A short guide to customer relations for translators

Be polite and constructive

When someone offers you work, always reply politely. Even if your client has already decided to pay you below humanly-acceptable rates, do not reply in an insulting manner. Firstly, the person contacting you probably has no idea of rates normally charged or the time it takes to translate 2,500 words. Secondly, the person is not in charge of the company budget: management of outsourced translations is often entrusted to people who do not know anything about the translation industry. Use it as an educational opportunity; explain why such a rate – or such a deadline – is not realistic. Offer solutions (which will also help you to find out more about the company’s needs and translation projects). Use some examples. You may not end up working together this time, but you may find that once the company has done the rounds and experienced bad translations (you always get what you pay for: bad pay = bad translations), they’ll come back to you. Your email will also help the person explain to his/her manager why they can’t find a good quality translator to work at the rates offered. Perhaps they will get back in contact with you during allocation of the following quarter’s budget, when the client has understood that yes, even for translation, you need to find out about rates BEFORE deciding on budget.

Do not haggle

You’ve decided on your rate per word on the basis of how difficult the text is and on your production time (an estimate of the amount you wish to earn per month divided by the average number of words you feel able to translate per day, plus a percentage to cover risks of periods of inactivity and training expenses). You’ve taken a long time to deliberate this decision; you have a precise idea of the value of your work and of the conditions which will enable you to deliver a good quality translation. This means that you can accept to lower your rate by one or two (even three) centimes or pence if the project or client interests you – or if your fridge has been empty for several weeks… Personally, when translators begin a telephone conversation asking 0.30 per word because “translation is an art” and finish by accepting to work at a third of the initial rate “if there’s a lot of work”, I don’t take them on. The fact is if you lower your rates so radically, it means you are going to have to work faster, or provide lower quality, or both… or that you have no concept of your professional worth. What is more, we all know that working on a large-volume project at slashed rates is the best way to miss out on the chance to work on projects at more interesting rates; you can’t provide satisfactory work for several clients at the same time. Another common mistake is to offer really low rates to win a new client, telling yourself that you will gradually increase them once the client has been ‘snared’ in your net. Think again: if you start at 0.06 euros instead of 0.14, you’ll be charging 0.06 for years. The only effect obtained will be demonstrating to your clients that they will be able to find the same rate elsewhere once yours get too expensive. Decide on a rate and don’t budge too far from it. If your decision has been made knowingly and you are sure of yourself, you will find work at the rates you want to be paid.  Or you’ll end up a trilingual executive assistant, but without having to be ashamed of your salary.

Endeavour to come across as intelligent

Normally, besides having an excellent general knowledge base, a translator should be intelligent and thorough. Read your e-mails through to the end, show that you have understood instructions and follow them (deadlines, format, glossaries, constraints, etc.). Try and find the answer yourself before bothering your client: there is nothing more annoying and nerve-racking (because it makes you doubt the contracted linguist’s abilities) than finding the answer to a translator’s question in five minutes browsing on Wikipedia. Before asking your client a terminological question, make sure it really is specific and that you’ve contacted all your friends and contacts first to find a solution. You should generally provide at least one or two suggestions, or at least be able to explain the research initiatives taken and why you haven’t been able to find the incriminating word. Let me just say as a reminder that you are supposed to only accept translation work in your speciality fields, that’s why we pay you high rates.

However, if you notice incoherencies in the text, ask the client to shed some light: it shows that you understand what you are translating, and you also give your clients the opportunity to correct their initial document.

Be magicians

A poor source text is no excuse for handing in a poor translation. A good translator – like Midas – will turn crap into gold, or more poetically, knows how to read through the lines and infer the client’s real intentions to create a text which enhances and values the original concept, no matter how trivial or bizarre. You can also detail the difficulties encountered to explain your stylistic choices. However, we all know that you can’t tell the author of a text just how bad you think it is.  Just take it as a personal “opportunity to excel”.

Be efficient and reassuring

Always confirm receipt of documents or e-mails by sending a quick reply. Keep your clients informed of your progress and let them know you have taken note of the most recent information (for complex projects). But above all, inform of any potential delays in delivery as soon as possible, so that your clients can organise their own schedule. Ask questions during the translation (the best thing is to ask them after the first draft, sometimes you find a term when looking for another) and not when you deliver the “final” translation. Show that you are focused on the job and that you are taking care of everything. And more than anything, don’t be a complainer. No one likes working with a grump.

Be professional to the very end

Don’t send your invoice at the same time as the translation: leave time for your clients to judge the quality of your work and ask you any questions, or request any modifications needed. A little humility and graciousness goes a long way. Presentation is also important: don’t send invoices in Excel or Word format. An invoice is an official, non-editable document so send as a PDF (have the grace not to scan in handwritten invoices either: a translator should generally know how to use a computer). Also be careful not to make spelling mistakes in invoices and do include all mandatory information. Don’t forget that each invoice should have a unique reference number which follows a chronological order.

And finally, a little word of thanks when you receive payment of your invoice is always welcome. Also think to let your client know when you are satisfied: who knows, your client may take a leaf out of your book for once and decide to tell you just how happy (s)he is to be working with you.