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How to Drive Your Translators Crazy without Really Trying


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Danilo Nogueira photoKelli Semolini photoThe relationship between agencies and translators may range from thorny to stormy and the reputation of agencies in general tends to be low. So low that some agency owners go to extremes of sleight of tongue (legerdelangue?) to hide the fact that they act as intermediaries in the translation business.

That is not the way it should be. Or has to be.

We have a magic word that solves all problems. The magic word is "no."
Most translators need agencies, and all agencies need translators. Some of them, translators and agencies, respect and understand each other's work. Agencies take up a burden that not all translators can successfully carry: going after clients, dealing with their wishes and needs, negotiating prices and deadlines, setting up a team when necessary, hiring editors, handling collections and payments: this is just boring and tiresome work. Nothing but fair that they should be paid, and very well paid, for it.

Some translators will argue that agencies take too large a cut from our fees. We do not agree and we do not care; it is none of our business. As long as they pay us well and on time, that is.

Working with an agency can be a great experience. We can focus on what we really love to do: translating. It has to be a good one, though; you work better if you know you'll be paid on time, with no discounts, no monkey business. In addition, it is a lot more comfortable when you know your translation will be edited by a competent professional and the deadline is not impossible.

Translators should value that opportunity deeply, but not all of us do. That is why our colleague Erik Hansson (@erik_hansson) had so much material to create a list of 16 things http://www.hansson.de/.../driving_nuts.pdf translators do and drive the agencies mad, leading to the end of what could have been a very satisfying relationship. Likewise, an agency that finds a good translator should cherish the relationship, but, as we all know, that's not always the case, to say the least. Inspired by Erik and some recent events, we decided to write the reverse side of the list.


Have your best translator get a new client and then...

A few weeks ago, an agency contacted us to do a test for a prospective client. We agreed on a fee and did it. A few days later, the agency called back and gave us the good news: the client had liked and approved what we had done. The PM was bubbling with enthusiasm, thanked us for catching a big fish for them—and said they wanted us to take care of the client.

Great, isn't it? Decidedly not, because the PM concluded with a request for a discount. How come? What do you mean "a discount"? Haven't we won the client for you? We expected a bonus, not a request for a discount! In addition, they knew our rates, and thus they also knew how much they should charge the client to afford us, didn't they? So, they took a risk in bidding low, with the usual "we will take care of the translators later" attitude.

The worst, the most embarrassing part of it is the discussion about fees. The lame excuses used by PMs to extract a discount. In addition to the usual "there will be a lot of work from this client" (At cut rates? Who wants that?), followed later by "we can negotiate a higher rate for the next job" (And who believes that?). In this particular case, the series was topped with a "they are just beginning, spending a fortune with pre-operating expenses and haven't made a cent so far" (That is none of our business of course, because they will not remember that when they start making wads of money, but we happened to know who owned the company, and, believe us, they hardly needed our help).

Last of all came the usual threat: "unless you are more reasonable, we will be forced to look for another professional." Well, find someone else to do the job and be damned. We have more important things to do.

A variation of this gambit is to have your best people do the test and win the client, then hire a cheapie to do the job and ask the good guys to edit it. We love editing, but it must be understood that editing is a process whereby a good translation is turned into an excellent translation. Bad translations should simply be discarded.

It is hard to decide which of the two methods is worse.

Ah, by the way, we ditched the agency.


Send a Translator a Jumbo-Sized Test and...

Some very naïve colleague complained he was sent a test by an agency that prided itself in subscribing to the highest ethical standards yadda yadda yadda, or at least they said so. It was a test for the translator, and thus it was not to be paid. Fair enough: most agencies ask for tests and they have a short standard text they use for everybody.

This case was different, however. The text was very long, but the translator did it anyway, happy with the promise of "a lot of work in the future and...". Well, you know the old spiel.

To the surprise of the testee (can we use that nice ugly word just this once?) the test showed up in the agency's website as proof that they provided top-quality services. No credit, no pay, nothing. Just something "we have done for one of our best clients."

We agree that agencies are entitled to ask prospective translators for a short translation test for free, but if it is used as advertising, it should be paid work.

We also believe tests are useless: 45% of them are edited by friends of the testee (we are beginning to like this horrible little word)—just to make sure, you know, it is a test, after all; another 45% are done by the candidate himself—but the guy then outsources actual work to less-experienced colleagues. We really do not know what happens to the other 10%.

And there is the old, old scam of cutting up a long translation in test-sized pieces and having them translated by anyone who cares to do a test. We believe this is falling out of fashion, because turnaround times are getting too short for this sort of con game. However, the trick is said to be popular among certain publishers.

We don't want to start thinking about the quality of those patchwork translations. Not today.


Set Impossible Deadlines

A translator can do only so much on an average day. Ask translators to work twenty hours nonstop and there is a very good chance they will agree. Translators are terribly afraid of rejecting a job and losing a client. Any client. And, let's tell the truth: accepting a job under unfavorable circumstances is proof of loyalty, a proof the translator expects to be rewarded for. On the other hand, it may be a weakness, because we know we won't be able to do it well.

Because quality suffers. That is undeniable. And some, (the majority, almost all) agencies behave as if translators worked only for them. Agency presses for an all-nighter even if the translator is dead-tired after a string of rush jobs and says so.

A harsher approach is adopted by a PM we know who always says "we have a job for you, can you start it now"? If the answer is in the negative, the job will be assigned to somebody else. OK, fair enough. But, then, how can you say that the agency is "quality oriented"?


Reserve Time and then Disappear

It happens all the time: agency calls and says "an important client" (Why do they always say it is an important client? Because they know it makes an impression on translators) needs a job, and that the source text will be ready on Monday morning and please keep the day free for us, so that we can give that client the VIP treatment.

We agree and even reject another job to meet our commitment. On Monday noon we are told the job will be a bit late (Will? It already is!), but that we should remain available, because it is an important job and stuff. You know how it goes. Sometimes, the job materializes a couple days later (twice as long as originally expected, but the delivery date remains the same: we did agree on twenty-four hours, didn't we?).

Not even an apology for keeping someone on unpaid standby mode for three or more days. And it is no use complaining. It is the client's fault, and the agency cannot take responsibility for that. Let the record say that translators have no truck with agency clients. The agency asked us to remain available and they should take responsibility for what they say. Who is going to pay for our time?

Confront the agency with those facts and they will tell you there has never been talk of a refund for unused standby time, that it is standard industry practice (Who says so, beside the agencies?), that we could had used the time to do something else because anyone could see the job would be late and that is normal anyway. In fact, we are the culprits.


Discounts

We are fed up with old, hackneyed, overused, battered excuses. Please, invent something new.

Why is it that they are always "on a tight budget for this particular job"? What does that mean? That tight budgets are the exception rather than the rule? Who do they assign the "non-tight budget" jobs, then? Not to us, certainly!

And there is the World Crisis (always capitalized). Everybody knows demand for translation services is on the increase, but, still, there is a World Crisis and a discount is needed on account of that. Curiously, they never think the translator's pockets are affected by the World Crisis, too.

There is also The Competition. Oh, The Competition. The Competition is a monster who has done terrible things. They always underbid on all jobs and force prices down. We are so glad The Competition has never contacted us for a job. We would not like to work for such filthy bastards.

Let's be realistic: we know that everybody makes economic elbow-room by pressing for higher prices and lowers costs—meaning that agencies will always try to get a discount from us. But couldn't they at least resort to better excuses?


Late Payment

Delivering a translation late is considered a major failure, lack of professionalism and PMs consider their duty to give hell to any translator who fails to meet a deadline. Why is it that the same rules do not apply to payments?

Why is it that so many agencies find it so horribly difficult to pay us on time? Because every time they are late with their payments they are extracting an interest-free loan from us. Let us pay our debts with interest-bearing loans from our banks.

This practice has become so widespread that some time ago a colleague actually apologized for a dunning letter, saying that he was ill and needed the money etc. We do not know whether he needed the money or not. We know that the money was his and long overdue. Full stop.


Disrespect for Time Zone and/or Free Time

Phone rings. PM somewhere in the US asks for information that could have been obtained by e-mail and could certainly wait. But PM wants it immediately and does not care that it is almost midnight in Brazil.

Phone rings. PM somewhere in Switzerland asks some silly question and shows (or fakes) amazement at the fact that it is 5 a.m. down here in Brazil.

Have they ever heard about time zones and DST? We know that there are emergencies, but would it be too much to ask to have a look at a world clock before calling?

And how about the guys who click on the "send" button and pick the phone to ask why we have not replied to their message?

Ah, and free time! Why is it that most PMs feel positively and personally insulted if you say you won't accept a weekend job because you are having friends for a cookout?


Editing and Proofreading

We have touched on this above, but the matter deserves a closer look.

There is a laudable trend for asking senior translators to edit the work of their junior colleagues. This practice leverages the knowledge acquired over many years' work and also helps the junior partner to grow faster. But this does not mean that an agency should hire the cheapest dumbass in the market to do a job and then cajole an experienced professional to transmogrify the trash into good quality translation. Some of the best people we know refuse to edit translations because of this rotten practice. The best agencies know how to select a junior translator who can provide a decent job, a job that will be a pleasure to edit.

Worse still is the newfangled idea of referring to editing as "proofreading." Editing and proofreading are different tasks and take different amounts of time.

Proofreading takes far less time and thus pays a lower per-word rate. Proofreading is checking the text for minor errors, a period missing here, a wrong hyphen there. Editing, on the other hand, demands checking target against source for all sorts of errors, slips, mistakes, etc. As a consequence, it takes far more time and carries a higher price. Every agency knows that. Only some of them pretend they do not.


Agreements

This is the last straw, really. After this, the ranting will stop. Or so we hope.

Most agencies ask us to sign an agreement. That is OK. Setting things out in black and white helps prevent problems.

However, some of those agreements are abusive, and, regrettably, most translators sign them without reading, because they claim to have no time for it, because they cannot make head or tail of the lingo, because they are afraid of refusing to sign, or because some dishonest PM has conned them into believing the agreement is "just for the record."

Lesson one in "Law for Translators 101": there is absolutely no such a thing as a clause "for the record only" and a "for the record only" clause is the first one the agency will allege against you in case of trouble.

We could draw a list of provisions found in those agreements. One of them required supplying audited financials prepared in accordance with USGAAP, something that costs far more than we can afford. Under another one, the translator agreed not to use illegal drugs while working for the agency (we are not junkies, but, what the hell, next thing they will ask us to stop eating red meat or whatever).

The list could go on and on, but a few days ago Rina Ne'eman (http://www.hebrewtrans.com/) twitted a story that simply cut our list short: a biggie, sent her an agreement granting them the right to monitor her phone and e-mail. Can you beat that? Can you possibly beat that?

She has the strange—but laudable—habit of carefully reading stuff before signing and decided it would be better not to sign the agreement. Did Rina lose the client? Possibly. Probably. Almost certainly, we venture say. She won't miss it. There is plenty of good work going round.


Envoy

Let's not generalize. Not all agencies are bad. Perhaps not even most of them. We work for agencies and we enjoy it. Sometimes one of them hires a bad-apple PM, but they soon get rid of the guy before they can corrupt the nice people or cause harm.

You know the story about mixing good and bad apples in the same case. Unfortunately, good agencies do not seem to be doing anything about this. A pity, because the baddies are doing a lot of damage to the reputation of the industry as a whole.

But, you may ask, how come these two spend half an hour of my time badmouthing agencies and then want me to believe their agencies are just angels?

Oh, well, we should not be disclosing our trade secrets to all and sundry, but this seems to be a special case and we will let the cat out of the bag: we have a magic word that solves all problems. The magic word is "no." Just say "no" to bad business practices. "No" is a word that opens countless (better) doors. Try it!




Published - December 2010











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