Volume 15, No. 3 
July 2011

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Hi, Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I feel a range of emotions, but mostly bewilderment, after a translation company invited me to apply to do freelance work in two languages and thereafter told me that I had failed its tests in both. I'm wondering if you can help me evaluate the situation.

These were legal translations. I happen to be a lawyer, but I like to translate, mainly for the mental exercise it provides (I don't derive much extra income from it because I lack the time to do more than a few tens of thousands of words a year at most). I have had one main client for many years and it is happy with my work. This client has high standards and reviews my work meticulously. I took the ATA proficiency test in one of the two languages and passed with, if I recall correctly, flying colors. I did a literary translation once that garnered praise in a publishing industry magazine.

Of the two tests, one was of routine difficulty; it's the kind of thing I do all the time to my client's satisfaction. The other was quite technical and I had to do some research, but I feel comfortable with the translation I submitted.

I asked the company if I could see its reviewers' comments and thereby be given to understand how I fell short in their eyes, but was advised that this isn't possible. This is frustrating, because this incident has given me a sense of some self-doubt and I'd like to be able to assuage it or, if I can't, improve my work.

The only other time this has happened was perhaps 10 years ago. That time the company did send me its reviewer's comments. That was a revelation. The reviewer must not have been a lawyer. The test contained highly technical legal material. I disagreed with all but two or three of the reviewer's criticisms and in fact told the company that I questioned its reviewer's expertise and knowledge of legal terms.

But still, I feel slightly abashed. I wish I knew more about the evaluation of the tests I just failed.

I welcome any comments, and please don't hesitate to tell me that you think I need further evaluating if you believe I do. Thanks.

Surprised in Silicon Valley


Dear Surprised,

You shouldn't be. We've heard of many situations similar to the one you've experienced. And we are not talking about people who turn in translation tests with atrociously mangled grammar or texts betraying a near-perfect ignorance of subject matter. (Of course such linguistic embarrassments occur far more frequently than you'd think. One of these days perhaps we will get a chance to write about anosognosia as it pertains to the field of translation.)

No, these are instances of competent, experienced translators submitting, for whatever reason, to a request for a test and then being told they came up short... but not how or why.

The refusal to provide the reviewer's comments is a big red flag. Why ever not, would be our response. If desired, the reviewer's identity could be kept confidential.

The sad reality is often that the reviewer has a conflict of interest, being herself or himself a translator with a business relationship with the agency—and how many humans possess strength of character sufficient to write the words, "Recommended—this translator did a better job than I could have done"?

Our suggestion: chalk it up to another of life's vagaries and move on.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

One of my clients has a problem with my high fees. Therefore she doesn't call me often. Yet each time she calls me (including yesterday at 9:30 pm) and asks for a quote, and I do send her a quote, the final answer is always the same: "Unfortunately, the buyer has declined our offer of assistance. The project will therefore not go ahead. Many thanks however for your responsiveness and offer of availability."
I have this feeling that she uses me only as a safety net to secure the order, after which she has some time to find a cheaper supplier. 
Any suggestions on positive responses to this situation? I'm thinking of pointing out, politely, that her jobs never seem to materialize, that I'm happy to be of service, but maybe she should phone only when she has a firm order.
What do you think?


Fire Ant responds:

Does your phone have Caller ID? Don't take her call after business hours. That's for starters. And for calls during regular office hours, take the call but tell her you'd love to spend an hour working out a quote but that with the pace of work, you're just too busy and—(at this point you click on the icon with the "RRRING" sound file on your desktop) sorry, but there's a call on the other line.

Be cheerful and chipper. Don't sound bitter. And don't start a punch-up that you're not prepared to see through to the end, even if it starts off ostensibly polite like your idea of a positive response.

Alternative: get one of them bigass old bakelite phones, where you can slam the headset down on its cradle with all your might and the phone doesn't break. (This will work for telemarketers, too.)

Worker Bee suggests:

Who knows, maybe your quotes are tools in this woman's ongoing quest to berate and educate in-house departments ("See how much a Korean translation is going to cost? We haven't got that kind of money. Next time plan ahead to help keep costs down!").

In this rosy scenario, the penny eventually drops: her PR, Accounting, HR and Production departments pull up their socks, and she'll soon be accepting your quotes for expert work due in a week's time.
But we doubt it. More likely, her purchasing process requires three or more proposals before assigning a job. She's figured out that you are a reliable supplier of the top-end (and thus doomed) bid.

You might ask outright if this is the case, and explain that the time needed to prepare the quotes is a problem for you.

Another option: prepare a simple table setting out your rates: standard, urgent, overnight, weekend, etc. Refer her to this each time she calls, combining it with Fire Ant's RRRING tone conversation-stopper to move on.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Since becoming a translator in 2005, I had worked mostly with translation agencies and accordingly had only been making "agency rates" (which I somehow thought were good enough until learning otherwise through networking with fellow translators at the last ATA conference (my first).)
Following that event, I have been making much greater efforts to win more direct clients. I set my base rate at 0.25 USD per word for standard deliveries, with a 100% surcharge for express/weekend work.
One of my most recent networking efforts paid off and I landed my first major direct client: a PR agency with offices in the US, Germany and Switzerland.
Recently this new client has come to me with 2 very urgent jobs—basically with a turnaround of just a few hours. Based on the quality of the English texts that I provided, the first urgent job this past weekend led to my client landing a contract with a major client for additional work that will require my services.
Yesterday afternoon my new client came to me with another urgent job (for his same new major client) with around 1100 words that had to be done ASAP (again just a few hours). I managed to fit it in despite being busy with other work, and he was overjoyed with the quality and promptness of my translation. He said he was willing to pay whatever I charged (he already knew my rates and the surcharge for express work).
How is it then that I suddenly feel conflicted about writing an invoice for over $500 on a job that I might not have made more than $150 on with an agency? Since you have much more experience in this area, I thought I would run this by you before sending out the invoice. I guess I am finally learning why having direct clients pays off—I suppose it just makes me realize how I was selling myself short in the past.

Off and Running


Dear Running,

Please don't lose any sleep over this one:

  • Your work has just won your client a contract with a major new client—no wonder he's delighted! And paying $500 for that is very little indeed. (In fact, he seems to be hinting that your current prices are too low. Keep that in mind as you seek out new direct clients.)

  • The hours you are selling are not just these hours, here and now; they are the result of all the other hours you have invested to sharpen your wits, pen and translating skills. Which makes your invoice more than reasonable.

Congratulations, and thanks for this reminder to readers that professional association meetings are a good place to network and swap ideas. They may even change your life!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

In Translation, Getting it Right (click on "Brochures,") on the page about "translators and bilinguals," you say we are first and foremost writers and I've always believed that wholeheartedly.

Still, I only really use all my writing skills in about 50% of my translation work. Tops.

This is because the really lucrative assignments for me are tons of paperwork that some law requires translated.

Right now, for example, I'm convinced many of my translations go straight from my computer to some file to gather dust, perhaps first passing by a courtroom or conference table to serve as exhibits in interminable depositions for civil litigation. Awfully written correspondence, for example: I'm doing 100 pages of emails right now for some embezzlement investigations.

I am already able to refuse a ton of this kind of work, mercifully (because I do NOT use any translation tools and it all goes to colleagues who do). But sometimes, like right now, they pay whatever I ask; the clients have already made the rounds, but all their good tech-equipped translators are busy, the end user has more and more coming in, and deposition time is near. 

I earn in the six digits (averaging 16 cents/word but clients agree to 0.30+ sometimes) and I sign a lot of my work, yet I'm forced to realize that many of the assignments that come my way do not even allow me to begin to squeeze my writing juices. Should I be worried? Am I doing my career long-term damage by translating such poorly-written texts?

No One Reads Me


Dear Reads,

So you're wringing your hands all the way to the bank, is that it?

Listen, you've got a healthy income—and presumably a nest egg—clients are coming back for more on your terms and you're using your writing skills in at least half of what you do. What's to worry? And don't forget, translating clunky texts can be a genuine writing challenge: it's all too easy to go on autopilot, which the legal team you're working for surely doesn't want.

But if you are really concerned about losing your touch, you might try ratcheting down the bread and butter assignments and actively seeking more challenging texts. In which case we'll look forward to your next letter, worrying about how much time you are spending per word and how this is affecting your income.

You can also keep your hand in by attending industry events that focus on enhancing writing skills.