Rules for dealing with translation clients Payment Practices translation jobs
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Rules for dealing with translation clients

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Here are a few tips for dealing with direct clients and translation agencies (based on personal experience and accounts of colleagues):

1.      Always get your client to sign a Purchase Order. A written confirmation by fax or e-mail will do the trick in most jurisdictions.

2.      If the agency requires you to sign a contract for subcontractors, read it carefully. If there is only the slightest doubt in your mind, don't sign it. One example of a "delicate" clause that some agencies use is the "time of payment clause", as I call it: in it, the agency states that the translator will get paid once the agency has received payment from its end client. Under contract law, this is completely wrong and should not be signed by any professional translator. As a matter of fact, this "transaction" involves two contracts: one between the agency and its client and another contract between the agency and the freelance translator. The latter is completely independent of the former, and whether or not the end client ever pays the agency is of no concern to the translator. In other words, the agency has to pay the translator according to the contract between them, even if the end client defaults on its payment to the agency. Therefore, withholding payment until payment has come in from the end client is highly unethical and violates contract law.

3.       "Train" your clients: explain to them, in simple language if necessary, what translation is all about. Do not accept any unrealistic demands from them (eg, 5,000 words within 24 hours). Many people out there still believe that translation involves nothing more than replacing words of language A with words of language B. Emphasize that the translation of 1,000 words usually takes longer than writing those same 1,000 words.

4.       Be strict about your terms of payment: upon initial contact with the agency (or direct client), explain your terms to them. Be polite, yet firm. Inform them that they will be subject to late-payment interest if they don't pay within the period of time stipulated. Remember: it is the seller (= YOU) who sets out the terms of payment, not the buyer. When you go into a store or order something online, you have to abide by the seller's terms and not your own. Most agencies will pay you within 30 days, but there are some, especially in the Benelux countries, that define payment terms of 45, 60 or more days. Explain to them that the seller defines those terms and not the buyer.

5.       Sometimes, an agency may tell you that they cannot pay you on time because of cash flow problems - that is, after you have already sent them several reminders for payment. ALARM BELLS! This means: a) they have lousy clients themselves that don't pay them (which is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the agency and its business acumen); b) their management is really sloppy; c) they are not professional; AND d) things can only go downhill from there ==> so stop accepting any new jobs from them; tell them that you may consider working for them again if and when you have been paid and if and when they have set their house in order.

6.      If you do get into trouble with an agency, again, be firm. Inform them that you will have to charge late-payment interest and that they will also be responsible for any legal or collection fees you may incur in the process. You may also want to point out to them that you will post information about their payment practices to several payment practices lists.

7.      Avoid any agencies that post jobs on the Internet or contact you by e-mail but fail to give detailed background information on themselves (phone number, mailing address, etc.).

8.       Avoid clients that use free e-mail accounts such as Hotmail or Yahoo - if an agency uses such accounts, you can rest assured that they are not legit and professional. A professional agency can afford either its own server or a professional hosting service.

9.      Avoid agencies that require an excessive number of words to be translated by way of a "test" - it could be a way for them to have a document translated for free. Remember: standard translation tests should not exceed 200-250 words.

10.      Regarding tests: even if the sample is only 200-250 words in length, make sure it is a self-contained text; otherwise, it might be that they are sending out small portions of a larger text to a number of translators as "tests" - again, for the purposes of getting the translation for free.

11.      Beware of UNSOLICITED e-mails you receive from agencies ("we have recently come across your name and would like to invite you to join our team of translators. Please send us your CV, rates, client list, etc.") - this is often a trick to "scan" the competition (they want to know who your clients are), so if you provide them with 2 or 3 professional references, they will contact them, not to verify your work, but to solicit business from your clients!

12.      Regarding references: never, under any circumstances, give out references. Giving out 2 or 3 references is common practice when applying for a permanent position, but as freelancers we cannot do that: we are legally and ethically bound to keep any and all information regarding our clients confidential. Therefore, suggest to the agency that they could send you either a 200-word test or a small job for which they would have to pay you a minimum fee ("the proof of the pudding is in the eating"). This way, the agency does not take on too much risk and you would not have to breach your clients' confidentiality. Remember: when you see a new doctor, you cannot ask the doctor for his/her patient list either!!!

13.      It is always better to forgo a potential job (in case of any doubt about the client) than to go through the hassle and headaches of chasing after your money later on.

14.      Stay away from "telemarketers": if you receive a phone call from an agency, and that person talks as fast as a telemarketer or used-car salesperson and does the whole "sales-pitch dance" (even though that person may strike you as being very personable), be polite and end the conversation as quickly as possible, because, in all probability, no good will come of this conversation anyway.

15.      For larger projects, charge a "retainer", or down payment, of about 25%. Demand to be paid in various stages as the project moves along. Don't beat about the bush: tell your client that you will still have to feed and clothe yourself for the duration of the project (e.g., 2 months) – and that you will not be available to other, regular, clients for the duration of this project, for which you need to be compensated. For example, 25% upfront, another 25% halfway through the project and the remainder upon completion of the project.

16.      Speaking of "retainer": Do not be afraid to charge new clients upfront. Depending on the volume of their first job, you may require as much as 100% to be paid in advance. Credit is a privilege, not a right, that must be earned. Asking for payment upfront is the best way to separate the "wheat from the chaff" – or, put differently, to separate the crooks from the honest ones.

17.      If a client asks you to acquire special software or any other product (as a requirement for receiving work), please check and double-check the facts before you agree to anything. In most cases, these people are not real clients, but merely "telemarketers" or scam artists trying to sell some useless software, product, etc. Remember: as a professional translator, you should never have to *PAY* your own clients .... that would be ridiculous and insane, wouldn't it?

18.      Never, under any circumstances, accept work sight unseen. When an agency has a rather difficult or unpleasant project, they will either call you or send you an e-mail without any attachments. The idea is to get you to agree to handle the job without having had a chance to take a look at it. Some agencies pull this stunt with unsurprising regularity around 4 or 5 PM on Friday afternoons. "It's an urgent job, and we need it ASAP, but no later than Monday morning." Something like that gets really "fishy" if the
call comes from an agency you have never worked with before. Fishy because no professional agency would ever hand an urgent and important job to an untested translator. This can mean only thing: they are trying to set you up and have no intention of ever paying you. In cases where you do know the agency, different motives come into play: they know that most translators would not want to handle the file because the file format is awkward (e.g., source text is available as a hardcopy or, worse, fax copy only) or because it is a generally difficult text. By just "cold-calling" you, they hope you will give them a quote and agree to do it just like that ("Hey, that agency is calling me. Man, that makes me feel really important! Can't say no now!"). Then you receive the file and have the shock of your life.

19.      Volumes: In Europe, many translation agencies go by the following standards: 1,000 words a day (normal volume) and 2,000 words (express/rush). Personally, I believe that any professional should be able to handle 2,000 words a day, and 2,000 words is the standard most commonly applied. Never agree to any volumes that you cannot handle.

20.      Always deliver on time or ahead of schedule. This will not only ensure repeat business; it is also the professional thing to do. Too many translators today deliver late – sometimes as much as 48 hours after the deadline has passed. Tardiness is a growing "disease" in our profession these days, and many clients are already painfully aware of this trend. S0, by delivering on time or early, you can score some major "brownie points".

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