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Solutions to Common Problems for Freelance Translators

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Working as a freelance translator is often a solitary business and usually our direct contact with clients is limited. Nowadays it is not uncommon to deal with our clients entirely over the internet; never talking to them or meeting them face-to-face. 

However, sometimes situations force us to interact with people on a level that may make us rather uncomfortable, such as calling a client about a late payment. In such instances it is important that we know how to deal or talk to our clients without taking a risk of losing them or even worse ruining our reputation.  Therefore, it is important to know how to handle certain situations and deal with them diplomatically so both parties hang up the phone satisfied; leaving neither party angry or on the defensive.

Everyone who is a self-employed translator, writer, consultant or professional will have problems with a client. Any freelancer who says “I never have any problems” is either not telling the truth or has too little business that problems haven’t come up.

Most small problems you will face do not become big ones if you know how to handle them correctly. Below are some of the most common problems you may come across dealing with clients and how to handle them.

1.          The client does not like your translation!

Those are the most dreaded words a translator could ever hear, but you may hear them someday or have already, despite your credentials or background. Remember, translation does not only require a knack and expertise for languages, but also good writing skills. So, if you hear the words “the client was not satisfied with your translation” do not throw in the towel, or start ranting and raving about having this degree and that certification and that the client is wrong. The client will probably think twice before dealing with you again, if you have an attitude like that. Instead, ask the client what specifically he disliked. Get examples of sentences or words the client “hated” so much. Once you have some concrete examples, study them carefully. Chances are the client's dissatisfaction is a stylistic issue. Your best bet then is to go over the text you translated and adjust your style to the style of the client. Make use of the examples given.

If, however, the client thinks there are mistranslations in your work and again, you have concrete examples, review these with another translator before getting back to the client. If another translator agrees with you and confirms the client is in the wrong do not immediately “stick it” to the client. On the contrary, calmly and professionally tell the client that you do not agree with his translation. Keep in mind that you are the expert and that is what the client is paying you for. So, do not disagree but do not agree either, simply explain why you know that your choice of word is the correct one. You may then suggest having another translator review the text to reconfirm your statement.

Unfortunately, many translation agencies try to get out of paying their translators by stating that a translation was so bad that it needed to be re-translated. To protect yourself, always ask for concrete examples and review them carefully. Regardless of why the client does not like your translation, always handle the matter professionally and do not let your emotions get in the way.  You are working together to achieve the same goal. This kind of attitude will have the client come back to you.

2.          The Client Can’t Pay Your Bill

Apart from the known nonpaying agencies (there is a list for those), sooner or later we will come across a client or agency who does not have the cash to pay us. I have known of translators who cursed agencies/clients or sent clients threatening letters that eventually only made the translator look bad. Trust me, threats and screams will not get you paid any sooner, on the contrary you will definitely lose a potentially good client and may get a bad reputation on top of that.

The first thing to do is find out what is the problem. Call the client and ask why and how you can help the client resolve this matter. Remember you want to get paid and the client wants to pay you and putting anyone on the defensive will not help. Let’s say Versacorp Translations assigned you a 3000-word job. As always, you completed the job perfectly and on time. Then you receive a call from Versacorp stating that their client Protégé Corp, who requested the translation, actually only wanted 1000 words translated and will pay Versacorp only for 1000 words. Of course, Versacorp is now in a pickle, since on one hand they owe you for 3000 words and on the other hand they are only getting paid for a 1000 words. So what do you do; say “too bad, I want my money", essentially saying I don’t care about your problems just pay me? But is an attitude like that wise? Is this a great customer who has been giving you a lot of work in the past and probably will in the future? Not being flexible may hurt you. One way to resolve this issue is to suggest that you will take payment for only 1000 words now. But, for all subsequent jobs you want to be paid one or two pennies extra until the remaining 2000 words have been paid. Now you are offering your client a solution. The client is happy, since he has some breathing room and you are happy because you still get your money in the long run, kept a client and you added value to your service.

Many translators may not agree with solutions as this one above. There may be other or better solutions. Consider your own life when, let’s say, you need to pay a $5000 doctor's bill and do not have the cash or the room on your credit card. What do you do in your personal life? Most likely, you would call the doctor's office to work out a payment plan. Granted, we as translators cannot afford to do this all the time. However, if the client has sent a lot of work our way and we want to keep this client, then we may want to think about making allowances that really do not hurt our pocket in the long run. It does not mean that we have to sell ourselves short! Ultimately, we want to win by providing high quality services to our client, thus getting more work and maybe even a good referral for future business.

3.          The Client Cancels the Job Midway

This thankfully does not happen too often, but can especially with larger projects. For large projects that are 10,000 words or more I recommend adding a clause in your contract that outlines what happens if a client cancels the project midway. For example it can say “Ivana Inc. has the right to terminate at any time upon notice. In such event Ivana Inc. will compensate the contractors for hours/words/lines completed.” Thus, if the client cancels on Tuesday 9:00 am you have the right to bill him for your time (words) completed up to that point.

Managing difficult situations with clients or agencies can be frustrating, but we need to remember that we work towards the same goal - to provide quality translations and of course make money. However, no matter what the issue is with your client, if the client is late in paying the bill, can't pay the bill, says your translation is bad, cancels the job and so forth, always:

-           be calm

-           never threaten

-           never be on the defensive or make the client be on the defensive

-           be friendly and polite

-           be flexible and offer solutions; add value

A good attitude and professional behavior and some flexibility will get you a lot further and most of all it will pay off in the end. A client will always remember the professional, helpful translator, the one who seeks resolution, but know this, the client will never forget the “uncooperative” translator, the one who rants and raves.

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