You haven’t had a bad day at the office until you’ve operated on a dead horse

I was explaining to a new client what was involved in translating her business card into Chinese. “It depends on where it’s going to be used,” I told her. “If in mainland China or Singapore, it’ll be simple form Chinese (Mandarin). If in Taiwan, it’ll be traditional Chinese”.

The lady wasn’t listening.

“Can you absolutely guarantee that the translation of my name won’t say ‘I think you’ve got a fat arse or something?’”.

Illustration by Simon Letch.
Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:

For the 30-odd years that I worked in the translation business, I used to dream about writing a book. It was going to be called You Can’t be a Buddhist in Business. I still believe this is true. In just about every occupation there’s something that will try your patience, unsettle or infuriate, and you’ll be sorely tempted to squash ants in your frustration or tell porkies to save face or swear like King Charles when his fountain pen flips out.

My chat with the Chinese business card lady was a mere blip in the day of a translation service. But it did have me intrigued about what a typical bad day looks like in wildly different workplaces and what people do about it. Like the drummer who forgets his drumsticks before a gig or the AFL’s baker whose buns fail to rise on grand final day.

I reckon bad days at work fall into three main categories: something you did wrong, something someone else did wrong and something someone expects you to do right and “by yesterday, thanks”. Acts of God, like the flash flooding of a carpet factory, are in another category entirely. (Acts of God are patently not Buddhist if it’s the big kahuna preventing us from enlightenment in the first place. You’ll need to speak to your insurance agent about that.)

So what does a bad workday look like for, say, the world’s most famous “firm”, the royal family? I think we all know it’s ghastly, my liege, almost all the time. The day the world learnt that Prince Charles wanted to be reborn as Camilla’s tampon, was undoubtedly the nadir (even The Crown wouldn’t cover it.) Nothing since, not the Fergie toe-sucking nor Meghan Markle nor Squidgygate, has shocked us more. How do you even come back from something like that? It’s just a “stinking” mess that warrants far fruitier swear words than “stinking”.

In occupations like medicine, a bad day can turn out really, really bad, if you get my drift. In his vet days, a friend was called out to a farm to castrate an overly frisky middle-aged pony (already a bad day for the pony). A lot was going on. These kinds of big-animal visits in the country afford no such luxury as a surgeon and an anaesthetist. The vet takes on all the roles. So, he’s super busy preparing the pony. The farmer’s kids are chatting loudly nearby while the farmer puts a cloth over the pony’s head to shade it from the sun.


Dr Dolittle is so involved in the delicate operation of nicking the pony’s nuts off that he’s failed to notice that pony is, um, dead. The vet breaks the news to the farmer who breaks the new to the kids who scream into the house sobbing their hearts out. The bill is waived, the vet kicks a tyre, and resolves to return as a botanist in his next life.

A future botanist.
A future botanist. Credit: iStock

Oh yes, making mistakes at work is painful, but it pales in comparison to others making mistakes for which you must take responsibility. This is where we become devoted Buddhist dropouts and swiftly learn the art of spin (blatant lying). For example, the Hindi translator has failed to meet an urgent deadline – he was busy watching IPL cricket on telly – and it’s up to you, as boss, to hose down an angry client. You come up with the adult version of “the dog ate my homework”. “I’m so sorry. Our translator is having computer problems. It should be sorted in a day or so”.

“Having computer problems”, the modern-day business mantra for getting out of jail.

Strangely enough, the art world is littered with bad days at the office, probably because they often happen on a monumental scale that makes headlines – and a fair dollop of schadenfreude. Spare a thought for the curator responsible for hiring the security guard at Russia’s Yeltsin Centre last year. Apparently, the guard was so bored on his first shift that he decided to draw some eyes on the faceless heads in Anna Leporskaya’s million-dollar Three Figures painting. I’m imaging the curator, beret in hand, facing the board of directors. “Well, he did say he was interested in art…”

Detail of the painting Three Figures by Anna Leporskaya, after a bored security guard doodled on it.
Detail of the painting Three Figures by Anna Leporskaya, after a bored security guard doodled on it.

Dear Dalai Lama, I speak for all of us who never used to lie or swear or squash ants in frustration until we went into business. Please forgive us. We’re only human. And we promise to adhere to the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta in our next lives. (If you need a translation of that, please don’t call.)

Jo Stubbings is a freelance writer.

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