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

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”):

 tender2a

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, y