In which The Author gets a surprise phone call
On Wednesday I was messing about in the house when my phone rang. I didn’t have time to get to it before the caller hung up, but the Caller ID showed that he/she was overseas. About ten minutes later, I was in the bathroom when it rang a second time. Again I was too late to pick it up, but the call came from the same number. I decided that it was almost certainly from a call centre, originating from outside the UK to circumvent the Telephone Preference Service restrictions.
The communication networks are full of spam these days, promising to reclaim your mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance, or unlock your pension. A friend of mine gets at least half a dozen of these unsolicited calls and texts a day. BBC Radio 4 featured an exposé on this pension unlocking scam a couple of weeks ago, and it made me glad that I don’t have a pension pot to piss in. I’m skint enough as things stand, without Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs creaming 55% off the top of my own money.
Anyway, when I got to town I checked my emails and found one in my proofreading address inbox. That’s been empty for months, and for a moment I wondered whether the spam generators had finally found it. The sender’s name was in a Far Eastern script, which got me even more worried. But the subject line read ‘Proofreading inquiry.’ The plot thickened…
I trained as a proofreader with Chapterhouse of Exeter years ago, but have never really put my skills to good use before. I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but it’s never been a serious earner for me. While I was studying again, I decided to advertise my services on the university website. A very nice Ugandan chap named Robert got in touch, who wanted some help with an essay, and he paid me £20 for my services. Apart from that, it fell on stony ground.
I did pick up an unexpected client after an inquorate Annual General Meeting in the Students’ Union one evening during my second year, though. I’d been reading TAG, the SU newspaper, while I was waiting for the meeting to start. I was shocked and slightly horrified by the poor standard of literacy contained within its pages. It was hardly an advertisement for higher education. After the meeting failed to start, I approached Jasper, the VP (Comms), whom I knew by sight, and introduced myself.
‘I don’t want to tread on your toes,’ I told him. ‘But, man, you really need a proofreader for TAG.’
Jasper looked a little embarrassed. ‘I know,’ he said, ‘you’re not the first person to say that. Do you know anyone?’
I smiled, took one of my business cards from my wallet and handed it to him.
‘Give me a call when the new issue’s coming together.’
I did the whole forty pages in one afternoon and evening, and Jasper paid me with a pint whenever we bumped into each other in the bar. I’d always preferred working with International Students, though. Even though they’re mostly pretty competent in English, their lack of fluency in the written language sometimes lets them down. They recognised their shortcomings, and I was glad of the opportunity to try out some of the tips I’d picked up while learning TESOL.
I used to enjoy helping non-native speakers to put their ideas onto paper, and they were always grateful for my help and pleased with the results. I’ve always made a point of sitting down with a client and working through the piece with them, rather than just sending back a finished document with nothing to explain the amendments.
So, very intrigued, I opened the email. It turned out to be from See-yeong Cho, the sales manager for the Moranbong Food Company in South Korea. Somehow, by the wonders of the World Wide Web, he’d found his way to my proofreading page on SkillPages. I set that page up ages ago, and thus far it had failed to bear any fruit at all. I’d been wondering if anyone would find it, in fact. I certainly hadn’t expected my first ‘hit’ to come from the other side of the world.
He explained that they were working on a new product brochure, and were looking for someone to help them with the English version. I checked the phone number at the foot of the email and, sure enough, it was the same one which had called me earlier that morning. Just as I was wondering whether the whole thing was a wind-up, my phone rang again. It was See-yeong himself, calling from South Korea to see if I’d picked up the email.
We chatted for a few minutes until the connection fell down. He told me that they’d already tried someone in Canada, but that they’d been disappointed with the results. We agreed a timescale for the job, and negotiated a price. I’ve never been sure what to charge for my proofreading services, to be honest. I know the current NUJ/SFEP rate is pretty steep, but I wouldn’t want to price myself out of the market. Instead, I quoted him my usual ‘International Student’ rate, and added a nominal charge for knocking the fractured English into a more readable form. Then I went back to the Library and got started in earnest.
The Moranbong Food Company manufactures several varieties of cold noodles, a traditional Korean dish, and is looking to expand its market share. The brochure contains a general introduction and potted history of the company, an outline of its products, and a charming story of how cold noodles (originally the preserve of the yanbang, the Korean nobility of the Chosun Empire) came to be a favourite food of the general population. I felt hungry just reading it, so I logged off for the evening and continued working on the document at home.
Yesterday, I put the finishing touches to it and emailed it back to See-yeong with my invoice. I quoted my agreed fee, plus an optional charge for the ‘Anglicisation’ which he could pay if he was happy with my suggestions. I also sent my best wishes to him and his family in ‘these worrying times.’ (The news yesterday morning had suggested that North Korea were preparing to launch a military strike against their neighbours.) When he replied shortly afterwards, See-yeong laughed it off. He told me that everyone in the country has grown used to the Communists’ sabre-rattling, and see it almost as an everyday occurrence. He also attached a copy of the bank transfer – the company had paid me almost twice as much as I’d invoiced them for. He said that he and his partner were so pleased with my work that they’d decided to pay me extra. He also promised that, if they needed any similar work in the future, he’d get in touch with me straight away.
Fair play, taking into account the time difference between Seoul and BST, the money went in overnight. It’s be the first time I’ve ever received money directly from an overseas bank account. It’s been quite an interesting couple of days, all told.
I’m not expecting to make a fortune from this little sideline, of course. However, in what Professor Braj Kachru calls ‘the Inner Circle, Outer Circle and Expanding Circle’ of World Englishes, there are about two billion people speaking English as a first or second language, and (as Bill Bryson memorably said), the rest of them are trying to.
If I concentrated on the Outer Circle, and managed to tap into even a tiny proportion of the Expanding Circle, I could conceivably make a reasonable living from my skills. For now, however, I’d settle for a nice bowl of cabbage kimchi with arrowroot noodles. It’s a shame one can’t email solid objects across the world just yet.