A “10% off” tag on knowledge and accountability?

Would you go to a lawyer’s office and say, “Hey, if I bring coffee and donuts to our meeting, could you drop your price down from $250 per hour to $175?”

You would never consider that, would you? Lawyers offer specialized knowledge of the law, help you navigate through legal troubles, and help your business succeed. So why should translators be treated any differently?

Since we don’t necessarily need a degree or license to work as translators, many tend to believe that translating is an informal occupation, a side job we can do in our spare time, you know, while we’re taking a break from our “real job.”

I can assure you that is not the case for most professional translators, at least not in the long run. I started as a translator back in 1997, while I was teaching English as a second language. However, after translation work put me through college, I decided to make it official and become a full-time translator, starting my own business and teaming up with like-minded professionals whose main purpose is to offer responsible language services.

“Responsible services?” you might ask. Being the go-between, transmitting somebody else’s thoughts and intentions in a different language, does come with a lot of responsibility.

Just as a lawyer represents you in court and before authorities, translators and interpreters represent you in your interactions with a target audience that doesn’t speak your language. Translators can make or break a project, contributing to having consumers either rush to the store to buy your product or laugh at your expense.

With that in mind, I’d like to go straight to the point: Why do clients feel the need to ask for discounts when hiring translation services? Here are the Top 3 arguments I’ve heard in the past fifteen years:

  • “The text is very short!” ― Translating is not about word count alone; it’s about content and context. Taking an example from David Bellos’ book “Is That a Fish in your Ear?,” the following headline is pretty short, but it takes considerable effort to be rendered in an intelligible way in another language and culture: GOP VEEP PICK ROILS DEMS. Anyone hired to translate these five little words must first know about American politics and be up to date on current events to produce something that can be understood by non-US readers.
  • “The text is very easy!” ― Information on sophisticated chemical processes is commonplace for chemical engineers. An article on advances in cardiovascular surgery is very accessible to most physicians. Building codes and regulations are right up a civil engineer’s or an architect’s alley. However, specialization is just one of the aspects that go into translation. What may seem easy in the source language might not be easily transferred to the target language. Do the same technologies exist in the target country? What are the terms and concepts being used nowadays in that market pertaining to the specific area? Are there any cultural sensitivities that need to be factored in? Even the simplest texts take research and tact to sound natural to readers in another language.
  • “If you give me a discount, I’ll assign more work to you in the near future!” ― Ah, the good old “volume discount”… More work simply means MORE WORK, period. If you go to a dental hygienist once every quarter, it means you like the service. Any dental hygienist would surely appreciate your loyalty, but they can’t offer you free sessions if you promise to come back periodically. If they did that, they would soon be out of business. The same is true for translators: If we give discounts for a small project on the promise that more work will come our way or―worse―discounts for a huge project because you think long-term commitment provides us with some sort of financial stability, we’ll be making less and less per hour and our bills simply won’t pay for themselves.

When we name our rate per word, page, hour or project, a lot goes into that calculation. Most professional translators have a pretty good idea about our daily output in the best- and worst-case scenarios. When we first take a look at your files, we can estimate how long it will take us to finish the job and how much it is worth, considering our background, specialization, and other important variables, which also include our own expenses in getting the job done well.

We spend years studying and investing in our continuing education and the fruits of that investment go into every single project we accept. We also spend a lot of time learning about new technology, which will make our work more manageable on several fronts, from easy accessibility to legacy material through redundant backup solutions (CDs, zip drives, and servers in the cloud) all the way to the consistency provided by computer-assisted translation tools (which record our progress and allow us to retrieve previously translated sentences and refer to glossaries we’ve built with preferred terminology.)

Our investments actually “translate” into the time savings that we pass on to you when taking less time to get your project done correctly, while being more efficient and accurate in the process. And all that comes with a fair price tag.

6 golden rules of client etiquette – Part II

After listing the top three polite attitudes I admire in translation clients, here’s the list of behaviors I dislike–and I believe a bunch of colleagues will agree with me.

~ DON’TS ~

1.    Don’t ask for discounts

A nice video produced by Scofield Editorial went viral some time ago. Although it doesn’t tackle translation, it certainly fits like a glove. Check it out:

Inspired in the video and in real life, I’ve adapted part of the dialogue to reproduce some of the stuff most translators deal with on a regular basis:

“We didn’t budget for $100. I’ve only got $60 set aside for this translation. Maybe I can get $65… Can you do $65? This is an opportunity! Collaborating with Company XYZ will give you lots of visibility. And we’ll be sending you tons of texts in the future if you drop your price. Come on, the total volume of work you’ll be getting from us will certainly make up for the lower rates.”

Really?! So you basically want us to work MORE and earn LESS… Think twice next time you’re considering bargaining with your language professional.

2.    Don’t ask for free work

Now here’s an adaptation of another part of the same video:

“I need translation for both dubbing and subtitling, but right now I can only pay for subtitling. So, I need you to just go ahead and throw dubbing in. Let’s think of it as a test. That way, I can see if my boss likes it. You can roll the costs over until the next time I need your services, if it happens.”

I could go on and on about why translators shouldn’t work for free, but I recently ran across this blog post that says most of what I have in mind: 7 Reasons Why I Can’t Do “Free,” by Sharon Hayes.

Of course, there are cases in which volunteer translators are needed, such as for non-profit organizations like Translators without Borders. However, there is a limit, since we all have bills to pay. If translation is our only source of income, we can’t make ends meet if we do volunteer work for our clients, friends, family, neighbors…

3.    Don’t delay payments

It goes without saying that a translator should be paid as previously agreed upon (preferably as stipulated in a customized agreement). Nevertheless, on the off chance that you can’t honor the payment within the time frame, the least you can do is contact the professional, be honest about it, apologize, and discuss new arrangements. Please, don’t just disappear or, even worse, don’t “play dead”!

Well, there’s so much to mention about expected and undesirable behaviors that I’ll need new posts to discuss some points in more depth. You can look for these here in the near future.

Once again, I’d like to invite my colleagues to use the comment section and let us know what you think. What other types of behavior you’d rather not see in the translation industry? I really look forward to reading your input.