Fire Ant & Worker Bee | October 2014 | Translation Journal

October 2014 Issue

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Fire Ant & Worker Bee


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have had a successful medical translation freelance business since 2007. I have never had any collection issues until now. I want to hear your opinion on my current situation.

My problem client is a smallish agency. They send me fairly repetitive clinical work and don’t ask for Trados rebates. I charge my normal word rate. Thanks to the repetitive work, my experience and my CAT tool I can be very productive and my hourly income is excellent. They have been my client for the last two years and are in my top 10 list income-wise.

The problem is that this year their payments have been late. I have to send e-mail reminders. They don’t want to talk with me over the phone. My last check was half of what was mutually agreed. I am suspecting that they may have cash flow issues but cannot be sure.

Should I keep this client or cut my losses and find another?

Stiffed in Boston

Dear Stiffed,

Confirmation: late, partial payments are a bad sign. If this client is one of your Top Ten you should start looking for a replacement now.

Not that you should let current outstandings evaporate. You say they are a smallish agency, possibly a one-man show or a mom & pop shop, in which case illness or family issues may be an explanation. In that case, cutting them some slack now might pay off later, but only if you do manage to establish contact and sort things out.

Are they in your area or within reasonable geographic reach? Depending on your annual sales, it might be worth planning a trip—making the pretext a professional event or meeting with another client (real or imaginary) in their town—and stopping in for a sit-down. At the very least, this could boost your rank on their list of creditors. Face time is an excellent way to get an inside track on whether their problems are temporary or terminal.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

A long-standing direct client just pulled a nasty trick on me. They sent me the rough version of a complex 4,000-word document yesterday, promising the final version today at 2 p.m., and asked for the translation by late today. I managed to convince them that that wasn't possible and got an extension until tomorrow morning at 8. The person assured me that there would only be minor changes, and asked for a quote, which I gave her both on the phone and then in writing. I was told it sounded fine.

2 p.m., 3 p.m., 4 p.m.: I sent them an email asking what the deal was. No answer. I phoned and got a voice message. Now, to make sure the job would get done on time, I had split it with a trusted colleague. Bear in mind that I never provide a quote for approval to this client; they simply send me a job and I inform them of how much it costs once I'm finished.

So I finally got an email at almost 6:30 tonight, saying the deal was off. I immediately wrote back, reminding my contact of the pressure they had put on me to get a quick turnaround.

My question to you is whether you think I can ask for compensation. I personally think we deserve it. And if so, how much?


Dear Cancelled,

Since you know them ("long-standing client") and you'd started the translation, why not say precisely that¬—that based on your history and trust, their very tight deadline and their assurance that your quote "sounded fine", you’d begun working. You’d also lined up a colleague to help translate/revise, since it was the only way to meet their deadline with the quality they required. You might also remind them of the standard no-quote MO that has applied between you in the past.

In this context—and this context only—their silence and subsequent cancellation was poor form: at the very least they should have alerted you to the change in plans. As things stand, you're out X euros, corresponding to your colleague’s time and yours (where X might also be the number of words you translated before the cancellation, topped up for inconvenience).

So yes, we think compensation is due. The important thing is not to phrase your response as pleading or a request.
Try: "Sorry that you had to cancel. I stopped my meter running as soon as you alerted me. Will be sending you an invoice for the amount due tomorrow, corresponding to work performed. I hope the next job goes more smoothly, and sympathize for the changes in planning that no doubt caught you unawares, too. Sincerely [signature]”.

Of course they may contest your claim and position. In which case you will have to back down, since strictly speaking you have nothing resembling a purchase order. But you can also view this as a customer relations issue: they supply a steady stream of interesting jobs at other times, so in this case simply let it go.

The silver lining in this worst-case scenario will be the opportunity to remind them what a conscientious, trustworthy supplier you are, and to work out in detail exactly how orders are to be placed and confirmed in the future.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I've landed face-to-face meetings with potential clients through my network, and they say don't have any work for me, they just want to meet. After the first few meetings like this I feel there is more that I could do.
Besides my background and what I do, what should I be prepared to talk about? How can I gauge after the meeting whether or not they are interested (or rather, how do I keep them interested)?

On Hold

Dear Hold,

Congratulations on the face-to-face meetings—an excellent first step in building trust and exploring scope for a meeting of minds/keyboards. A few suggestions:

• Your aim is not to carry on about yourself, rather to get them talking. So your priority at the meetings is to do some serious listening. The best preparation we know is researching their products and markets thoroughly in advance, and formulating insightful questions around these. “So tell me about your business,” while blander, is often enough to get most people talking.
• Be sure to bring some samples of your own work, a crisp bio, and client education materials such as “Translation, Getting it Right”—now available in 14 languages. (You will naturally leave copies of all these with your contact.)
• Jeffrey Gitomer’s punchy Sales Caffeine eZine is free and has tons of ideas for “closing the sale.” Our gut feeling is that some of those are brash and pushy, even tacky, for premium segments of the translation market. But read them anyway, for their insights into buyers’ motivations, thinking processes and pressure points.

Follow-up to your meetings might include emailing a pithy thought or example or article linked to a topic you discussed. The aim here is to remind your contact that you are thinking of them as you go about your daily business, and to link your interest and energy to the fascinating work they do—where translation projects may pop up at some point.

In any case, your time is never wasted if these meetings give you a better feel for the market and the give & take that are part of any business encounter. Needless to say, anxiety (“so, where’s the work already?”) and insecurity are both huge turnoffs.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

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?


Dear Schadenfreuder,

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.

Good luck!


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

You’ve advised quoting hourly rates. If you quote/invoice by the hour, do 2 hours and 15 minutes get invoiced as 3 hours or as 2.25 hours?


Dear Round,

We’re big fans of transparency in billing for several reasons.

First, it reassures good clients—which is hardly surprising.

Second, it educates them: if your billing unit is hours, buyers learn how long it takes you to translate different text types, which can encourage better forward planning: if their half-year earnings report took you 18 hours last July, they can’t reasonably send you the next one on a Wednesday evening, with no warning, and expect it back on Friday morning.

But part of the deal is also being perceived as fair—even generous. Which is why rounding 2 hours and 15 minutes up to 3 hours is not a good idea.

While on this topic, may we suggest once again that translators include freebies (consultation on a word or caption; a simple query about the use of a verb form; your preference for this or that slogan) as line items in bills, but invoiced zero. This makes them handy reminders of how helpful you are, and invaluable ammo for department heads defending their decision to work with you and your above-average rates at in-house meetings.

A word of warning, however: if you work with direct clients, avoid drowning them in numbers. A excessively detail-oriented technical translator of our acquaintance recently lost a client who was first puzzled, then simply irritated by his endless wordcount tallies and multiplications—numbers, numbers, numbers, some out to three decimal places, when all of their other suppliers of professional services quoted round sums per project. This earnest but clueless translator undermined customer confidence in his translation skills by hewing to what they perceived as an ultra-granular, nitpicking approach to invoicing.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am 38 y.o. and have been a registered pharmacist for 16 years. My only foreign language study was in high school, where I took every level of Spanish up to AP level—and the only reason I didn't take that is because I took AP Chemistry.

I have used Spanish to communicate with my patients while at work in the pharmacy, to counsel them on medication use and answer medical questions. While in the Air Force, I was sent to Honduras on a medical mission because of my Spanish language knowledge and ability to communicate to the people in the villages where we went to administer medical care. For fun, I took a free online Spanish placement test earlier this year, offered on the Arizona State Univ. website, and was placed at the Spanish 103 level. I had aptitude testing done at the Johnson O'Connor Foundation in NYC, and tested off the charts for ability to learn languages quickly. My sister and I even speak Spanish to each other for fun (of course, we are not native speakers).

I know I need more Spanish language classes, translation training and a Spanish medical terminology review course, and that's just to start. I love the language and languages in general, and now, looking to change careers, this is a possibility I have considered. Not just medical translation, but holistic health and natural health medical translation as it is an expanding field and I am also a certified holistic health counselor.

So, is it too late for me to consider this career change and seriously expect to make a decent living? I am looking to have my own business, do some freelance translation, and write articles for Spanish language periodicals on holistic health subjects. What steps would I have to take to embark on this path? I have read where you say degrees aren't always necessary, does that still hold true for my situation?

Help Wanted

Dear Help,

Congratulations—you have an excellent profile for someone entering the translation industry: specialist qualifications in two fields, business experience, strong interest and some experience in a foreign language in your area of expertise, and what appears to be a passion for language and communication.

We suggest that you start by contacting a half-dozen medical translators in your specialism, possibly through your local translator group or your country’s national association of translators (ATA in the US). Describe your career path to date and see what they think. Ask about translation prospects or contacts in the specific areas you want to focus on, and do your best to meet up with these contacts in person. If things go well, you might even ask if you could shadow them at work for a day or two to get a better idea of what awaits.

And yes, you will definitely have to work on your language skills, even though you’ll be grafting yours onto the handy hooks offered by your specialization: at the outset, your medical knowledge will help guide you through texts when your foreign-language skills falter. So yes, sign up for language courses and translation courses.

Register, too, with online forums for medical translators. Lurk to get a feel for where you’ll need more work on your language skills, and in a few months consider chiming in if you see terminology and other issues where your experience might be of help.

Networking is always a good idea.

You might also start looking now for an into-Spanish translator to help you with your articles; into-native-tongue writing and translating is an industry standard at the top end of the market—i.e., you will be translating from Spanish to English, and will need an expert reviser/editor for anything you write in Spanish. (Have we mentioned that networking is always a good idea?)

Depending on your finances and personal situation, easing into the profession by working part-time might be the way to go—although a position with an in-house team of medical translators would be an ideal launchpad.

Rest assured that your career change looks very promising to us. We wish you the very best as you get under way.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am fortunate enough to belong to a small informal group whose members include some of the most high-profile translators and interpreters in Norway and also undoubtedly some of the best. Not all are prospering to the same degree, however.

Things have changed dramatically since public-sector Norway has been required to put all major contracts out to tender – including translation. We are now competing with the whole EU + EEA, on quality but more importantly on price. Some government agencies state blatantly that price is their sole concern. As a rule they want a package deal – normally translation to and from Norwegian, and sometimes one or more other languages as well.

The agencies are in a position to do this without regrouping, and they are now getting these contracts. And in order to compete with the big EU internationals, they are pushing prices way, way down. Obviously those translators who have enough private sector customers never to have to work for translation agencies are less affected by this development, and are raising prices in pace with the rising cost of living in Norway. Legal work pays best, and a number of translators in our group have hiked their prices 10% this year. Conversely, those who are dependent on agencies are being asked to go down – often from prices that have remained unchanged for 10 years or more.

In our group, we all agree that agencies are the enemy, and desperate efforts are made to place work that one translator can’t handle with someone else in the group, rather than have it go to the enemy.

In actual fact, some of us do work for agencies – I do a lot of work for a small agency with low overheads that treats its translators well, but is begging us to lower our already low rates. We are also required to proof for each other – which is a good thing, of course, but is at our own expense.

Some of our members do work for the really big, bad agencies, because otherwise they simply don’t get enough work – but this is tacitly acknowledged to be shameful, and they keep very quiet about it!
In brief, we have a two-track economy, even within our own group: the sub-group who have regular private-sector customers, work alone for the most part, and are cheerfully shoving up their prices, and the sub-group who have to work for agencies and are doing more work (translation + proofing) at lower and lower rates.

SDL Trados users are preferred by the agencies, and it is increasingly common for the translator to be sent a translation memory and only be paid for new sentences or parts thereof. This frequently presents a further dilemma and more wasted (unpaid) time: what to do when the translation memory that you have been told to use as your lodestone is full of sub-standard translations?

So things have indeed changed in Norway, and definitely for the worse.

The answer in some cases is to form a group and bid for contracts, and a couple of enterprising souls have done this successfully, but it hasn’t really caught on. It requires organization and administration, and translators are by nature solitary workers.

Would you care to comment?

Northern Dark

Dear Northern,

Seen from afar—especially through a pair of treacherous grass-grows-greener specs—the situation of professional translators in Norway has always seemed enviable. The high rates! The general awareness of and respect for foreign languages that minority language status confers! A highly educated population where a majority of adults speak one or two foreign languages fluently as a matter of course! And so on.

But your letter is a useful reminder that even peaceful, protected harbors are subject to the globalization tsunami.

For self-employed translators, it may be a wake-up call. But it is also a reminder that any number of factors are still under their control—assuming they want to take charge.

After all, translators are not the only professionals to come under price pressure. US tax returns are now being prepared by highly qualified—and often US-trained—accountants and staff in India. The legal profession is now open to competition on many fronts, with any number of traditional law firms likely to be forced out of business by the operations of "providers of legal services" staffed mainly with paralegals. Big supermarket chains have started to offer medical & paramedical services. And on and on.
What’s the solution?

Get businesslike and get specialized.

That’s right: it’s time for serious professionals to get their acts together and move upmarket, identifying areas where cheap providers simply cannot and do not make the grade. Drop the general work and invest in moving up one (or two or ten) levels.
And don’t neglect basic business issues. A contact comments: “I am quite amazed that hardly any Norwegian TCs or sole traders have their websites translated into English or other languages.
Many times I’ve been asked to help someone in the UK or the Netherlands find a translator or interpreter (think gold dust), and all the information is in Norwegian. The same problem applies to some of the professional organizations, although that is changing.”

There’s an actionable item right there.

While professional associations cannot be expected to take protectionist measures (which are illegal throughout most of Europe), they can and should be encouraged to promote media coverage of narratives that emphasize business success stories achieved through input from their members—expert human translators. Think humanitarian cases where professional interpreters have made all the difference. Scientific breakthroughs achieved and promoted through cross-cultural communication underpinned by translators. Cultural knowledge shared via experienced wordsmiths drawing on years of expertise. It’s worth contrasting these with instances were cheap, unskilled alternatives exposed unwary clients to risk to life, limb, reputation and assets. Is that hard? (True, it requires a budget and planning.)

Another contact calls for a second option:

“The answer is to form a cooperative. Everyone continues to work in splendid isolation but there is a jointly funded head office handling admin, invoicing, central marketing, quotes…
How is this financed, you ask? It requires some initial capital, but if 20 people are involved there should be little problem raising, say, €100,000. You need to rent office space, recruit staff, initially an office manager, maybe with an assistant. Head office then takes a 20% cut of everyone’s turnover and from that must be self-financing. 20%! you gasp. Ah, but head office is taking away the burden of invoicing etc., leaving each member of the cooperative (each holding an equal share) at liberty to get on with the next job. And head office generates work through its marketing efforts. Yes, there are countless details to hammer out, but this is a path that has been successfully trodden before (not least by InTra eG in Stuttgart) and it does work. And of course if this not-for-profit venture shows a profit at year-end, the members benefit in the shape of a dividend.

So look on the bright side, Northern Dark.”

We agree entirely and urge translators—traditionally die-hard individualists, averse to joining forces—to take advantage of this new competitive environment to open both doors and windows.


The Prosperous TranslatorWritten by Chris Durban, author of the book, Prosperous Translator. The book is available on Amazon.

"Some of the Web's pithiest advice on building a successful translation practice. Translation is the grandest, most foolhardy enterprise that humans can engage in. Done right, it can also be a lucrative and intellectually satisfying career."

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About Chris Durban

Chris Durban

Chris Durban, is a freelance translator (French to English) based in Paris, where she specializes in publication-level texts for demanding clients—the shareholders, customers and partners of a range of French corporations and institutions. Chris regularly teaches on SFT courses for translators looking to build their practice, and has presented workshops in a dozen countries. She is also a longstanding member of ATA (USA), she contributed to its PR committee and was awarded its Gode Medal in 2001. She was elected to the ATA Board in Nov 2014. Chris is also author of the book, Prosperous Translator. The book is available on Amazon. 

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