Educating the Customers, Redux: Time
Some readers may remember my article in the October 2006 issue of the Translation Journal that discussed educating customers about what translation is and how much it costs. Well, it turns out that there's another matter that we translators need to bring up with our customers: time.
Have you experienced the situation where you received a text from a customer and then were casually, or perhaps sheepishly, informed that it was needed back—perfectly translated and/or edited, of course—within just a few hours or days? And how often has such a text been especially long and/or complicated? And has a customer ever promised to send you a project by a certain date, failed to meet the deadline, sent you the text days or even weeks later, and then nevertheless expected you to be done with your part of it by the date originally agreed upon? And how frequently has such an event occurred during a particularly busy period (annual reports season, for example), when your work has been carefully and tightly scheduled?
It is natural to feel, when something like this happens, that our customers do not respect us or our time, that they have no understanding of what our job entails, and that they do not care if we have to work from eight a.m. until two the next morning several days in a row just to get their assignment done on time. And thinking that a customer does not respect or show consideration for the highly trained professional he or she has entrusted with an important document can cause frustrated and angry feelings and potentially even affect the translator so much that the job is not done as well as it could have been. Sometimes, translators have even been known to warn their colleagues not to accept work from a certain client, since it is "always late." In other words, it's a lose-lose situation all the way around.
So why do customers do this? Why do they jeopardize the quality of the work and their relationship with the translator? In my experience, the major reasons are 1) that the customer does not know what is really involved in translation, and thus cannot properly schedule the time needed for a thorough translation job, or 2) the customer him- or herself can not schedule his or her own work properly and then passes off the stress and pressure of a looming deadline to the translator, or 3) the customer assumes self-employed workers are simply sitting around, waiting desperately for the next job, and can take anything at any time. A subset of the last cause of this problem is that customers sometimes seem to assume that they are your only customer—or at least your most important one—and that even if they have not sent you the work by the time you agreed on, there is no reason to believe that you might now be busy with someone else's assignment.
How, then, can we translators tackle this delicate matter of time? To begin with, we can offer the customers more information before they even have hired us. The easiest step is something I recommended in the last article: provide detailed information on your website or in your other promotional material about what translation is and what is involved in your work. If you can, describe past assignments in general terms (because of privacy issues, you do not want to be too specific about what the job was) and mention how long it took you to do every stage of each project. For example, you can write: "5000 word contract. Half of the text was a general description of the companies and their products, and the other half was complicated legal language. I did a good rough draft in six hours of full-time work, and then I spent forty-five minutes researching terms. I revised the translation for three hours, edited it for two, and finally spent another two and a half hours comparing the source and target texts." Perhaps if many translators began adding to their websites a section about time, along with those on their professional backgrounds and rates, customers would take notice. Maybe they would learn something, too.
Similarly, when you are first offered an assignment, do not write back with information about your rates only. Those who are not translators have no way of guessing how much time or effort a job could take, which is why it is very helpful if you can be as detailed as possible. Say how many hours you anticipate each step in the translation process to take. Write whether the assignment will require you to go to the library or a bookstore to get specialized information, or collaborate with another translator or other professional. If you can see a rough draft of the document or get any more information about it, look it over and let the customer know if you think there will be any significant problems that will cause you to take a longer time than usual (for example, if the text is poorly written, or if it will be sent to you as a PDF rather than a Word document). And be sure to tell the customer what your schedule is like. Customers do not need to know all about your family obligations or your medical appointments, but it is certainly appropriate to tell them if you know (or expect) that you have a big job coming in, or if you will be on vacation, or if there is anything else that will affect your working time and ability. I usually give my customers specific information, such as, "I will be out of town for the next two weeks, but I will be checking my e-mail. So you can send me the assignment and I will print it out and study it while I am away. But I will not start translating it until this date, so you can expect it on that date. If the assignment has not arrived by this date, then I will not be able to finish it by that date."
Also, sometimes you need to be blunt with a customer. If you have previously had bad experiences with a certain client or if the project in question is coming during a particularly busy season, warn the customer in advance. Say, "I am looking forward to this assignment, but I want you to know that if it does not reach me by the time we agreed upon, I will not be able to do it." You don't need to explain to customers what else you have going on or you shouldn't hint to them that you will be nice and make an exception for them and accept jobs that are sent a day or two late; all you need to do is civilly give them this warning, which hopefully will spur them on to get the work to you as planned.
But the advice above only addresses what you can do before you have gotten the text to be translated. What happens if a customer sends you the document after the date you have agreed upon? Or if a customer asks you translate something in an unreasonable amount of time?
To take the second question first, you need to, as stated above, explain exactly what is involved in the work and why you need more time. If the customer still insists—and often this is because he or she was late doing his or her own part in it—you can decide if you do in fact have the time to get it done, even if it means a few extra-long days and nights for you. Naturally, however, you will not work so hard for free, and you will charge a rush fee. Standard rush fees range from an additional 50% to 100% of the cost. Whether a client is willing to pay for the rush work is another question, which won't be discussed in-depth here, since the issue of money was addressed in the previous article. I can just briefly remind you that your time is valuable and that you should not suffer, and be paid poorly to boot, when a customer has not planned the project well.
If you see that a document has not come to your e-mail in-box by the date you had expected it, it is appropriate for you to write to the customer and ask what is happening. It may be that the text is finished and ready to be translated, but somehow it just wasn't sent to you. It could also be that the customer found another translator or the job was postponed or canceled and you weren't notified. I usually write something like, "I am just checking in with you about the translation assignment. I would appreciate it if you can let me know the status of the project." It is also appropriate to add a reminder about your time limits or scheduling conflicts, as applicable.
As for what to do when the job finally arrives, this depends on your relationship with the customer, the size of the assignment, and how late the assignment is. If it is a client who has never been late before and/or someone from whom you earn much of your income, you might want to gently mention the lateness, but not get into a big discussion about it. If the text is short or easy enough that you can still get a translation done, you can let the tardiness go. This time, anyway.
Sometimes, however, you may have to turn down an assignment to get the point across (if it doesn't cause financial hardship for you to do so, of course). Yes, you may have originally accepted the job, but if the customer has not kept his or her part of the agreement and has not sent you the work as promised, tell the client so. It's enough to politely say, "I am sorry, but I carefully schedule my time and as you did not send me the document as agreed upon, I can no longer accept the job. I hope you find someone else." In most other circumstances, I recommend finding a colleague when you can not do a certain assignment, but in the case of delay on the customer's part, it defeats the purpose if you do so. The customer will then just assume that she or he need not be on time, since there's always another available translator, should the first one be too busy. If you are feeling particularly feisty, you could even mention that you had to turn down other jobs in order to make yourself free for the one that did not appear, and that as a result, you have lost money and potential future clients. Unfortunately, some people just do not consider how their actions affect others, so if you make it very clear to the customer how his or her thoughtlessness and/or inability to stick to a schedule has caused problems for you, this could really have an impact.
Regrettably, I suspect that there will always be customers who procrastinate when it comes to taking care of their own responsibilities, and that there will always be those who do not value the work others do and the time it takes. In the past few weeks alone, for example, a colleague gave me a translation assignment that she could no longer do it because it had arrived late, and I also edited an entire book in just a few (very long) days, because the customer had not planned well for the editing process. But I believe that we can eliminate some of these situations by educating our customers more. Once they begin to truly understand how much time our work takes, which they can only do if we explain the process to them in detail, and once we have begun teaching them that they can not send us documents late and/or expect assignments done very quickly, which we can do by warning our customers and/or refusing jobs and/or asking for rush or late fees, they will start both planning their time and their projects better and treating us with more respect. And isn't it time that happened?
Brett Jocelyn Epstein is a
Swedish to English translator who has translated articles,
menus, websites, stories, and other works. She is also
an English teacher, writer, and editor, and she has a
BA in literature and creative writing from Bryn Mawr College
and an MFA in fiction from Queens University.
Please visit her blog - http://brave-new-words.blogspot.com/
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