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Culling the herd (a.k.a. It’s so hard to say goodbye…) June 26, 2008

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Random musings.

As I have mentioned before, I have reached the point where I can be more selective about my clients. I have already raised my rates and still find myself regularly turning down two to three (or more) jobs a day from new and existing clients. I am finding the process difficult on several different levels.

I severed ties with a particularly difficult client (a European PR agency) several months ago after a nasty e-mail exchange with one of its employees. I had been working with them since 2006. They would frequently send me texts that were due within a few hours and had asked me to translate a difficult batch of software strings and other technical website features for their client’s new portal. They also expected me to use a specialized, proprietary tool without being able to answer any of my questions about it (in all fairness the client had sent them the tool and they had no idea how to use it. Luckily I am adept enough with software to be able to figure it out on my own). When I would turn the jobs down they would literally beg me (“bitte, bitte“) to accept the job. The whole month of the site launch had rankled my enjoyment of working with them.

I had been getting more and more frustrated with their demands and complete cluelessness about the field of translation. All my attempts at client education were met with complete disregard. After the employee demanded I send her the character count of the multiple-file job I had delivered a few days before and had already archived, I told her my final line count, which was how I billed them, and said if she needed the character count she could do it by opening the files and using the Word count feature in Word (the files had no text boxes or anything that wouldn’t be counted). She replied that she wasn’t my employee, which set me off, so I replied that I wasn’t her employee either and suggested she find someone else to translate her texts in the future. It left bad feelings on both sides, which is a shame because I really enjoyed working with the agency owner.

I recently found myself in a similar, yet slightly different situation at the end of last week. I have been working with a European translation agency for about a year now and was never really happy with the remuneration because they insisted on using five different Trados rate classifications. They approached me about translating a large job that would take up the entire month, which I considered accepting provided I still had time for my other clients’ jobs. However, when I asked about an outstanding invoice that was three weeks overdue I was told that their payment terms were 60 days, which was news to me. Payment up to now had always been made within 45 days, which had been acceptable. At that point I decided I needed to let them go. It was a tough decision, because they agreed to make an exception and honor my payment terms of 30 days. However, they asked that I start billing them in U.S. dollars, which would cost me bank transfer fees, instead of paying me in euros to my German account. And then there was still the problem with the Trados rate scale. But that is another post in and of itself…

I realize I made a good decision in the first case, but I am questioning the second. We ended our e-mail discussion on very good terms. She thanked me for my “frank response” and said she would take my arguments about Trados into consideration and discuss it with her colleagues. She also wished me all the best and said “If in the future your circumstances change please don’t hesitate to get back into contact with us.” Such an understanding response and willingness to compromise makes it very difficult to have the resolve to stick to a decision.

I would love to hear your opinions on the matter. Where do you draw the line in the sand with a client? How have you handled having too many clients and not enough time in the day to translate all the jobs offered to you? I am opposed to the idea of outsourcing extra work or expanding to become an agency, because I am proud of my work and love what I do.



1. Marinus - June 26, 2008

I fully agree with the decisions you made, I would have done the same. As a ‘single operator’ it definitely is harder to get treated with professional respect and insisting on decent payment terms can be dodgy, but when you start giving in, where is the end? Join ProZ, ATA or a German association, so you’ll at least be strengthened by the common experience of your fellow translators. Besides, ProZ has a good client rating system in place, the Blueboard, you may have heard of it.
Good luck!

2. Corinne McKay - June 26, 2008

Great thoughts, Jill! In both of these cases, I think that you did the right thing; unfortunately when you’re one person and don’t want to work 24/7, clients either rise to the top of your preference list or don’t, that’s just the reality of self-employment. The net 60 issue is hard; I know it’s the standard in Europe, but here in the U.S., our own “creditors” (i.e. the mortgage company or landlord, electric company, etc.) are not so generous and sometimes for large jobs, we just don’t have the cash reserves to float a 2 or 3 thousand dollar payment for two months. I also agree that 5-tier pricing for TM discounts is excessive. I’ve even seen a number of translators who say “70% discount for 100% matches *if you don’t want me to proofread them,* otherwise nothing.” Not that I necessarily agree with that either, but I think that 5 tiers is too many!!

3. jillsommer - June 26, 2008

Hi Marinus,

Thanks so much for your comment.

I am an active member of ATA and am very active in several German groups, which is why I had the strength and background information to stand up for myself. One of the reasons I started this blog is to help others with the knowledge I have gained from all my colleagues on the ATA German Language Division (GLD) list and the Partnertrans (now called pt_) listserv as well as several translators in Germany and the U.S. who took me under their wing and nudged me in the right direction.

Don’t even get me started ranting about ProZ. I could rant and rave for hours about ProZ… Their KudoZ boards can be quite helpful, and I’m sure the Blue Board is a good tool as well. However, I feel ProZ does not patrol its members enough. A few years ago 35 people claimed to be members of NOTA from all over the world who were obviously not members. I brought this up on the ATA Chapters list, and several chapter presidents (including me) wrote to ProZ complaining about people claiming membership in the chapters. Henry brushed off – if not outright ignored – our complaints. As a result, MICATA decided to remove itself entirely from ProZ’s list of organizations, and NOTA decided to opt out of the database. ProZ’s system also contributes enormously to the declining prices in the translation industry. I have been offered several million-word jobs at $0.01-0.02 a word. You can imagine my delight in that… :p

4. Cathy Flick - July 31, 2008

Concerning the bank fees – I just add that to my fee, either indirectly (raising rates for that client) or directly (calling it a bank surcharge). Encourages them to think of cheaper ways (for me) to pay.

I’ve also either added a surcharge or just raised the rate for any client who wants longer than 30 days for the payment schedule. This also encourages “exceptions”!

My areas are not very amenable to Trados anyway (chemistry, physics), but I do use Wordfast which is theoretically compatible with Trados. However, after my first disaster with a discount-for-matches Wordfast/Trados job (the “exact matches” from their project memory were completely wrong…), I only offer to work on an hourly basis with cap set at my normal full translation fee. If the docs are really repetitive, they will save money. If repetition really doesn’t save me any time – I don’t get burned.

I discourage them from expecting me to use a project TM for anything but very project-specific items (e.g., department names) by telling them I will charge by the hour to evaluate any TM based on anybody else’s work. In my areas, prior translators often do not have my scientific background and make a lot of mistakes, even though they write English very well and are good translators for more general material. “Good English” makes the PMs assume the translation is good, even when it isn’t. The end users of the translation are so used to bad translations of scientific work that they don’t bother to complain… 🙂 I can always tell the end clients who have been burned too often — they insist on translators with advanced degrees in specific scientific fields!

In fields that are more amenable to Trados, the only suggestion I could make would be to really keep good time records to make sure those discounts make good business sense. If the figures suggest you would do better working at Wal-Mart, then you have some concrete figures to present to the client in a renegotiation.

I’ve always kept detailed time records for every job (including time negotiating and invoicing etc.) and always calculate my real dollars per hour for every job even when charging by the character. This is not only helpful for setting realistic deadlines – it also helps me avoid the illusion that a higher rate per word or character really means better dollars per hour, and also helps me happily turn down jobs that I know will not bring in very much per hour.

Project managers often have very unrealistic expectations about how long it should take to process a particular job. For instance, I just turned down a 500 word translation job offered at 25 Euro. I figured that the PM assumed it was a “1 hour job”, but I knew that it could easily take several hours because of the subject matter. (My classic example is the 4 or 5 hours I needed to translate 100 Russian words in a semiconductor patent abstract… had to read and understand the whole patent, decide on all the key terminology, do some outside reading to make sure of some terms/phrasing, etc.) So I didn’t budge from my minimum job fee, which allows me several hours. Short jobs in my areas are more labor-intensive than longer ones, but I always offer to charge by the hour if by some miracle that is cheaper than my minimum.

The PM said this was a test translation for their bid on a larger job, but I told the PM that I can’t take on even a test for anything less than my normal fees. There is no guarantee that they will get the larger job, or that they will be willing to pay my normal fees (including rush surcharges if necessary), or that my job schedule will be able to accommodate their deadlines at all.

I’ve actually been paid much more for such “test translations” by agencies trying to court a new client than their potential client is paying. So the agencies themselves know that paying for a test job is part of their normal business expenses. There is no reason for me to subsidize their business by treating such tests as anything but a normal job.

Basically, just do what you need to do in order to meet your own business goals. That’s what the translation agencies are doing, after all. If our goals and their goals don’t match – well, there are other things we should be doing with our time, such as looking for more suitable clients or retraining to do something else entirely, or doing the vacuuming… It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.

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