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All-American Bureaucracy

Those of us who travel the world and feel at home anywhere frequently run into hoops someone is trying to make us jump through.

No, your medical degree is not accepted here. No, you can’t work here as a lawyer even if you take some classes to familiarize yourself with our [enter current country of residencesystem. No, you can’t be a teacher either, for the same reason. Ok, maybe a substitute teacher at an hourly rate, barely making minimum wage. No, your driver’s license is not good here even though you’ve had a flawless record in every other country you ever lived. No, you don’t have credit. No, you can’t have credit. No, you can’t open a bank account unless you first deposit $10,000 in cash. Oh, yes, money-laundering (so make sure you can prove where that money came from). No, you can’t get a credit card even if you make it a prepaid one. And so on, and so on. We may start taking this personally, thinking it’s our gender, ethnicity, skin color, accent… But honestly? I think most of the time it’s just good old-fashioned bureaucracy at work.

Yesterday I ran into one of those hoops–this time curtesy of investment bank & financial services provider Charles Schwab.

Let me backtrack a little bit. In 2008 I joined Amazon in Luxembourg (Amazon’s European HQ). One of the perks of my contract were so-called RSUs: special stock options that were managed, you guessed it, by Charles Schwab Financial Advisors. I left Amazon about 18 months later but kept the account going because, you know, it was my account with my name and address on it. I moved to the States, always keeping the account, always updating it with my current address and contact details, and always with money in it. Four years later, in 2013, I returned to Europe and duly informed Schwab. No big deal, new address, fill out this W-8BEN, done. Or so I thought. In December that year they blocked my account. They didn’t inform me or anything: my access was simply blocked and I had to call them to find out what was going on. Turned out they needed proof of my identity, address, and various other forms of bureaucratic nonsense. Remember: I wasn’t a new, potentially risky customer. I’d been with them since 2008, they knew who I was, I had previously lived in Europe, I had money in the account etc. etc. Didn’t matter. I had to provide copies of passport, utility bills, bank statements from 2 different (non-Schwab) banks. Oh, and also? I couldn’t just black out my balance on those bank statements: they wanted to see it all. Privacy, anyone? Not only did I have to send it by fax; they also wanted the originals. As a good, responsible customer, I did as I was told.

Until Friday. Yet again, my account was blocked. I first thought that it had been hacked because my password wouldn’t work, but I even tried to reset it–no luck. So I called. Only to be told: Oh, I see, you work for Amazon. Well, Amazon have terminated their relationship with Schwab, and we’re going to need you to fill out this new form, you know, to convert your account to [insert nonsensical account name here]. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t worked for Amazon in several years. At least they sent the form via email so I didn’t need to wait around for a letter to arrive. But guess what? That form looked suspiciously like the form I had to fill out in December, complete with W-8BEN, asking for copies of passport, utility bills, bank statements…

I am so sick of this. Companies making customers jump through hoops because certain boxes need to be checked. Say about Amazon what you will, but they understand customer service. And you know what? I have a sneaking suspicion why they terminated their relationship with Schwab.

Needless to say, I sent Schwab a very nice email telling them that I will close my account if they can’t convert it using the information they already have. Let’s see who wins.


The all-important smell test

Earlier today I received a request to translate an article from English into German.

The sender wrote from an AOL address and signed his email with his name and email address, which I thought was odd for a private customer. Also, who still uses AOL? Nevertheless, I sent him my per-word rate and requested a copy of the document, his full address (“for my invoice”), and advance payment–all of which I thought would discourage any pranksters. He replied a little later with a copy of the document. I did the word count and replied with my definite offer and suggested timeline. Throughout this entire process I had a funny feeling that I couldn’t quite place.

He accepted my offer and agreed to pay not 33% (as I’d asked) but 50% of the overall invoice in advance. He also asked for my mailing address and telephone number so he could arrange payment. This finally raised my suspicions enough to do a background check on him. After all, my telephone number is featured prominently on my website, and he told me he had found my email address there. So why not my telephone number?

First, I checked his name and address on and Google maps. He was not listed, but the street address seemed to exist. Ok, so maybe he likes his privacy.

Next, I checked the email headers of all three emails I had received. They all came from an AOL client (as per X-Mailer and Message-Id), and always from the same IP address. So far, so good. However, the odd thing out was the original IP address (X-Originating-IP), which according to the IP trackers ( and I used belongs to an ISP called “Deepak Mehta FIE”. I could not find a web presence for this supposed ISP (and surely every ISP has one); also, a quick Google search showed that it was located in the middle of a field in Kansas. Ok, maybe it was some kind of a VPN or anonymizing portal, but this was sure getting interesting.

Then, I took a look at the file itself. It was a Word document and looked otherwise legitimate, but when I checked the personal information it was stripped bare of meta information. I mean, completely bare! No date, no author, nothing. Now, I know people who are paranoid enough to do this to their files. But for a guy who was ready to send me a check and his private mailing address, this really looked fishy. I finally decided to copy a couple of lines from the document and paste them into Google. Turns out it was an exact copy of a Wikipedia article.

Now, I don’t know what the deal is with this guy. Maybe he really is harmless if incredibly paranoid and private. But I’m more inclined to think it’s some kind of overpayment/refund scam (here is an example:

Should I just have copied the German version of the Wikipedia article, taken his payment, and run? A scam the scammer kind of a deal? Perhaps, but I decided to play it professional and politely turned down the project.

What I learned from wasting 2 hours writing my offer and doing research: trust your gut instinct. If it “smells” funny from the get go, it probably is!

Google toolbar changes

Is it just me, or did Google just sneak in some toolbar changes? My custom toolbar still looks normal on Firefox, but in Internet Explorer 8 all my buttons are hidden, irrespective of whether or not I enable them. I logged out and in again, reinstalled the toolbar, reset all the settings, still the same. Hmm…

Machine translation… revisited

This week I received my very first machine translation project (10,000 words) – and I had to decline because of the envisaged deadline.

Specifically, I decided a couple of weeks ago that it is not entirely normal to work every single weekend, and that clients, especially agencies, should not automatically assume that you’re available just because you’re a freelancer i.e. a sucker. I noticed something strange: I am less stressed and more concentrated on my 9-5 projects now. I also have extra time for home life, coffees, reading, etc.

The interesting thing is that I could have pretty much named my price. So I offered what I felt an appropriate rate for weekend/rush work and am waiting to hear back (i.e. whether there is some other sucker out there willing to take the job at the lower rate).

I wonder if I did the right thing. I would have loved to accept it in order to gain experience with post-editing and also to test the MT waters. It was for a well-known computer game, and games are my favorite thing to translate. But, one has to have (new-found) principles. Indian Summer walks without so much as a telephone, here I come.

Time warp

I have a client for whom I handle customer correspondence. Not exactly translation work, but work requiring good writing skills in my target language nonetheless.

Customers are located in Germany for the most part (timezone CET), while I usually work from Virginia (timezone EST). Can you see where this is going? When I get up on a beautiful East Coast morning they’re already more than half-way through their work day. Consequently, I need to check emails at night in case anything requires early morning attention.

I’ve been travelling in Germany for a couple of weeks now, taking my mobile office with me, and it’s the strangest and most wonderful thing to take long lunch breaks and finish my work day (for this client, that is) around 5. I can’t remember the last time I had several relaxing evenings off in a row. Wonderful!

I cannot believe I fell for that

Just recently, in September, I was offered a large translation project by an agency that appeared to be located in either India or Singapore. After a bit of ping pong regarding my rate I finally accepted and dropped everything to deliver by a very ambitious deadline.

I delivered the project in several batches, received reasonable feedback, and had no reason to believe that anything was wrong. Payment terms were 30 days, I agreed; so far so good.

30 days passed. No contact, no payment. Needless to say that I was unable to get in touch with them and, surprise surprise, really only had an email address. And here was me wondering about their pretty good rate (India is not exactly known for paying high rates).

It was only then that I started doing some research, and I have now come to the conclusion that I’ve been led on by a fraudster. Who, me? Sensible me? But I’m always careful! I never forward chain mail! I never open unsolicited email, never mind unknown attachments! I fell for the oldest trick in the book, and I’m out of pocket by a few thousand euros because of it.

The company name is Tarin Translation, and my contact was Kelvin Marks. So, if you receive an email offering you a nice big project… just treat it as spam and delete.

Here are a few lessons I learned:

  • Make sure you have a telephone number (that works)
  • Make sure you have actual company details, including a full address (and not just a PO Box)
  • Make sure you ask for a PO and don’t get started without one
  • If the rate sounds too good to be true… it probably is! Ask for 20% down payment
  • Trust your instincts. If it feels off, it probably is!

On a related note, I discovered this website:, that allows translators to talk about, er, payment practices of translation agencies. You get a 7-day free trial, and it’s about $20 thereafter. You know what to do!

The only constant is change

I love languages, linguistics, and the art of translation. I also love computers, the Internet, video games, Wired magazine, web design, und the science of technology.

I always felt that it was impossible to successfully and elegantly combine the two, but I didn’t know how – especially when it came to my website or how I use Twitter. My translation clients are vastly different from my web design clients. I didn’t/don’t cater to this but instead used/use one blog, one website, one Twitter feed.

Well, no longer! This morning I decided that it was/is time for a change and that I will completely overhaul my website to give my (potential) customers the customized content that they need. I might also scrap Joomla as it’s just too slow and doesn’t give me enough flexibility. Change is good! Also, I met a graphic designer this past weekend, so it’s all coming together… Stay tuned!

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