First off, let me give my apologies for my long absence. You can read more about my long break – my journey, my reasons, and my promise – here. It’s a full-length post, but since it’s all about me, I’ve not directly promoted it.
Thank you. The first post in this series was the most successful post I’ve ever written. Thank you so much for all the sharing, discussions and praise – both public and private. That makes me feel even more guilty for staying away for so long.
The first part of this blog series covered tenders, test translations, not being paid enough, and useless directories. Today I will be covering “proofreading” work of dubious quality and post-editing machine translations to start with; followed by closed formats, dodgy OCR, DTP, and additional duties; then an array of unacceptable and unreasonable terms and expectations; and finally the delight of volunteering, working for free in various forms, and proposed exchanges of services.
“Proofreading” and PEMT
What our industry commonly describes as proofreading often isn’t just that. More often than not it is a bilingual comparison of source and target, including revision and improvement of the existing translation. I referred to it as proofreading years ago when I wrote my post “The Ethics of Proofreading”, where you will find my thoughts on ethical proofreading.
Being proofread or revised is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the experience of being proofread or revised by another translator can prove very educational. The same also applies to proofreading or revising texts originally translated by others. There are several scenarios, however, where “proofreading” is a trap newbies should avoid.
The problem revolves around proofreading texts that have been poorly translated in the first place. Many agencies and direct clients alike will attempt to save money by getting a text initially translated by a non-pro, non-specialist, or even a machine. They will then expect to pay less to obtain a perfect translation from you.
- Many translators charge a per-word rate for revision. Given that bad translations may look good at first glance (and you may be under pressure to make a fast decision), and that sometimes translators are expected to quote for revision without seeing the text, giving a per-word rate for work of inestimable quantity is risky. Invariably, those asking you to do this realise that the work is not the best, and that is part of why they want to you to agree to a fixed fee. They may also simply want to have predictable costs, which is a fair argument, except it is not your responsibility to take on the risk associated with your client’s choice of translator.
In nearly every case, a per-word fee is not to the newbie translator’s best advantage. More-experienced translators may later choose to offer a per-word or similar quantity-based fee to similarly experience colleagues, but it requires considerable experience and familiarity with a person’s work to be able to offer this without taking an incredible risk.
- Most translators charge far too little per hour – including for proofreading. If we decide not to charge per word for revision and revision-like tasks, then the obvious alternative is a per-hour rate. The problem here is that the rate charged is often below what those translators would make per hour if they were working on another task (such as translation). Many clients like to think they can get a poor translation revised by a better translator as a cost-saving measure. Prove them wrong by charging a realistic hourly rate, billed according to the actual time spent. This must reflect your real earnings per hour in order to ensure you do not make a loss just because the original translator was incompetent (or the text is messed up, requires extensive research, etc.).
- Some clients demand a discount if revision takes “too long”. The problem is that sometimes, reasonably or not, clients will disagree about how long things should take. Every time you take a revision job, you must accept the possibility that the work will require complete and total re-translation including research. So must the client. However, while a discount cannot be simply “demanded” because something took longer than expected, it would have been better to explain these matters in advance.
Deal with such issues pre-emptively by stating your terms (namely, that you will charge for the actual time spent) in advance, and immediately letting the client know if the text is taking longer than expected and why. In these cases, the client must be informed as soon as possible so they can ensure there were no problems with the original delivery and give the original translator a chance to improve their work (you would inevitably wish for the same if you accidentally sent an earlier draft or had an off day, wouldn’t you?). If the client will not be available while you are working, you should agree in advance what will happen in the event of poor quality. For example, you might agree that you will stop and wait for confirmation the next morning if it takes longer than an hour to revise the first 500 words, or you will call them on an emergency contact number if there is a problem.
- Sometimes translators are asked to give a “blind” quote without seeing the translation. This will come up again in unacceptable terms, but it deserves a special mention here as it’s particularly common when it comes to revision jobs. Often a client is having the work translated by someone else and wants to plan your revision job without you having any clue what the translation quality will be, nor how long it will take. Often this will come with an agreement of a fixed per-word rate (see above), but this can prove problematic, even if you are being paid a fair per-hour rate for the time spent. For example, what if the job turns out to be larger than expected, relates to an unfamiliar field, or so bad it takes twice as long? Get as much information as you can in advance and try to plan in flexibility so that, if the job does overrun, it won’t mess up your other plans. Whatever you do, though, never quote a fixed or per-word fee before seeing what you are getting yourself into.
- And then there’s machine translation post-editing… A current trend is to ask translators (or just “bilinguals” and, sometimes even monolinguals, but that’s a debate for another day) to post-edit machine translations. The same rules apply as for revision work. While the quality is often atrocious, it can often appear okay at first glance, especially if it’s already been cleaned up a bit. Serious problems like inconsistency, syntax and general nonsense will often only show up when you actually do the work. Clearing this sort of mess up can take an incredible amount of time, perhaps even longer than a (re-)translation, as you may be asked why the machine made a different choice and forced to justify every change. Again, a fair per-hour rate or rate that matches your translation fee, with the condition that you only use the machine translation as a reference, would be the way to go. Ideally, though, you would not participate in the cheapening of the profession or your own self-worth as a translator by engaging in such work. Remember that PEMT is very frowned upon by your colleagues and you are unlikely to impress anyone with such experience. It’s a hole you may have difficulty crawling out of. Post-edit at your peril.
Closed formats, dodgy OCR, DTP and additional duties
At the beginning, most newbies have no idea that more-experienced translators are charging more for PDFs and other closed formats. They may also be handed dodgy OCR (optical character recognition) versions of the text to be translated. Secretarial duties, or duties better assigned to the project manager, may also become the translator’s task. In all of these cases, remember that your job is to translate. If you choose to provide additional services, you can also reasonably refuse them or ask to be adequately compensated for your time, skills, and trouble.
- PDFs and images can be rather awkward, but they can be considerably easier with the right tools. I personally use ABBYY FineReader to convert almost all PDFs. Sometimes Microsoft Word or other programs will do a better job, depending how the PDF was originally created. It still takes some time as you invariably have to tell it how to look at each area of the document as, while it may make a reasonable guess, it will still get things wrong and need correcting. You’ll get faster and better with practice, though you will still need to go through the document to make sure FineReader did not make any major mistakes or miss certain parts. It often takes a couple of tries to get a document right. This investment in appropriate software, the time taken to learn how to use it, and the time you actually spend converting the files all deserve some compensation. For my part, I charge a 20% surcharge for most simple conversions, taking no/little responsibility for layout. Just to be sure, I also explicitly explain that pictures and graphs will not be recreated; they can be found separately either in the document or an attached Word or TXT file instead.
- Sometimes converting documents for translation is a lot more complicated. Sometimes documents contain tables, images, handwriting, annotations, poor-quality scans, or other things, and the client wants you to take care of the layout, too. In these cases you can either decide to charge a higher quantity-based rate, charge the whole thing by time, or charge by time just for the layout and DTP tasks at the end.
- “Surcharge for PDFs? Here’s a Word document for you!” Often, when you announce that the document will cost 20% more to translate unless they can provide a Word document (or similar), the client will produce a Word document, as if by magic. The trouble is that sometimes that Word document is NOT the original, and in fact a dodgy OCR they’ve produced using some online free conversion tool. (Clever client – why did I not think of that?) A newbie might be tempted to not rock the boat, and just put up with the mess. Perhaps it won’t be that bad? Bad OCR documents will often play havoc with CAT tools with their extra line breaks, poorly recognised characters and words, as well as bad formatting and the resulting ‘tag soup’, among other problems (sometimes they won’t even make a round trip, i.e. they will not export on the other side). In these cases, charge as you would for a PDF document and explain why.
- Some clients expect or need some desktop publishing or layout work to ensure the final document looks okay. If you don’t want to offer these services, or don’t have the program or skills necessary, explain this to the client before going too far into negotiations. Clarify that you can take the translation work, but only in a format you can work with. If you do want to take this on, be sure to charge more for where additional work is involved. How much more you charge and what way you calculate this is up to you: as in point two, “you can either decide to charge a higher quantity-based rate, charge the whole thing by time, or charge by time just for the layout and DTP tasks at the end”. Some commonly editable formats, such as PowerPoint presentations or InDesign files, may not require extensive desktop publishing skills or effort to provide what the client needs, but sometimes it will. Whatever you decide, clarify everything with the client in advance.
Then there are all the other secretarial or project management duties that a demanding or lazy project manager, secretary, or client will try to pass on to you. For example:
- Some will ask you to provide key information for compiling a quote. This is fine, if you’re okay with it; just make sure that they then understand they have to pay your surcharge for PDFs or awkward file formats.
- Others may expect you to find, recruit, and manage other translators. If unpaid or improperly compensated, we can say this is another expectation that can go too far. Asking for a recommendation is fair enough, but make sure that’s where your responsibility ends unless you’re being paid a project management fee.
- If there’s a complaint, some agency clients will expect you to drop everything and deal with it. Some agency clients have been known to expect us to get involved with complaints management, even on projects we did not have the final say in or which we may not even have worked on. If you might have messed up, then by all means you should ask for specific feedback and take a look at your work. If you’re at fault, put your hands up and offer to improve it – free of charge. If you’re not or only partially at fault, explain this and provide a short rebuttal of a few key points, but do not go over the whole thing free of charge. Discuss the problem with your agency but don’t get too involved if the problem was a reviser or client from Hell. Assuming the agency has a quality management system in place, the buck does not ultimately stop with you. Sure, you should produce excellent work, but complaints management should largely be their domain – after all, this is how they should be earning their cut.
- Agencies may expect you to take over some aspects of client communication. This should generally be the agency client’s domain, if they are expecting to take their cut as an agency. The agency is your client, and your only job is to manage communication with them.
Unacceptable and unreasonable terms
The full range of ways translators can be completely scammed through nasty contracts was previously explored in a post on zombie contracts with trained lawyer and translator Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz. Sometimes, though, translators screw themselves over.
- It suits them, and so many clients will ask you to quote without seeing the text. As described earlier, it happens a lot with proofreading, but also with translation, transcription, and other services. Whenever you can, try to actually see the text you are quoting on before giving a quote. If this is not possible, ask for as much information as possible and explain that your quote is based on certain assumptions (explaining what these are). If things turn out to be different to what you expect and this is not your fault, walk away. It’s not your responsibility to make everything nice and predictable for them if they can’t provide you the information you need to make an informed decision. You might be provided with a document you can’t open, a weird format, a technical field you don’t understand, a badly written text, or a number of bad things that will make the job considerably harder for you.
- A common mistake is charging the same for everything, or having a small limited range that is based on the field of text alone. Some clients (agencies and direct clients alike) like to have a simple set rate for everything, no matter what the content, field, or type of document. If you can set a rate that ensures the rates you charge balance out, that’s up to you. I do this with a couple of clients. The reality is, however, that different texts, even within the same fields, can be vastly different in terms of the work they involve. If something is badly written, I charge more. If something is for publication and requires more care and rounds of editing, I charge more. If something requires special expertise, I charge more. And so on. I don’t always announce these as surcharges, but you must ensure you’re being adequately compensated.
- Newbies often fall foul of the “Friday afternoon curse”, as one colleague described it. Namely, newbie translators often experience lower demand and are often less business-savvy. As a result, most newbie translators don’t charge rush fees or surcharges for weekend and evening work. When Friday afternoon comes around and everyone else slaps a rush fee onto their quote for the urgent job that simply must be finished off by Sunday morning, the newbie takes it and happily cancels their weekend plans to focus on this project. Of course, this can be a great chance to impress a new client, but ultimately, you just taught this client to expect you to work under unreasonable conditions for no extra compensation. Maybe you had nothing better to do? The client doesn’t really know or understand that. They just know you appear to lack the same self-respect more in-demand, experienced translators seem to muster…
- In-house, high-volume, and retainer arrangements almost deserve their own category. Many clients believe the promise of greater volume means we can and should accept lower rates. They’ll offer a per-hour rate that we may compare favourably with the rates paid to employed staff. However, we don’t get all their security and other benefits. The time you spend working on a larger project is time that you cannot spend working for other (better) clients or investing in your own business. Another issue is the fixed hours or unexpected urgent jobs that might get thrown at you, meaning your capacity to take on work for other clients is limited. Another suggestion a newbie friend of mine has had made to him a couple of times lately is “fixed price” arrangements for an apparently unlimited amount of work. Think about just how much work that could entail. Don’t get me wrong: in-house and retainer arrangements can work, but only if you define an upper limit for the hours or volume involved. If you are going to be blocking off time for this client, also look at getting some kind of down payment to ensure they will hold up their end of the bargain.
Generally speaking, it goes without saying that if someone else is proposing the conditions of your trade, nine times out of ten it will not be to your advantage. This is why Aldi and Walmart use checkout staff and fixed prices, not honesty boxes.
- Long payment terms are a curse in this industry. Without knowing better, or knowing to check first, a newbie translator can easily end up working for a client with stupidly long payment terms. A 30 to 45 days maximum wait for payment is considered normal, but many agencies and direct clients alike will expect you to put up with 60-day waits and longer. Another trick is the “30 days EOM” (end of month) trick: you submit your invoice on 2 February and have to wait until 30 March to be paid. Some may also say an invoice only “becomes due” at that point and actually pay in the next round of payments after, which might be up to two weeks later. Some may say you will be paid when the client has paid. Obviously, in these last two cases, we’re heading into legally iffy territory on their part. In short, a newbie should avoid waiting too long for their money. Don’t be afraid to negotiate – I’ve successfully had terms altered for me in the past, back when I worked with agencies. Direct clients? I dictate the terms of payment when making my first quote. If they have an issue with my terms (7 or 14 days, depending on the type of company), then we discuss it and come to an arrangement (or theoretically don’t, but there’s never been a huge problem).
- Far too much form-filling and providing quotes for far too little work. Some clients seem to think we have nothing better to do than sit filling in forms or preparing quotes all day. For agencies, I recommend you clarify details like what sort of rates are acceptable before filling in any forms, handing over any precious documents (if you hand any over at all…) or details, or completing any translation tests. Don’t waste your time with those things before you know there is a real chance of work at your rates, and even then, be sceptical and don’t give out more information than you need to. Be vigilant against identity theft and the misuse of your data. For direct clients, look out for phrases like “the most economically advantageous (cheapest) offer will be selected” or hints that people are really looking for the cheapest option – unless you really want to compete on price, that is. Sometimes they’re just told to get a quote, preferably at different price points. Don’t waste your time if you can help it. Also, make sure you follow up on forms you’ve filled in or quotes you’ve given. Sometimes people get busy (don’t we all) and need a little prodding, even if they had the best of intentions when asking for your form or quote. When it comes to agencies, periodic prodding may help, or at least asking for clarification as to why you’ve not heard back.
- Clients may push translators work outside their specialisations or preferred language direction. This isn’t necessarily something especially wrong on their part, but many direct clients and agencies alike don’t get that we need to specialise in order to consistently produce our best work. We’re often encouraged to be generalists in the early days, and the kind of exams translators are expected to take or the way they are taught at universities does not always help us. Try to be firm here: recommend qualified colleagues or, in the case of direct clients, outsource those jobs to colleagues for a fair fee. Even if you’re desperate, try hard to resist the temptation. If you mess up in one field or language direction, you’ll be judged on your performance in every field or language direction you offer. Word can also get around. Agencies have blacklists, too, and don’t trust an irritated PM won’t let your name slip to the poor translator enlisted to revise your mess. (I know of at least six cases when a translator I know seriously messed up and someone let slip.)
Volunteering, working for “exposure”, valuable “experience” and exchanges of services
A lot of people will try to get you to work for free, one way or the other. The important thing here is to remember what your work is worth, and that working for free is not a sustainable business strategy. After all, free work will not pay your rent.
Whenever you are asked to work for free, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it a non-profit? If not, there’s simply no discussion. Hire somebody, cheapskate! Charge a little less if you feel so inclined and there is some vaguely good cause behind it that you agree with, but it’s totally up to you. For-profit means you’re giving money to whomever takes those profits home with them.
- Is their cause my cause?
- Who else is working for free? The bosses? The lawyers? The accountants? If they’re not, ask why translation is different.
- Can I really do more good through translation than I can with a monetary donation to or translation for a cause of my own choosing?
- Charitable organisations often expect free translations. Translators are often some of the first providers charitable and non-profit organisations look at when trying to save money. While Translators Without Borders and certain other organisations may have worked hard to get some projects off the ground that would otherwise never have happened, there are many other things that go on in the name of volunteering that are decidedly less wholesome. Ask yourself the questions above.
- For-profits with a ‘noble’ cause might also expect free translations. Sometimes these good causes are actually for-profit organisations with a supposedly noble cause. Again, refer to the questions above. Generally, though, if there’s any profit, translation should be a cost to come out of that profit.
- But many organisations looking for free work are for-profit organisations. “I am looking for volunteer translators to translate my app.” “We will leave you great reviews on ProZ,”, “We will provide you with an excellent testimonial.” “We are just a start-up.” Sound familiar? Probably – because we’ve all had approaches like this. If you need experience, you’re better off looking for a cause of your own choosing in a field that relates to what it is you want to translate. Most such organisations will be more than happy to provide you with a glowing testimonial or perhaps even a case study of how you came along and helped them do good work. The connection is then so much more personal and you’ll probably get a lot more out of it – in terms of the rewarding feeling of working for a cause close to your heart, interacting with like-minded people, and receiving useful feedback to help you move forward.
- And then there’s barter or an exchange of services… This is another common offering these days, although it’s rarely what we’re looking for. I know of translators accepting wine or shoes as partial payment, but only when the goods are something they would have purchased anyway, and only when their value equals or exceeds the value of the work done for the company. Tax-wise, this can be rather advantageous, depending on your jurisdiction and the local legislation. Either way, it’s fun and gives you a chance to familiarise yourself with the products or services you are translating texts about. However, there’s a dark side to it, otherwise the exchange of services would not appear in this list. Speaking for myself, I’ve been offered six trial-size packets of cereal in exchange for live interpreting (which I don’t even offer). I know another translator was offered a year’s supply of tofu in exchange for regular translations (yes, she’s vegetarian, but she does not like tofu). If you have some funny examples, add them in the comments.
When an exchange of services is on the table, you must ask yourself a different set of questions, namely:
- Would I be interested in procuring this product or service anyway?
- Has a limit been set on what both parties are offering? (i.e. no unlimited deals)
- Is what they are offering equal to or in excess of the value of what I am offering?
- Is the arrangement legally above-board?
- What are the other terms of the arrangement?
More often than not, these proposals are a bad idea, largely because people are prone to overestimate the value of what they are offering and underestimate the value of what you have to offer. Human nature…
The appropriate response in all of these situations is to simply assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of such an arrangement, including commitments, opportunity costs, and risks, and then decide what is best for you.
That’s all for today!
Thanks for reading. Get yourself something nice to eat or drink, since reading all that must have been quite a lot of work!
If you want to keep reading, you could always read the previous post in this series if you missed it the first time around, or read the story of my long break, my journey, my reasons, and my promise.
Please leave your comments below! Do you have any experiences that reflect or contradict these warnings for newbies? Maybe you’re desperately hoping I don’t miss anything in the last post? Either way, I’ll be pleased to hear your thoughts.
Please also share this post around if you found it useful. I’ll try to get the next post in the series out relatively soon, but I’ve learned my lesson now when it comes to making promises I can’t keep!