Fire Ant & Worker Bee Q&As, written by Chris Durban, is a column with practical tips for practicing translators.
This column has been a featured section of the Translation Journal for over 15 years. To read more about Chris Durban please see the side bar to the right.
Chris is currently participating in a special MBA program with Seth Godin. The following Q&As have been plucked from the TJ archives.
Two months ago a potential new client contacted me for a possible job in urban planning (my specialty). I sent a quote but they said I was too expensive and went with someone else. This week they reappeared. The translator they hired was not up to the task. Her translation was word-for-word and she made lots of technical mistakes.
They want to know if I’m still available and interested (although the deadline is now very tight).
I’ve read your comments to the effect that clients recovered “singed and reeling” from a low-end supplier can be very loyal, but this particular client seems positively charred. They are very wary, even distrustful. They want me to do a test translation “just to be sure we’re a good match”. I think they are exaggerating, since I provided excellent references the first time around. Your opinion?
Once bitten, twice shy. Even knowing nothing about the budget in this particular case, we sympathize with the client—and would remind you and other readers that poor choices by translation buyers are linked directly to our profession’s failure to communicate how our skills can be best harnessed to serve them.
The good news for you is that this potential client has apparently started to see the error of their ways. More good news is their jittery state—your cue to step in as a calm, collected, sincere, knowledgeable and professional solution provider.
Assuming their customer profile is a good fit, we think investing an hour or even two in a test piece is time well spent, although you might get around this by showing them a portfolio of your past projects. (Why, we wonder, are translators so very reluctant to develop and present portfolios of their best work? Possibly for the same reasons so many steer well clear of signing their work.)
In any case, your price should be high enough to cover unbilled time spent on occasional test pieces, especially if there’s scope for a good long-term relationship. Not to mention the rush charge that you will now, regretfully, have no choice but to include in your quote.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I have a lot of bilingual expat friends who are native French speakers and get asked to do translations now and then. Since they know I am a translator, they will often come to me for advice about what rates to charge, etc. The problem is, I am not even sure that they are really qualified to do any translating (most of the time, their request begins with “I have never done this before so I have no idea what to charge”) and it makes me uncomfortable to encourage them to take translation jobs when they are very likely not qualified—I feel like I'm perpetuating the idea that any "bilingual" person can translate or interpret.
I usually just tell them something vague about making sure that what they ask is enough to be worth the time they spend, and advise them that it really depends on the language combination and subject matter as far as what the usual rates are (which is all true, and I actually don't really know what the going rate for English to French is anyway since it isn't my language combination). Do you have any advice on how I can answer this question the next time it comes up?
A lot depends on how much time you are prepared to invest in the exchange that may ensue. The one response we’d rule out would be simply citing a per-word price pulled from any of the existing rate surveys found on line—some more serious than others—since that really does relay the message that any ol’ bilingual can do this.
What you want is to get them thinking about the big picture, which you can do by drawing their attention to writing skills and time factors, e.g.:
“Translation is surprisingly time-consuming for people who don’t do it regularly.”
“What kind of text are you being asked to translate? Are you confident you have the subject-matter knowledge to handle it?”
“Are you a good writer?”—keeping in mind that many professional translators are themselves surprisingly skittish about answering this one.
“You’ll need an editor, so be sure to line one up and calculate that into your price.”
Anecdotes are also effective. A friend of ours reports that her cousin once called her in the same situation: “When it was all over, he was horrified at how time-consuming the process was. He had totally lost his shirt on the deal because he'd underestimated the demands of the task.” You might recycle that story, again to get your friends thinking more carefully about the big picture.
Legal liability is another issue that gives amateurs pause, as well it should. And unless your friends are set up in business in a way that entitles them to issue genuine invoices, they could have administrative problems.
But what if the friends, however casual their initial query, have the potential to become good translators? After all, many talented translators have started out just as you describe—using an unsolicited opportunity to dip their toe in the water, and moving on to build a thriving practice.
With this in mind, we suggest that you provide enough information to (1) freak out the superficial wannabe, and (2) get a serious candidate intrigued enough to investigate further. Refer the latter to professional associations and reliable sources of information, starting with brochures like “Translation, Getting it Right” and the new “Interpreting, Getting it Right”, both of which can be downloaded from the ATA website.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I’ve followed your advice on raising prices and now face a dilemma. My rates currently range from €0.12 to €0.28 a word, but that is all within the same company: I work for different subsidiaries and departments. I worry about the different teams finding out that my prices are so different; the high-priced ones will think I have been cheating them. How can I sort this out while keeping everybody happy, including me?
Caught in a Web
Well, if the client wakes up, the low-priced teams will be jubilant, right? But their accountants could then work on your insecurity (yes, it’s shining through) to bargain you down.
Here’s the problem: you followed only half of our advice. Having announced higher rates to new buyers and won their business, you neglected stage two—ratcheting up prices for the clients at the low end of your spread or culling them.
Do this now. If you feel nervous, try the good cop/bad cop approach. Phone and set the tone by mentioning a successful project you worked on with them; tell them how much you enjoyed it. Then say that your accountant has been on your back again, reminding you that your prices with them are far lower than those you charge your other clients. On reflection, she’s right (you can heave a sigh at this point), so you’ll be raising their price on September 1. You hope they’ll stay on board and look forward to working with them after the summer break.
In the meantime, you might try switching all the departments at your client company over to hourly rates. This gives you an opportunity to point out that certain texts are faster to translate—when they are written particularly well, for example, or concern straightforward information or arguments—while others are much slower. Phrase it like that to remind your clients that they, too, have a role to play in preparing their text prior to translation.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I’ve just had the most frustrating of phone calls. I make a living delivering high-end translations and recently convinced a new client to work with me despite my high rates. I worked really hard on this translation, had it proofread by a colleague, and delivered it ahead of time. The guy who ordered the translation is the Investor Relations Manager. A former journalist, he proofread my translation, thought it was OK and forwarded it to the CFO. Unfortunately, the CFO thought the style wasn't right. Too journalistic. Not simple enough, not to the point enough. So he had it edited internally.
I've asked for a copy of the final text, in order to know what was wrong in the CFO's eyes. But I can’t help seeing this as damage control: it's hard to justify a high price when “style” is not OK. What should I do?
Ah, style. Even when you've already done the heavy lifting needed to get your big toe, foot, then knee in the door, it takes time to consolidate ties and get into sync with a new client’s preferred style. That’s only natural, and the fact that the Investor Relations Manager gave your work the green light is a good sign.
But in-house politics can be particular, too. The best response we know is exactly what you did: remain upbeat and positive, and ask to see the CFO’s version—not in a challenging, defensive way, but because “it’s extremely helpful for me to know exactly what style you are aiming for". Which happens to be true.
You might also add a forward-looking “... so I can move in that direction on our next text.”
FA & WB