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Balancing client confidentiality and applying for work July 23, 2012

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices.

One of my friends owns a translation agency. They are currently updating their records and have their poor intern contacting translators in their database to update their information. As you can imagine, the poor intern is getting frustrated with the nutty replies she is getting. These are translators who applied to work with the agency in the past. All they are asking is for them to update their contact info, sign an NDA and supply a couple references. One translator refused because they are “requesting the names of some of my other clients, an inconsistency both with the rules of the profession and your own NDA. You should be aware that requesting or disclosing such information is illegal and unethical, and contrary to both laws governing the profession and rules of the American Translator’s Association.”

Uh, what? Dude, take a chill pill. All they are asking is for a couple references. Disclosing this information is not “illegal and unethical.” It’s actually a standard business practices everywhere. I think someone has misunderstood something they heard somewhere.

The American Translator’s Association’s Code of Professional Conduct says nothing about providing references. There are eight bullet points, and the only one that might possibly be misconstrued to mean this could be number 2 – “to hold in confidence any privileged and/or confidential information entrusted to us in the course of our work.” However, this means confidential corporate information, medical results, and business secrets. Keeping anything we learn through a translation for our clients confidential. No more, no less. It does not mean providing a reference.

According to Freelance Folder’s 10 Painful Mistakes that Cost You Freelance Work, one of the top ten mistakes is “No references.” As the writer explains, “Testimonials are a key part of marketing yourself as a freelancer. If no one is willing to say that you did a good job for them, prospects may wonder what’s wrong with you.” Freelance Folder suggests you “ask a few of your current clients if they would be willing to write a testimonial for you.” The reference can also be a former professor, another freelance translator, or a project manager that has worked with you at several agencies. They aren’t asking for references to poach your clients. I am regularly asked to provide a reference for former students. All the agencies want to know is if the student has the skills to be a translator (and is sane). In fact, most agencies probably don’t even have the manpower to follow up on the references. Asking for a reference is not equivalent to client poaching, and this translator will most likely never get work from any agency with this attitude.



1. patenttranslator - July 23, 2012

You have good points in your post, but try to see the issue from the viewpoint of an experienced translator who is being contacted out of the blue by some agency, rather than from the viewpoint of an inexperienced translation student who is begging for work.

1. An unpaid intern is contacting translators …. that means that the agency has no work at this point, not even for the intern.

2. It is not a problem if you give out names of people at translation agencies who can be your reference. Agencies don’t mind doing favors like that at all because the translators then feel that they owe them. But if you work mostly for direct clients, you really don’t want to bother them just because some agency called you. I don’t want a partner at a patent law firm who has been sending me work for the last 20 years to be bothered by questions from some intern. And the risk of poaching is not imaginary in such a case, it is quite real, especially if you don’t know the agency.

3. I have never had a direct customer ask me to provide them with such a reference in more than 20 years. Only translation agencies do that. Why do you think that is?

Jill (@bonnjill) - July 23, 2012

Steve, I get what you’re trying to say, but I respectfully disagree.

First of all, I never said the intern was unpaid. There are internships in which the intern is paid. In fact, I paid my intern several summers ago…

Whenever I hire a contractor (be it a painter, an electrician a fix-it guy or a translator) I always make sure the person is able to handle the job and will do a good job. At a minimum I ask my friends and acquaintances if they can recommend someone. I equate that as being similar to someone a reference with regard to the quality of their work. I don’t see the difference.

My main issue is with the translator thinking it is illegal and unethical. It isn’t. If you don’t want to work with agencies that is fine and it is your right. The point is the person had been in contact with the agency at some point and they were following up. If you no longer want to work with agencies, just tell them to remove you from their database. They’ll be more than happy to do so. Just don’t be flippant, tell the person to F* off or tell them their actions are illegal when they aren’t.

2. patenttranslator - July 23, 2012

“My main issue is with the translator thinking it is illegal and unethical. It isn’t.”

You are absolutely correct. The translator who said that is nuts, not somebody I would want to work with either.

I was just pointing out why some translators may not feel comfortable giving out references among direct clients.

But do you have an answer to my 3. point? Or maybe somebody else will answer it.

Jill (@bonnjill) - July 23, 2012

I thought I had answered that with my comment about asking friends and acquaintances for recommendations. I assume that is how your direct clients found you in the first place…

3. patenttranslator - July 23, 2012

No, although I do get some referrals from old clients and from other translators, most new clients find my website by running a Google search for the type of service that I provide.

4. RobinB - July 23, 2012

FWIW, Steve, we get most of our new business (always direct clients) from referrals (also direct clients), but even then we’re often asked if we can provide other references. Maybe that’s specific to the German market – I don’t know – but it’s very common here (among all professions, not just translators!).

Jill: I pity your friend’s intern, that’s quite a thankless task. But interns have to learn to accomplish thankless tasks with verve and grace before they can think about moving on to fee-generating business, right? (and let’s be honest, not all interns can successfully translate even a tiny, general text …)

5. Emma Goldsmith - July 23, 2012

Jill, while I agree that the “illegal and unethical” claim is way over the top (and I like your chill pill advice), I do get fed up when I’m asked to provide references, especially by the handful. The other day I was asked to give 3 references by an agency that contacted me, not vice versa. I suggested they check out the testimonials page on my website and the WWA entries on my ProZ profile but they’d like me to fill in their “references’ form”.

To pick up on Steve’s comment, I don’t want to bother agencies with requests for references even though they say they’re happy to provide them. Once a year maybe, but once a month or so is pushing their goodwill.


6. patenttranslator - July 23, 2012


I noticed that things are definitely different in Germany, here and in Japan. Every country has its own business culture.

For instance most Japanese companies almost never send translations into English outside of Japan if they can have them done in Japan because “foreigners can’t be trusted”, while foreigners who live in Japan can be probably trusted a little bit more (since presumably they will have some appreciation for Japanese culture).

But most patent lawyers in England, Germany, Switzerland or France will send work to America without a second thought if the Euro is high and the dollar is flat on its back as was the case for the last 10 years.

7. Wenjer H. Leuschel - July 24, 2012

Nope, Steve, things are not that different in Germany.

Some agencies would ask for references, but some not – they just come to you because they’ve heard about your performances somewhere. One of my agency clients, who works for an automobile manufacturer, came to me 2008 because they had a lot of problems finding the right translators for Chinese. They needed to solve a big problem asap and asked me for advice. They explained me how they came to me and they were pretty sure that I would be able to help them out of the impending trouble. I offered them a solution and named the price. Since then I work with them on different projects of the specific automobile manufacturers.

There have been other agencies, who work for other manufacturers in the same field, coming for advice when they run into trouble with their Chinese translations. It has always been “them,” who tell me how and why they came to me, not “me” who was asked for a reference.

For instance, though I’ve never worked on the manual projects of a certain German automobile manufacturere that has changed their LSPs several times in the last 10 years, almost all the VLSLSPs, who have ever worked on projects of the manufacturere, came asking me for quotes without asking me references. I am probably too expensive for those VLSLSPs and it is no wonder why the manufacturer has to try one VLSLSP after another in hope of eventually having the right tranlslators for their products in the last 10 years.

You see, Steve, it is the everlasting unbalanced power structure in this branch of trade that makes some agencies believe that it is a matter of course to ask translators provide references and they never ask themselves why not the other way round, that is, why not they provide references to their prospective translators.

I am just lucky enough to be in the appointed translators lists of some manufacturers when they call for tenders, so that the agencies tell me how and why they come to me. Otherwise, I’d probably have to respond upon requests for references subserviently, too.

I wouldn’t like translation colleagues (either translators or agencies) bother my contact persons, either. So, I usually don’t respond upon requests for references. That is, either the agencies know about my past performances for their (prospective end/direct) clients or not. In case they don’t, I respond with a “thank you for the kind request, but I am afraid not being available at moment” mail.

A decent agency won’t drive around in some pink districts, asking for references. A decent agency does its own search and research on its prospective translators, like a decent translator does on his prospective clients. There won’t be a decent business relationship or a satisfactory collaboration established without mutual respect.

Surely, I wouldn’t respond upon such a request with “f*** off,” even if there are times when it’s pretty hard to refrain myself from doing so. Yet, I haven’t respond with an F phrase a single time. Nice translators just don’t do it, while all high-end call translators do it nicely.

Not all Germans are that “squareheaded.” They can be “praktisch,” even when they seem to be “quadratisch.”

As to “most Japanese companies almost never send translations into English outside of Japan if they can have them done in Japan,” it happens to most Chinese companies as well. I guess that’s why we have a website like engrish.com. (I do translate in my second and other languages when I have to write in those languages, but I don’t translate as a professional in a non-native language. Though I naively tried 10 years ago, I am convinced by Wendell Ricketts of better not doing so. I know I don’t have such a talent. Translating into Chinese has been keeping me satisfactorily busy enough.)

8. Kevin Lossner (@GermanENTrans) - July 24, 2012

I’m always a bit surprised, Jill, by the extreme paranoia many translators display on the subject of references and revealing the organizations for which they do work. I am a bit cautious there myself, because I have seen attempts at potential poaching – including one by the owner of the bankrupt Zurich agency Language Promotion who impersonated an end customer as part of his deranged attack on me a few years ago – however, I cultivate a relaxed attitude about these things generally. Like Steve, I don’t want the individuals with whom I work pestered by some intern or hungry sales manager, but I keep a small set of “references” in reserve for appropriate occasions.

Those who worry excessively about poaching are doing themselves few favors I suspect. There are more important things in life to worry about. I often give my clients a list of my best “competitors”, and if they don’t go running off to them in short order, I figure they are unlikely to be seduced by many others. If they are, they were destined to go anyway – and godspeed.

9. patenttranslator - July 24, 2012


You don’t translate into your non-native languages, but I can see that you enjoy the challenge of writing in them, since your comments on my blog (in English) include phrases in German, Japanese, French and Russian. Oh, and thanks for those translations of Chinese phrases.

It is often much more fun to write in a foreign language, n’est-ce pas?

One should remember that “native” and “non-native” are dynamic rather than static concepts. Joseph Conrad’s first language was Polish, Vladimir Nabokov’s first language was Russian, and Saint Augustine’s first language was Illyrian. They all wrote in or translated into a non-native language. The question is not really whether your language is “native” or “acquired”, but how well is your language acquired, whether or not it is or was your native language.

There was a time when just about anything that was written in Europe by just about anybody was written in Latin. That period lasted for about 8 hundred years. Nobody seems to remember that Latin was a great communication means that had no native speakers for such a long time among educated people who were not hung up on the concept of nativeness.

Had Copernicus written his book in German or Polish, (nobody seems to know what his native language was), the Sun would probably be revolving around the Earth for another century.

10. Eline Van De Wiele - July 24, 2012

Hi Jill,

While I also think that the “illegal and unethical” comment is over the top, my problem with request for references by agencies comes down to sheer volume. I have a smallish portfolio of very good clients (agency & direct). I do also always stay on the look-out for new prospects, but if I responded to every request for references my existing clients would surely get annoyed. Like others above, I simply don’t want to run that risk.

Instead, I tell agencies asking for references that one of the membership requirements for the Chartered Institute of Linguists in the UK is to provide two references. The Institute does follow these up, so my having been accepted as a member should vouch for my abilities & professionalism. Some agencies accept this argument, others don’t.


Terena Bell, In Every Language - July 31, 2012

Eline, thanks so much for letting us know about that CIL requirement. May I ask, when an agency you’ve applied to asks, dp you give them those two names or is the CIL able to give them those names on your behalf? As an LSP owner, we request references from freelancers who come to us. And while I’ve had some argue that they prefer to send in sample translations, etc to prove the quality of their work, our reference checks have very little to do with actual translation performance. We want to know things that affect the actual business of translation, such as do you deliver on time, do you work well with TM, are you polite, and so forth. These things all affect how well or how smoothly a translation partnership can go. These are also things that a membership will traditionally not tell us.

In our case, I think it’s important to add that translators’ references are also required to be kept on hand by our clients, who also require references of us. We only ask for them from translators who have approached our company wanting to be considered for assignments.

And as an LSP, I can tell you my PM’s are always happy to provide references. Your better, more ethical LSP’s get along with one another and we realize that it’s only through our providing references that we can then receive reference feedback ourselves.

Thanks so much.

11. patenttranslator - July 24, 2012

One solution to the problem of “references” is to put a list of your clients right on your website as I did here:


You can then refer people who ask about references to the list on your website and just tell them that you would prefer not to bother your clients in this manner because you value their time.

If the unpaid or underpaid intern still insists, have at least one person who is willing to be your reference in reserve, preferably somebody who has been running a translation agency for a long time and who does not mind answering the phone. The person I have in reserve for this purpose has been running a translation agency since 1977, but I did not have to bother him in this manner for years. I think I gave out his number once about 5 years ago to an agency in Europe, but he told me that nobody called him to check up on me.

I have to say that I understand why a translator with a healthy ego and many years of experience would find it demeaning to have to give references to some intern, usually unpaid, who is calling from some agency, usually because the agency has no work at the moment and they need to keep the intern busy.

If I got a phone call out of the blue from such an agency, it would put them on my list of people that I don’t want to work for …. unless my house is already in foreclosure.

12. Fernando D. Walker - July 24, 2012

Excellent post, Jill! I fully agree with what Steve says. I think that sometimes you don’t want to bother a colleague or client, even if they are willing to write a recommendation about your work or tell the translation agency what kind of professional you are. Of course this will also depend on what translation agency we are talking about. Many of them don’t deserve our attention because you know what they will offer you later on. 😉

In my case, I gather recommendations in my LinkedIn profile, so when a translation agency asks me for references, I send them the link to my profile. What I really don’t understand (well, maybe I do) is why translators must give hundreds of proofs of the quality of our work while this is not a common practice in other professions.

13. Suzanne Owen - July 30, 2012

Although I don’t understand the claim of references being “illegal and unethical,” I’ve certainly found it annoying and awkward over the years as a freelancer to frequently be asked to provide references, and at this point, I very carefully screen any agency or client who asks for them.

But it’s problematic nonetheless: I don’t want the people who’ve agreed to be my references to get called/emailed too often, since it imposes on their time. In addition, a handful of the agencies I’ve worked for over the years have policies of only providing references for their own employees but not freelancers or other contractors they have worked with. I’ve also had cases where a project manager I’ve worked with a lot and who agreed to be a reference leaves his/her job without warning, so then I no longer have valid contact info for this person and sometimes cannot find them on LinkedIn, etc.

I try to get around the sticky issue of references (and tests) and avoid screening processes that are more suited to screening potential employees by directing clients to my Proz and LinkedIn pages and providing a CV with my own translation samples.

14. Cassy - August 5, 2012

For me, referral is good to any business. Since, it seems that referral does not violate the by-laws then that is fine.

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