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Translators and the art of business April 3, 2012

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices.

There is a discussion on the WPPF listserv about a company that may or may not be having payment difficulties. Here are two comments from two different posters with the name of the company redacted:

Company X owes me $1,181.70 for a translation job completed on December 26, 2011.

They owe us $19,497.73 for 5 projects. The last invoice was issued on Dec 26, we completed the project during the holidays without any extra charge. So there are about 80 days from the last invoice and around 90 days since the other invoices were issued.

I can understand the first comment, but the second comment just shows some terrible business practices. First of all, they worked for the company over the holidays without a rush fee or surcharge. That is wrong on just so many levels. Secondly, I don’t know how some translators can let such a large debt accrue with just one single client. That’s just trouble waiting to happen! I wrote off my invoice to “Dear Client” as a business loss on this year’s taxes (since it had been a year since I had sent the invoice), but luckily it was only $60. I refused to work for the client again when they contacted me a month after the first job and hadn’t yet paid my invoice. I could understand the issue with the first poster, but the second one allowed a much larger debt to accrue. That kind of overdue debt is unacceptable from a business standpoint.

First of all, one should never limit oneself to just one client, because this kind of shortfall might easily occur. In that case, I highly recommend making sure you have a cushion in the bank to cover the lean times. A few weeks ago I had about $8,000 in overdue invoices, but that was distributed among three different clients. All but one invoice have since been paid and profuse apologies were issued. The responses these posters are receiving from the client, which claims the accountant is no longer working for the company and the other accountant was on vacation until March 19th, leads me to believe that these people may never see their money. This means they spent hours and hours translating and might never be compensated. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, and they do get paid. I know that if I were contacted by the company I would most certainly not agree to work with them.

Luckily they reported the delinquent client to the WPPF listserv so that people have a heads up that there might be a problem. This is why payment practices groups and lists are so important. The link leads to a post listing all the available listservs out there. I hope you all are subscribers to at least two. I myself subscribe to four different groups. It allows me to be aware of who the bad apples in the industry are.



1. Carolyn Yohn - April 3, 2012

I would never accept a new job from a company who hadn’t paid for the last one. You said– that’s just bad business!

2. Wenjer Leuschel - April 4, 2012

That none of my clients is a bad payer since I became a freelance translator 12 years ago, is a matter of pure luck (una cosa de pura suerte).

One of my clients pays EOM 3 months upon delivery and receipt of the invoice, while a project can last 2 or 3 months and 3 or 4 projects can overlap during the period. I may have to wait for a payment longer than half a year and the amount due can come up to 20K€, sometimes. Yet, I’ve never been afraid of not getting paid as agreed.

There are many payment practices groups and lists and I do subscribe some of them, but I scarcely read anything else than company names in question, unless the companies in question happen to be clients of mine. While I understand how freelance translators feel when they are waiting anxiously for their money, I’ve figured out that it is not always the fault of the agencies which are alleged of non-payments or delayed payments. There are always stories of both sides and a freelancer can always choose not to develop a bad story.

Instead of making people understand the principles (the art) of doing business and risk management, most PP groups or BBs are full of allegations.

As a Chinese proverb goes, “We know them by names; we recognize them by appearances; but we never know what’s really going on inside their hearts. (知人知面不知心).” There are always risks in business. The matter is “how to manage risks.”

You may brouise your skin, cut in your flesh, wrench your muscles, tendons or sinews, but never ever shall you break your bones.

A $2,000 bad debt is an Ouch! If the client had paid in the past 12 months $40,000 at a rate of $0.20 per word, it would be a reduced rate of $0.19, kind of a scratch. If the client paid in the past 12 months $20,000 at a rate of $0.20 per word, it would be a reduced rate of $0.18, kind of a brouise. But if the job was an initial one from the client, you’ve sprained your ankle or broke your bones.

So, take your time to develop relationships of mutual trust between you and your clients. Don’t accept a huge project from a new client, unless you know how to make sure that you get paid as agreed and scheduled.

Agencies come and go, like freelance translators. If you don’t know how to develop relationships to end clients and have to depend on agencies, choose the ones whom you can “work with.”

Working-with is an attitude that reveals itself when a client approaches you. Should an agency approaches you without the right attitude, the risk could be higher than what you can manage. Avoid such clients. The market is big enough to accommodate one more freelance translator like you or me.

Start working on smaller projects with more agencies, keep the amounts due at each of theirs lower than you would regret if they don’t pay. Writing off a $50 bad debt is a scratch on your skin. Writing off a $2,000 bad debt is a cut in your flesh or a sprained ankle of yours. We all learn from our own experiences, because bad experiences hurt. But the smarter ones learn from experiences of others while the dumb ones never learn, even when they’ve broken their bones again and again.

Everyone of us has his own way to manage risks. Some would believe everything what people say about an agency. I choose to go with common sense to ensure my luck. Should there be no mutual respect, there will be no mutual trust. (Lo que no fue no será.) The initial approach is decisive and keeping track of the development of the relationship will tell you which client can be trusted with a credit of $20,000 and which can only be trusted with a credit of $200 or less.

It is almost as easy as the ways we make our decisions on when we do a free test or when we do a pro bono translation.

3. patenttranslator - April 5, 2012

1. “知人知面不知心”
Chinese is such an “economical” language. I can’t think of any other language that could express such a relatively complex idea in 7 syllables (in Japanese it would be pronounced “chijin chimen fuchishin” and it would be perfectly understandable from the characters, but you would need twice as many syllables for Japanese words).

2. “So, take your time to develop relationships of mutual trust between you and your clients. Don’t accept a huge project from a new client, unless you know how to make sure that you get paid as agreed and scheduled.”

This is true, but it works only up to a point, especially with translation agencies. If an agency runs into problems, it may stop paying translators although it used to pay in the past.

An agency in Belgium stiffed me a few years ago for three thousand dollars because they went bankrupt. The first letter from their bankruptcy lawyer must have been in English or French because I understood it and filed my claim.

After that, I received about a dozen letter from the same lawyer, but all of them were in Flemish to make sure that I would not understand anything.

4. Polish translator - April 8, 2012

Forget about them. Just take money if you can and look for other projects somewhere else!!!

5. Wenjer Leuschel - April 8, 2012

1. Yes, the 7-syllable expression is also an idiomatic expression in classical Japanese. Most Japanese understand it without rewriting them in modern colloquial Japanese.

2. The reason why I wrote further “…and keeping track of the development of the relationship will tell you which client can be trusted with a credit of $20,000 and which can only be trusted with a credit of $200 or less” is obvious: we shall observe the business developments of clients to avoid impending bankruptcies.

In time of an impending bankruptcy, I’d get me out with a settlement before they file the bankruptcy. “Ein magerer Vergleich ist besser als ein fetter Prozess,” as the Germans would say. Lucky enough that not even this happened once to me. (A former agency client of mine went broke last year. But since I could not agree with their way of developing business, I stopped working with them 3 years ago.)

Freelance translators do need a lot of good luck. I hope that the 3-thousand cut in your income did not hurt you too much, Mr. Vitek.

6. Sally Massmann - April 9, 2012

In my experience translators are often people who love the language and possess in-depth expertise about a particular area. However, when it comes to marketing themselves, having good IT skills, or being business-savvy they often fall down. I too am a member of a payment practices newsgroup and often use it if a new client wants me to work for them. It’s an inexpensive and usually reliable way of checking a company’s solvency.

With a big project, such as that mentioned in the second comment, you could always ask for a partial payment in advance. After all, missing payments could be a serious risk to your cash flow, or ability to pay your rent. Any bona fide business is prepared to meet you half way.

Another comment I would like to make is that I NEVER accept projects that run over the Christmas holidays. Any company that is well organised and plans properly will realise that Yuletide is approaching and they had better make sure that there are translators actually around to do the job. Any firm that chaotic is bound to be trouble (and usually is).

7. Wenjer Leuschel - April 9, 2012

Hi Sally,

Correctly, there is always a possibility to ask for an advance. Since I asked the client who pays 2 months EOM after delivery and receipt of invoices to do so, they have turned to pay me 50% at the start of each project and the other 50% as usual.

As to projects running over the Christmas holidays, I would not be that strict, because there are the Lunar New Year holidays some time between February and March in Chinese cultural sphere and a Golden Week in October. Those holidays are usually unknown to Western clients while Christmas is not a holiday for Chinese at all. One of my regular end clients starts usually a yearly project 1 or 2 days before the Christmas and expects the result by the middle of January. The agency that works with me for this client has to work over the Christmas holidays, too.

Anyway, the more we know about/of our clients and vice versa, the more mutual trust we can develop and the less trouble of payment we can expect. That is why freelance translators need patience and social skills. There are no fixed rules in business, except that we shall make sure of getting paid as agreed and scheduled.

– Wenjer

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