a paying customer not to send me anymore work.

For a year now I’ve been “courting” this voice over agency. The owner is a nice guy… a little quirky but nothing far outside the ordinary. I contacted him back in 2008 and we’ve been emailing back and forth. He would ask me to audition for a job… I would and then something would happen and someone else would get the job.

Nothing new there, I mean this is the deal with every single voice over casting agency I deal with. You win some… you lose some.

Very often you lose more than you win.. but the wins are sufficient to keep the ball rolling and the work coming in.

The Setup

About 10 days back he contacts me and tells me that he has a job for me… a nice quick 2000 some words. He asks how much Arabic will inflate the text. For those who don’t know… the copy expands and contracts from language to language.. If it was originally written in English and you want it translated to …. lets say french… there will be an increase of around 25% … that’s just how french is… it needs more words to explain something to it.

But the truth of the matter is that its not just the language itself … its the lexicon… something might make sense in English and take fewer words because it is based on a commonly understood phrase like… I reached first base this weekend… would be translated to I was able to find a female interested in me and we went to a private place and I was able to … well you know the rest. So a few words in one language might mean allot of words in another.

I gave him my estimate of how much more copy there will be … so he asked a few more questions … if I could find him a female Arabic voice over actor to do another part of the script… a few more questions were exchange and that was it…. for about a week.

The “What are you talking about” moment

The gentleman gets back to me and tells me that the job is still on but that the script would be delayed… he asks when I will be free to record… I give him my schedule and he asks if it was possible for me to do it earlier… I had a prior engagement so I said no. And so the schedule was set for recording last friday.

I tell him that I will need to review the script in case there was something dodgy in it. He answers back that he has used these translators for 20 years and they are his friends and they have a fool proof way of making sure the translation would be perfect. A double blind something or other… This itself wasn’t weird… but the tone was… He acted as if I just insulted both sides of his family.

I answered politely and told him that I was not trying to insult his friends… but that as an Arabic VO artist almost all the scripts I read (yes nearly 100% of them) are translated from one language or another. Which means that I have seen all kinds of terrible scripts and that I would need to review the script because in a script containing 2000 some words it is inevitable that something will go wrong. Compare that to the work he might do himself (as an english language vo artist) since at least 60% of his scripts are  written by someone who’s first language is English. So there shouldnt be a comparison between my experience and his.

He says he will send his script as soon as it comes in from the translators and I can review it and tell him what a great job they did.

Alas…

Alas when the script came in and after reviewing it I came to the conclusion that it was terrible. The translators did the following:

  1. Made literal translations of the English to the Arabic (which rendered the sentence meaningless).
  2. Did not use the appropriate technical Jargon when doing the translation so you ended up with a vagueness in the copy that will confuse the listener.
  3. Wrote the copy as if it were to be read… not to be read out loud so you end up with convoluted sentences that you’d run out of breath long before completing.

So I sent him an email and told him that the script didn’t make any sense. He emailed back asking me to point out where the script didn’t make any sense. I told him I will not point out all the mistakes throughout the 9 pages of the script but I will provide him with the first page with the errors highlighted. I didn’t review the whole script because that would be considered consulting and that is a payable service.

He sends the page back to the translators (who did the job in the first place) and they proceed to tell him that the job they did was flawless… well except that I was right about needing the sentence reduced so that it can be read without the vo dying from asphyxiation. And that one of the words was sorta used out of context… but overall the script was flawless.

What Ensued

My client is now very confused. He has the vo he chose for the job saying the script doesnt make any sense. The translators implied that the vo is not correct… that they (the writer and the editor) went through the script again with a fine tooth comb and that maybe he wants to get his translator to do it the way he likes it (at which I said… yes the way I like it would be an accurate translation bub!) anyway the client emailed me back and asked how much it would cost to fix the script (at which point I tell him that I do not translate … it is not one of my skills but that I do know a translator but he would have to deal with her directly and I will have nothing to do with the followup or payment… my job will resume once there is a script I can read from.)

I suggest to the client that he gets the opinion of another native speaker of Arabic.

In the meantime I happen to be at a gathering where one of the attendees is an Arabic Language Professor. I ask if they would be so kind as to review the script. They do so and agree with me wholeheartedly… I also get the opinion of an engineer who is familiar with the english jargon … and he mentions that the terminology is not properly translated.

So I feel vindicated and not bad for telling this guy his friends did a terrible job.

Lo & Behold

Turns out his 3rd expert had told him that I was not correct and that only 10% of what I told him was in fact correct.

Here I said a very bad word. I won’t repeat it but it pretty much summed how I felt.

So I get an email from the client telling me that he has 30 plus years in the business and that I should suck it up and that I had to be a professional about this job.

I got this at 1 am …. I got out of bed… wrote him an email and told him the following (I’m summarizing):

1. I tried to help you and not make you look like a fool in front of the Arabs that will hear the project

2. I can’t put my name on this project cause its gonna be terrible.

3. I am only going to record this job because I promised you I would and you are under a deadline. But if it wasn’t for that I would not touch it with a 10 foot pole.

Needless to say because of this I will also not accept any jobs from you because the people you use to translate scripts are not accurate.

Reprecussions

I did the job… and a 2150 words script took me 3 Hours to record… and 3 more hours to edit.

Think about that…. I wasted 6 hours of my life on a job that shouldn’t take more than 1 hour to record (on a bad day) and another hour to clean up.

To make things worse I had refused a high paying job that had a Friday deadline because I already promised this guy I would be booked for his work. That other job paid double what this one did.

Moral of the Story

Keep good relations with your Casting Agents… but know when to draw the line.  Personally I am going to make a Terms and Conditions email which I will send out to any potential client… and tell them if I don’t think the script is properly written… then I will reject the job.

Too sad.

Too bad.

Love Dad.

P.S.

I know it’s not really the client’s fault.. he doesn’t speak Arabic and he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, Do you trust the people you have worked with for 20 years or some guy you met online a year back… but that was possibly the worst recording session of my life… it almost made me hate doing VO work… and that is quite an accomplishment.

Mahmoud Taji


12 Comments


  1. WoW… We have run into this a few time with some of our Spanish client Taji. It’s always interesting after a client has paid quite a pretty penny to have something translated through another source & to have to go back & tell them that they did it incorrectly. I vaguely recall one piece of copy… The gist of it was a training video – dealing with putting out fires should the situation arise. But instead of instructing them how to put a particular fire out – they translated it to read – let it burn. Of course, not knowing the Spanish language had way to know this until my talent called me laughing & saying – this is s bad… Same situation – client said I spent thousands of dollars having this translated by a huge company yada-yada… But when we explained the above – he ended up using our talent who is also a renowned translator. Our industry certainly has it’s moments but I can’t imagine doing anything else. 🙂

    • Unfortunately the client wasn’t the one who did the translation… the Casting agency that the client hired was the one who sent out the script to be translated. I recently sent out a survey to all the clients I did voice work for in the last year and asked them what other services I could add to my VO business that would be helpful to them. Almost half of the came back with ability to translate. I sent back telling them I don’t translate… arabic is too intricate a language for me… but I do know a good translator and here is her email. She gives them scripts that I can read and I don’t waste my time with retakes. I also don’t ask for a cut or a commission from her (just considering that makes me feel dirty). They deal with her and her alone until the script is ready for me to take over the job.

  2. Taji, I totally understand the complexity involved. My son is a sub titler in Spain and the stories are amazing between the two languages. I also speak French and completely understand that it is impossible to translate things from one language to another using the exact same word. That’s where the word “interpreter” comes from.

    On another note – a couple months ago I was offered an ADR job. They wanted me to pay for the studio and said they would reimburse me! These clients were in India – can you imagine – they said they can never pay anything in advance. I explained I couldn’t do dubbing from my home studio and they just didn’t get it. Then he contacted me with another job (in English) 10 pages and wanted to pay me $80. When I told him the standard charges for such a thing needless to say I never heard from them again.

    You did the right thing. Sometimes, we have to see the bigger picture and think about actually what you would loose by doing certain things and not what you gain in the short term.

    • More and more it seems that VO jobs from india are riddled with dubiousness. My brother-in-law works for an indian guy who does outsource work for Weight-Watchers. Slave-Driver! If the economy wasn’t so bad my BIL would have walked away from that job months ago. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong one day and stumble on some decent VO casting sites from there… In the meantime… be cautious all ye who approach.

  3. I feel your pain, Taji. It seems obvious to me that an Arabic VO guy may just know a thing or two about his own language but your client’s thinking is obviously clouded by, well, the pomp and circumstance of his own track record and his long term relationship with his translators. There’s probably just a few too many chest-puffing ego issues going on in this heady brew. You made the right decision to walk away from it.

    Personally, I have no problem burning bridges in this line of work. Many of us live too much in fear of appearing unprofessional, earning a bad reputation and of course, conflict. We also get so locked into the mindset that the job must be done and it must be done to the best of our abilities. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as we keep things in perspective with at least a toehold on what it’s really all about — doing a job and getting paid for it with respect and fairness to all. And last but not least, we also think we really need the money.

    Some clients are savvy to all of this. To them it smells a little like doubt, hesitation, even fear, perhaps. So they play down what the job requires and then milk it for all its worth. We, as if led by the nose, sell ourselves short and get paid a fraction of the work and input we deliver once the job is done.

    So burning bridges can be good. As you say, with the wisdom of hindsight, there was another job for a great deal more money that you lost because of your commitment to this project. Cutting out the weeds and deadwood of time-wasting, overly demanding clients saves time for the better jobs that deserve and appreciate your attention.

    These days, my radar is now finally tuned to anything that remotely appears suspect or looks like its heading for the rocks. I then re-adjust my rate accordingly with a detailed explanation as to why or I just eject myself from the project as quickly and politely as possible. In fact, I did it just yesterday. I was a little annoyed because the job looked like fun and I really wanted to do it but the demands far outweighed their budget and the project’s parameters that were agreed to, so I bailed with no regrets.

    As for the bad reputation earned by doing such things, it’s an unnecessary worry. A bad rep is more likely to be acquired by other means — lack of punctuality if not a complete no-show, intoxication, rudeness and anything else from the gamut of anti-social behaviour. Putting your feet down, strangely, actually earns respect. Just remember to keep the emotions in check while earning it, and whatever venom you’re tempted to inject should be well diluted.

  4. Incidentally, Taji, my apologies for not really addressing the subject of the difficulties encountered through script translations. I wanted to focus more generally on the difficulties encountered with clients overall. I hope my comments had some relevancy.

    • Actually no… you hit the nail on the head with your last comment. This was all about telling the client that although I appreciate your business… if you keep using those translators then I don’t want it.

      I wasn’t actually burning a bridge in so much that if he sent me a proper script that didn’t require me to waste my time in the recording process then I’d take the job. I would probably not accept jobs of the ilk in the future because of the burns I have experienced in the present. I am not longer willing to put myself (and my family) through that again.

      • Better you think you’ve burned this bridge, Taji, or at the very least, that it’s water under the bridge, because from the way you’ve put it, it seems to me that the likelihood of hearing from him again is Buckley’s. I may be wrong and should he be in contact again then it will be a bonus and an opportunity to recommence from a stronger bargaining position.

        • I believe that you are right… there is no other way to see this than as a burnt bridge.

          And I see how his coming back and asking for more work would put me in a stronger bargaining position. But it is not like I’m changing my rates just because he wants to work with me.

          The only thing that would change is my requirement that the script be legible… if it isn’t then I don’t accept a job… period.

  5. Dear colleagues,

    there is a new yorker studio that books me on a regular basis for their German Jobs. They deal with well known companies and most of the times the scripts are just fine. Maybe a typo here and there, maybe some little grammar glitches, but nothing to worry about usually.

    Sometimes, though, the client of the studio provides a horrible script. Bad translation, not written to be read, very hard to understand and so on …

    Would I argue over that?

    No, never.

    Reason: The client will see me as a voice over talent not as a professional when it comes to translation (although I am a trained end experienced journalist). Whoever translates the script will always defend him/herself making me look stupid or at least like a pain the a… for everybody, especially for the guy who was in charge to order the translation.

    This is not what I want at all. If a client delivers a script, I take it for granted that they are happy with it.

    What I do, though: When I am finished with the job, I let my contact at the studio know what I think about the quality of the script and that should let their clients know that there is room for improvement next time.

    But this is as far as I would go. I am not a popular voice, so I do not care if a bad script reflects badly on my voice. To be honest: I don’t think it does and that I will loose any jobs reading bad scripted stuff.

    Just my two cents.

    Cheers,

    Armin

    • Hello Armin, and thanks for leave your two cents worth.

      The truth is that since all the scripts I read are translated I cannot afford to keep letting the bad ones slide by… in fact my brain will constantly try to correct my mouth which means that I will have to spend take after take to get the misstranslated script like it sounds normal… like it flows.

      That is very difficult with arabic… a very intricate and complex language. In the example I gave above the translators refused to fix the problems… what I should have done is refuse to do the work because it would mean I spend 4 hours extra on the job instead of on other jobs. Since this guy is so happy with his translators then all the work that might come from him will be the same… so to save my sanity I think I did the best thing for myself and my work…. asked him not to send me anymore work.