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What to do when a translator disappears September 19, 2017

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

I’ve been sitting on this post for about three and a half years. I initially was going to write it when one of my colleagues disappeared while working on a portion of a project I was working on. One of the documents was too technical, so I had asked my client to send that file to her. I delivered my files on time. My client and I then went 24 hours waiting for her to respond somehow. She did not respond to e-mails or phone calls. In the end she finally delivered, but really, really late. I have never heard from my client again. This colleague is no longer translating full-time and is in a position that hopefully makes her much happier.

However, this happened again with another colleague today. I woke up this morning to an email from one of my clients begging to me to step up to the plate and deliver the remaining 10 pages of a 27 page PDF of a quote on construction parts. I had initially turned it down two weeks ago because it is not my field at all, and gave her the name of a colleague who works in that field. So this colleague not only had had a fairly long lead time to do the translation, she also then renegotiated the Friday deadline to Monday morning and sent 15 of the 27 pages on Monday afternoon. That helps no one. She was not also responding to the client at all.

So my client ended up contacting me in a panic to see if I could help her deliver the rest asap. I wasn’t happy, but I accepted the rest of the job to placate my client. I worked on it for about an hour and a half and was then told my colleague had finally delivered the translation. I was also told to bill for my work and then told to increase my word rate and the rush rate once she received my invoice. At least this time my client is happy with me and will hopefully keep working with me, so that’s a plus.

That said, I will never be recommending this colleague again. This is the second time she flaked out on one of my clients when I recommended her. There will not be a third time. I kept an open mind after the first time, because she had a pretty good excuse of a death in the family. This time it was supposedly a medical issue. I felt badly for her; however, in light of the other factors I don’t accept the excuse. Each time she had what could be considered a credible excuse, but that is the thing – if there is a pattern you will never be trusted again by the people you burn. At what point do you just admit you screwed up? If she had said last week that she was having trouble making the deadline my client could have found someone else to do it instead of making excuses to her end client.

I know agencies unfortunately deal with this kind of behavior all the time, because it will sometimes come up in casual conversation. I simply don’t understand how anyone who calls themselves a professional translator can work like that. When I had an attack of appendicitis a few years ago I let my clients know to reallocate the translation from my Emergency Room bed. I would never dream of simply dropping out of contact for a day or two. If I ever do, you can be sure that I am unconscious or dead. Those are the only two acceptable excuses.

I would really love to start a dialog here in the comments. Whether you are a project manager or a freelancer, have you ever been bit by a flaky translator? How did you handle it? Have you worked with them again? How did you end up placating the end client? No names or identifying information please. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.



1. Ellen Hawley - September 19, 2017

It’s a totally different field, but I once had an agent flake out on me–just drop out of communication. I finally wrote to the professional association she belonged to and, lo and behold, she gave me the information I asked for (where she’d sent my manuscript) so I could look for someone else to work with. If I remember right, she wrote something like all I had to do was ask. I had–by email, by letter, and by phone. So yeah, it’s not just translators.

Jill (@bonnjill) - September 19, 2017

Wow, at least you had some recourse. I have a new job (not full-time, just in addition to translating) offering relocation services for international clients. I started working with a realtor who wasn’t very responsive to our requests to sign an NDA, so I called his company and asked to have another agent. She’s great and very responsive. As freelancers we don’t have any recourse other than sit and wait and hope.

Thanks for the reminder that it isn’t just our industry that deals with this.

2. Angela - September 20, 2017

This has happened to me time and time again, both when I was project managing for an agency and later after I went freelance myself and started outsourcing and collaborating with colleagues.

There are many many examples but two in particular come to mind. One was a friend of mine who was supposed to proofread a huge project for me. She actually did deliver on time but when I went to finalise the file it became almost immediately clear that she had not actually read the whole thing. I had had a suspicion of this other times she had proofed stuff for me, but never solid evidence of the fact, and never enough to actually bring it up to her; this time was the last straw. I did raise the issue with her and she just said that she would not charge for the work. I take that as an admission of guilt; I mean, if you had actually read it you would certainly say you had, right, if your client was accusing you of something so incredibly unprofessional and even fraudulent? Suffice it to say that I have not worked with her since.

Another example involves a colleague who I sent work to, and then the client cancelled the job. I immediately tried to contact the translator by email and phone, saying that the job was cancelled, and she would be paid for any work she had already done. No reply for 20 hours. And then late in the evening she sends in the entire job, fully translated, and claims that she only just received my emails. Maybe I would have overlooked this, but other colleagues in the translation world have had this person do similar “tricks” to them, so like you say, when there is a pattern, it is hard to trust them. And also, this example shows that you don’t even need to have a pattern with the same person because our industry is small and PEOPLE TALK.

Jill (@bonnjill) - September 20, 2017

Wow, interesting. How could you tell she hadn’t read it? Were there obvious typos she missed? That is actually quite unethical on her part. As for the second example, my mind is blown. I have no words. What cheek!

Angela - September 27, 2017

Sorry, I just saw your reply. She had clearly read about a chapter of this text and then just did a find-and-replace-all job for the minor changes she was making. So what you end up with is a text that yes, has changes throughout as if someone has read it, but the changes are all a little too uniform. I had noticed it before in other jobs she’d read for me, but could never prove that that is what she had been doing. But this final time the job was really big (300 pages or so) and she had done find-and-replace-all (not checking each one individually) and had ended up actually inserting huge obvious errors into the text in the process. Plus there were sections that were not fully localised/translated and she never said anything or made changes because let’s face it, she didn’t know they were there herself, having not read the text. Really disappointing.

Jill (@bonnjill) - September 27, 2017

Oh man, I would have been LIVID!!! Wow.

3. becomingatranslator - September 20, 2017

I freelance interpret, rather than translate, so the work flow is different. But if something came up, like a medical or family emergency, and I couldn’t show up for an assignment, you better believe I would contact the client immediately to let them know. So, it’s weird to me that a translator who “had something come up” would not immediately inform you or the agency. That’s not something you should have to find out after the deadline has passed.

4. Barbara Jungwirth - September 27, 2017

Based on comments I get from clients, they seem to deal with quite a few freelancers who don’t deliver on time and don’t respond to reminders. That always surprises me. A few years back, I was frantically packing my bags and booking the next flight out after learning that my mother had just had a massive heart attack in Austria. I was working on two fairly large projects at the time and had agreed to edit two other translations the following week. It took less than half an hour to send the work in progress to the two (agency) clients with profuse apologies and to notify the other agency about the upcoming editing projects. It frankly did not occur to me to do anything less, but apparently that’s not how some translators operate. It seems reliability can still set you apart in the translation market.

5. Tirs - November 15, 2017

“Unconscious or dead”, you say… Well, we had a third case in our company several years ago (in a project not managed by myself). One of the freelance translators we used to work with* had a serious car accident and, when the police arrived, alas, he discovered he had forgot his wallet with the driving license and all IDs. What’s worse, the car papers were also at home. So the police found an undocumented man crashing an undocumented car. He was taken into custody and allowed to do just one phone call, which of course he did to his lawyer, but she wouldn’t take the phone (it was around 10PM). When he finally was able to talk to his lawyer, he didn’t remember to tell her to call us. The story ended three days ago, after a series of administrative mistakes and unfortunate coincidences. Meanwhile, of course my company had been desperately trying to locate him to see what happened to the translation he had to deliver two days before.

So, the third case would be: “Incommunicated in jail”. And we could add a fourth “kidnapped” case, but I don’t know any instances of this.

* We stopped working with him because he quit being a freelance translator, not because of this incident.

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 15, 2017

Wow. That’s crazy. Hope it all worked out well for him.

Tirs - November 15, 2017

Well, yes. Later, he was explaining why he disappeared, and he and our PM were laughing together 🙂

Angela - November 16, 2017

This reminds me of the time when I worked at an agency and one of our Russian translators, usually very reliable, never delivered a job. We tried calling multiple times, spoke with other colleagues who also hadn’t heard from her. We were getting worried after three or four days of no news, and it turned out that our concerns were justified. She ended up in the news maybe 9 days after her job should have been delivered. She had been murdered. 😦

Tirs - November 16, 2017

Ow! these things make you feel so bad!

Jill (@bonnjill) - November 16, 2017


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