When I was just starting out, I fell into a lot of traps. I was taken advantage of, manipulated, ripped off and kept under the thumb. So many traps! But I am free now, and I’d like to expose some of these traps so others can tread safely. From tenders to test translations, from CV scams to bogus certifications… all of these and more will be covered in this three-part series. Enjoy!


Tenders are a big, fat, newbie trap. I expect anyone with a profile anywhere on the web has received an email like this:

tender 1a

Or even this one, after I replied to the initial, brief, anonymous request sent via ProZ with a brief-but-polite refusal (“Dear… <You didn’t state your name>, No, sorry. Regards, Rose Newell”):


Are you noticing the careful, personal approach here?

The problem with tenders can be summed up pretty simply:

  1. You are providing YOUR degree certificate, YOUR qualifications, YOUR references, YOUR experience and YOUR expertise so that SOMEONE ELSE (the agency) can be considered qualified to manage the work.
  2. There is NO GUARANTEE WHATSOEVER that the agency will give the work to you if it does, by some miracle, actually win the tender.
  3. In practice, more often than not, they will use more expensive, more highly qualified translators to win the work, but then outsource to cheaper, less highly qualified and less experienced translators who will actually do the work. This is obviously unethical and against the law, but I’ve had it confirmed by multiple current and ex-PMs that this is what goes on. If you ever get solid proof, though, do not hesitate to report it to relevant parties (even government bodies responsible for trading standards). Don’t think your modest newbie rates will protect you either – someone can always go lower. Google Translate is free, remember.
  4. You might think “What’s the harm?” – well, perhaps it’s not obvious, but the misuse of your information to win a tender that ends up actually being fulfilled by someone cheaper seriously damages the profession. Not only that, it seriously damages you, personally, since it sends a message to the end-client that someone of your calibre can be bought for that price, not your price. Things like that work to lower clients’ expectations of what they should have to pay for a good translator.

This is not to say it’s always wrong to participate in tenders. Just, it usually is. A lot of work can and will only ever be obtained via a tender, and in some cases freelancers cannot be considered. But consider the following:

  1. Do you already know this agency/outsourcer? Do you have any reason to believe they will actually use your services if they win the tender? Remember, words are shallow. Money is everything. Even with existing clients you will want to be very sure that the payment terms for this contract will actually be something you’ll agree to. I dumped a long-term agency client a few years ago after continued pressure on rates and the final blow when it came to a tender. I asked about rates and received a vague “Rates are still under discussion. Please send your information by noon today at the latest!”.
  2. What are their payment terms? They will usually ask for all your information without any mention of your payment terms. There is a simple reason – they are not interested. They’ll win the work using your qualifications and then think about who they can actually afford to work with. Check for things like 60-day payment terms and vagueness regarding the rates you’ll actually receive, if you really have got this far and are still considering sending all your hard-earned achievements their way.
  3. Have you thought about participating in the tender yourself or in a team with colleagues? It’s not such a crazy idea. Friends of mine have recently won tenders in their specialisations, and many of the outsourcers listed on the EU tenders website are, in fact, freelancers. (Please note: the two open calls you can see there right now, 04 June 2014, do not relate to translation!) If you have to put all this stuff together for an agency anyway, why not go through the whole process yourself?
  4. Is it worth the hassle? We are our own bosses. We don’t have to take every job, simply because it is out there. If the rates are low, the subject is uninteresting, the payment terms are bad… then why bother? There is plenty of work out there.

Well, those are my thoughts on the matter. If you’re not sure, just hit delete. It’s what I always do. Unless I’m fishing to find out how to apply for the very same tender myself, of course. :)

Test translations

This is another one a lot of newbie translators get roped into. Here’s the thing: a lot of legitimate translation agencies and direct clients (less of the latter, though it’s very common among publishers – understandably so) will ask for a test translation. In principle, it makes sense. A client might like to know what you are like before they entrust you with a major project. It’s worth taking note of the following, though, to avoid being taken for a fool:

  1. Is it standardised? If not, then it’s not a test translation, it’s a real job. A standardised test will have a couple of paragraphs on a couple of different topics, usually your specialisation. If it’s a book, it will be a passage. It may also be a small job that may or may not have been translated for them in the past. Try to find out if it’s already been translated – it may be obvious from the file details (e.g. the creation date – a standardised job will usually be older). If it’s a new job, charge for it, or request a real, standardised translation test. Anything else is just sending the wrong message.
  2. What is the deadline? This will also help you to ascertain whether this is a test translation or a real job the client is charging its client for. If the deadline is tight, ask why. Generally, I advise translators to refuse a test translation with a short deadline, since this invariably IS a real job. Just mention that you’re busy and propose a new delivery date. If there’s a good reason for the tight deadline, like an upcoming project, then you can of course be flexible. Just be careful to avoid doing a real job for free.
  3. Will you be paid for it? Don’t be afraid to ask for payment, or inform the client that you usually charge for test translations. You could consider offering a small discount as a show of good faith. Remember that a test translation goes both ways – you are testing them – their professionalism, their payment practices and their review processes – just as much as they are testing you. An agency client who pays for the test translation, especially a standardised one, is usually a keeper. That’s an agency which invests in professionals. Yes, they exist.
  4. How long is it? Tests of 200-400 words are the norm. Tests of up to 1,000 words might come up in literary translation, but I know very little about those as it’s not my field. If it’s much longer than that, then there has to be a good reason. Consider offering to translate less, unless you’re being paid your normal rate for the test, of course.
  5. Can you do the job well? This isn’t so much a trap, but a newbie mistake. Sometimes a translation agency will approach you to do a test translation in a language combination or specialisation that isn’t your strongest suit. Remember that a client is unlikely to give you a second chance if you burn your bridges during your first attempt. They spent money having your work reviewed the first time, after all, so why take the risk? Like all jobs, feel free to turn down anything you don’t think you will do a good job on. Don’t think that passing a test translation is a guarantee the same client won’t complain about your work in the future, either. You should never consider a test translation to be a means of proving something to yourself or verifying your ability to do a job. Rather, it is a way for you to demonstrate what you already can do to your client.

Not being paid enough

A lot of newbie translators charge very low rates. When I started in 2006, I was usually offered 0.07 EUR per word in my combination, German to English. Not knowing any better, I accepted such rates. It wasn’t until a bit later, once I had put more work into my business, gained experience and grown sceptical, that I realised I was able to earn more. Later still, I realised I could earn much more. Here are some of the issues, from my perspective:

  1. Translators can be reluctant to talk about rates. Especially fellow newbies, or people you do not know so well. Understandably, I guess. But the result is that newbies have simply no idea what they should be charging. This is further compounded by the lack of real world, honest business advice at universities, or even worse than that, conflicting and negative advice. I discussed the various sources of rate information in a previous blog post, so if you’re not sure where to start, some of those links to information from professional associations might prove useful.
  2. Translation agencies exploit the ignorance of newbies. Translation agencies often claim that what they are offering is the “market rate” (which market?), “market rate for someone of your experience” (what a cheek!), “more than our competitors” (your competitors perhaps, not mine.), “appropriate for this simple job” (who says it’s simple?), etc. Newbies often don’t know what they should be charging, so the agency will dictate their rates to them. Understandably, they choose a rate that works for them, that will secure them a comfortable profit. Inform yourself – through blogs on translation, business, marketing and writing, as well as translation rate surveys and colleagues. Choose a rate and stick to it. Don’t panic if some people reject your rate or say it is expensive. If you’re not convincing people, work on your marketing and presentation. Better yet, read a useful book like Judy and Dagmar Jenner’s book, “The Entrepreneurial Linguist”, or take a look at Marta Stelmaszak’s highly praised blog, online course for newbie translators, and upcoming book, all marketed under the banner of the “Business School for Translators”. Another useful resource for new and experienced translators alike is Chris Durban’s “The Prosperous Translator”.
  3. Clients love to invent reasons for you to charge less. Excuses come in many flavours – be it “we have a limited budget” (okay, then I guess you’ll have to go elsewhere), “this is a test translation for us” (okay, not for me, though), “I’ll do better on the budget next time” (great, but we’re talking about this time), “you/we are based in Argentina/Nepal/Portugal” (so what?), and so on and so forth. A recent favourite has been THE CRISIS. That deserved capitals and big, bold letters because that is JUST HOW DAMNED SIGNIFICANT THAT IS. One large agency’s sob story was published online, although I greatly prefer Kevin Lossner’s version. My heart almost bled for these poor souls, except then I read about how this company “reported average annual growth of 24 per cent through the downturn”. Right. This isn’t to say that THE CRISIS did not hit some businesses hard and they may have less money to spend on translation. But this excuse is getting rather worn-out from overuse these days, especially when coming from the likes of The Pig Turd. Direct clients may also play this card. Tell all of them that you completely understand, but you’ve also tried to explain this to your gas and electricity company, and they were surprisingly unresponsive. That unfortunately leaves you with little lee-way.
  4. Most translators (newbies and experienced translators alike) charge too little per hour. Translators don’t tend to think in terms of hourly rates. Some people are charging a respectable per-word or per-line rate, but an incredibly low rate per hour. Perhaps this is something to do with the nature of the freelancer? We are used to job fees and don’t calculate our hourly income, perhaps because we like to take lots of little breaks or work without looking at the clock. Perhaps some of us are comparing such hourly rates with hourly rates paid to in-house staff. Well, you can’t. Always charge a rate that reflects what you earn in an hour of translation, since that’s what you’d otherwise be doing. Otherwise you are just giving them money, especially if whatever you are doing is more like translation in the first place.
  5. Newbies sometimes take market averages as gospel. It concerns me that when a colleague went to speak to a German university, she was met with negative backlash from certain students who told her she was “wrong” to charge an hourly rate of nearly 80 EUR per hour (at the time, she charges a fair bit more now). The reason cited began with “the BDÜ survey on translation rates says translators charge X”. See, not only had they failed to grasp the nature of those statistics, they’d also failed to understand the power of self-determination that all freelancers have. So what if the BDÜ average is 1.40 EUR a line or whatever? So what if everyone I know is charging between 1.40 and 1.60 EUR a line? That doesn’t stop me from charging 2.40 EUR a line to my clients, or even 0.40 EUR a line if I am so inclined. The same applies everywhere.
  6. A translation academic is not a business consultant. Being an educator in any field is not the same as being a practitioner. Such people are earning their living through their knowledge, research and teaching. They are generally not dependent on the business of translation as we know it. They may translate part-time, but even then, their position as an educator does not make them business consultants, plus, they have an additional income. I’ve heard stories about the sort of rates some incredibly talented translation academics are charging. It saddens me, because their undercharging is setting a bad example for the generations to come. I have a message to any of these academics if they happen to be reading: You’re the pinnacle of our profession, you are the example admired and emulated by the next generation, so your rates should reflect that. If not for yourself, then for your students. Otherwise, what else do they have to aspire to? 
  7. You don’t think you’re worth more. I’m no counsellor, so I can’t tackle your self-esteem problems. I can tell you that the skill of some newbies exceeds that of those with twenty years of experience and more. It happens. It’s rare, yes, but it happens. If you’re not sure what I mean, I have a valuable piece of advice based on my own experience. Compare yourself. Go on ProZ and look at the sample translations of people who have decided to make their rates and/or experience public. You could also take the occasional proofreading job for an agency (not the bottom-feeders, as that will just traumatise you, but perhaps just one of those silly misinformed ones which pays a little on the low side), or at least just open the files and look at them, just to see what other translators are submitting. Then remember that this person is probably charging what you’re charging, or perhaps just a little bit less. Now it’s simple: if you think you’re better, charge more than whatever you’re charging right now.
  8. You can’t sell on experience, so you sell on price. “Fair prices”, “great value”, “affordable”, “reasonable prices”, etc. Trashy statements like that just turn away the good clients. Nobody with any class goes looking for a wedding ring in Aldi. Such clients always want a little bit extra for free, or will fabricate complaints to get out of paying. Instead, target good clients you’ll be happy to work for in the years to come.

Useless directories

  1. ProZ.com. When I started, ProZ.com was not quite so bad. I attracted a lot of my first clients from there, and they paid a rate which was low, albeit not as low as they are today. ProZ.com still has some great resources, but for clients the pickings have become rather dry. Once upon a time, I paid up for professional membership and was admitted to the Certified PRO network. A bogus certification, really… I’ll talk about those next time. Certified PRO members get listed top in the directory, so you can look at it as a bit of artificial, paid-for search-engine optimisation. It’s still probably the most serious of the directories out there at present, with the exception of translation associations, and membership is still perhaps worth it for some translators in different combinations or specialisations to me.
  2. ProZ.com clones. There are many ProZ clones out there, with new ones springing up all the time. It’s become easy to put together a translation platform, and each of these budding entrepreneurs seems convinced that theirs will be the next big thing. It won’t. It’s a business model that’s had its day. Translators can just as easily chase the good agencies and direct clients themselves these days.
  3. Translator’s Café probably deserves a mention, but it shares many of the same problems as ProZ. Right down to the low-value work being outsourced through it.
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