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Knowing your limitations April 7, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Translation Sites.

I want to expand on my most recent post, You are only as good as your last translation. I believe one of the things that separates a professional translator from a “not so professional” translator is the ability to know your limitations and turn down work you are not qualified to translate.

Case in point: yesterday I was offered a 4-page translation on the non-destructive testing of fusion-welded seams (sounds like fun, right?). Business has been slow in the past few weeks, and I was very tempting to accept the job. I probably could have done a passable job, but it would have taken me forever to translate and I wouldn’t have slept very well worrying about whether I used the proper terminology.

In the end I turned it down and recommended one of my colleagues who specializes in technical translations and who I am sure will do a wonderful job. She was grateful for the recommendation, and I was grateful that I didn’t accept the job and possibly lose the client by delivering a sub-par translation.

Accepting any and all translation jobs you are offered is a rookie mistake. Hey, we’ve all done it. The key is learning from that mistake and not repeating it. If you have a text that you read and don’t understand during the first read-through, do yourself and your client a favor and turn it down. If you know someone who would do a great job, recommend them to your client. Your client will appreciate your honesty and will remember your professionalism – and most likely will call you again in the future for a text that is right up your alley. And your grateful colleague will hopefully one day return the favor and possibly introduce you to a future favorite client.



1. Ryan Ginstrom - April 8, 2009

I agree 100% about needing to know your limitations.

I’ve seen translations in my field that have been badly botched by someone without subject knowledge, so I remind myself that that’s how my translations in an unfamiliar field will look to an expert.

2. Kate Lambert - April 8, 2009

I often turn down work because I won’t touch technical or financial texts. When I once told a potential new client that I was going to say no because I wasn’t expert enough in the subject area to do a good job, the PM replied that this was “refreshingly honest”. They had apparently never encountered this response before.

3. Susanne Aldridge III - April 8, 2009

Same here, I once gave someone a small survey about printing presses. I don’t even know how that person slept, they must have known all along while translating it that they were doing a shoddy job.
The only thing I can credit them for is that once I confronted them they immediately said they won’t charge, and while that is a pretty obvious admission of guilt it didn’t compensate me for the fact that I had to sit until midnight to get it done myself because it was needed the next day.
Unfortunately, as an in-house translator, you occasionally have those issues too, because you simply cannot refuse to do a translation. I can try and convince people that I am not well suited for this but if they insist, there is nothing I can do.

4. MT - April 8, 2009

Aside from the issue of producing substandard work, you’ve also always got to keep your hourly rate in mind as a translator. If a job is going to take you too long to do, you’re better off not doing it. Nothing sucks more than having to say no to the perfect job offer because you’re busy doing some horrendously difficult job that’s paying you $10/hour because you’re translating it so slowly.

5. Susanne Aldridge III - April 8, 2009

@MT: Agree if something better comes along…and then disagree if it doesn’t. If you can put the time in and do a good job, I would consider it similar to an apprenticeship. Don’t consider it getting underpaid for work, but getting paid for learning something. And in the end, you may take a liking to it and expand your portfolio 🙂

6. Ryan Ginstrom - April 8, 2009

“Unfortunately, as an in-house translator, you occasionally have those issues too, because you simply cannot refuse to do a translation. I can try and convince people that I am not well suited for this but if they insist, there is nothing I can do.”

That’s just depressing. I’m so happy that I can turn down work!

7. Judy Jenner - April 8, 2009

Agreed, one needs to know what your non-specialization is. In my case, it’s medicine (minus some health-care related translations). We not only have a professional and ethical obligation to only accept projects we are qualified for, but we also owe it to ourselves. That is not to say that one can’t develop an expertise in a related area that one hasn’t worked in that much, of course. I am very strict about not letting anyone talk me into accepting assignments outside my areas of expertise.

@Ryan and @Susanne: Yes, in my previous life as a translation department manager, I couldn’t turn down things either, regardless of the subject matter. Now I can — and it sure is very nice.

8. Tom Ellett - April 9, 2009

Good clients will respect you for turning down a job that’s beyond the scope of your expertise. Unfortunately I’ve also encountered responses along the lines of: “But you speak Swedish, don’t you? Can’t you just translate it?”

This is a sure sign of an incompetent agency (probably run by people who are not translators) and all the more reason to turn down the job. These are the same guys who would refuse to pay you if you took the job at their insistence and the end client subsequently complained about the translation.

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