A few times a month I receive a form from a translation agency attached to an e-mail asking me to fill it out, including my rates. I think it’s best to ignore these e-mails just like one would ignore any other junk e-mails or unsolicited phone calls. I only respond to genuine requests for my rates and availability for an actual translation.
These forms for future reference and other mass e-mails are sent to many translators who seem like good prospects by an agency coordinator who is not exactly swamped with other work at the moment. Perhaps they found your website, or your listing in the American Translators Association database, or your local translators’ organization database, or your Proz database entry, etc. The thing is, they don’t have work for you at the moment. They think that they probably will, at some point, maybe soon, but not just yet. So they are creating their own databases now that they have plenty of time to do that since there is nothing else to do and they want to have as many translators listed as possible.
Guess which translator will end up getting a real translation job when and if a real job materializes when somebody has a whole bunch of translators in a database? (Hint: don’t forget to include your rates).
If you charge very low rates, lower than what most experienced translators would charge, perhaps because you are a beginner and need to get some experience, my advice would be to go ahead and fill out as many forms as possible (and don’t forget the rates!) They might call on you at some point. And you may not have anything else to do at the moment anyway. We can call these translators “subprime translators” after “subprime borrowers” who were taking out “subprime loans” that were so popular in the real estate industry here in the United States not so long ago. Subprime loans were issued by banks and mortgage companies to individuals who represented a high risk of defaulting on the loan due to a low credit score, but who on the other hand were very profitable to these banks and mortgage companies because they could make these subprime borrowers pay very high interest, perhaps after a short initial period of very low interest.
The “subprime translators” are also very profitable to translation agencies because their rates are low, so perhaps the analogy is not too strained. Oh, I almost forgot, the way it worked, subprime loans were then rated by credit rating agencies for a juicy fee as perfectly safe and sliced and diced on Wall Street and sold to creditors who could not get enough of them, both here in the United States and in countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Italy, Spain. When the borrowers were eventually bankrupted by loans that they could not pay, this caused a worldwide economic crisis which has been with us for at least the last three years and which will continue for … (nobody knows for how much longer and I don’t know that either, hopefully not forever, but who knows). But the people who designed the subprime loans made plenty of money in the meantime and nothing bad happened to them, so you could say that the “subprime loans” served their purpose really well, depending on your place in the food chain, of course.
My advice to “non-subprime translators”, namely translators who have been translating for a while and who do not work for “subprime rates” because they have bills to pay as well as some pride in their work, would be to read a good book or work on your website, or create a website if you don’t have your own website yet, or even to work some more on your listing in an Internet database. Sooner or later, somebody will contact you about a real job and at that point, he or she will be willing to pay the going rate because a real project will be on the line and most of us know that in the real world, you get what you pay for.
P.S. Sometime I also receive similar requests from librarians, patent law firms, inventors, etc., asking for my rates and other information. I always respond to these e-mails because I can ask for a higher rate. But I don’t recall a single instance when my response to such a request would result in real work. The only exceptions are cases when there was already an urgent need for a translation of concrete documents and the prospective customer just wanted to know my rate ahead of time.
Against my better judgment I sent last week my résumé and a copy of my diploma (I have a degree in Japanese and English studies) to an agency that requested both of these documents for “future projects”. In response, I received from them a service agreement and a confidentiality agreement, a total of 9 pages, or about 5 thousand words. There are so many “general conditions” and “mandatory conditions” required for what these people call “professional collaboration”, it’s like applying to be hired by the CIA.
The best part is the section dealing with invoices – you have to log onto their accounting system and create your invoices (on certain days only!) according to their precise specifications while adhering to these instructions: “Please send all invoices between the 1st and 5th days [sic] of the month following the invoiced month”. And under “Changes to invoicing process as from January 2011″ it says:”From January 2011, invoices shall be paid sixty (60) days from the date of the invoice. The date of the invoice will be from the last day of the month.”
I can’t really figure out exactly how is this supposed to work, but I am pretty sure the text is designed to hide the fact that I would be waiting for about 3 months to get paid by this outfit. They must be off their rocker! They must have mistaken me for a really desperate subprime translator!! That’s what I get for trying to be nice to people!!!
The confidentiality agreement is also something to behold. It says things like “The Vendor shall solely and directly incur civil and criminal liabilities” … I am surprised that they are not asking for my firstborn as well.
I feel sorry for people who actually do work them. I should have listened to my own advice not to bother responding to junk e-mails from agencies unless you are a desperate subprime translator.
After I told the agency that the payment terms are unacceptable, they told me that I don’t have to sign the contracts as long as I simply acknowledge receipt by e-mail, and that they would be able to pay me in 30 days if I bill them them once at the end of the month. So apparently, there are sub-subprime translators who sign everything without questions and are willing to wait more than 60 or up to 90 days to get paid, and then there are translators who are merely subprime – those who dare to raise questions about one-sided contracts, which may be tolerated as long as they are willing to wait up to 60, or at least 45 days or so to get paid for their work.
I think that 30 days is a very long time. That is as long as I am willing to wait for my money because this seems to be right now the status quo in the translation industry here in US as I mentioned in another post on my blog. So this particular agency will have to find a sub-subprime or at least subprime translator to replace yours truly.
I had to pay the guy who came to fix my kitchen sink right away. As far as I know, there are no sub-subprime or subprime plumbers out there. They all have to be paid when the work is finished. Which is as it should be.
But there must be many sub-subprime and merely subprime translators out there competing for work with the rest of us. What subprime translation agencies who use subprime translators don’t seem to realize – or don’t care about if they do realize it – is the fact that they are competing for a quite limited talent pool with agencies that pay good rates within 10 days or so to make sure that certain translators will always make time for them. In fact, the few agencies that I work for regularly pay me like this, which is why I work for them. Cash flow is the king in any business, including mine. That is why when I am acting as an agency myself, I try to pay quickly too. I can afford to do that because most of my income is generated by my own translations.
So in the end, the capitalist free market occasionally sort of does really work, I think, in the translation industry. Due to the way they operate, what I would call subprime agencies, usually large ones, will often end up with beginners who may be delivering subprime translations as they may or may not be up to the task, leaving experienced translators to smaller business entities that are much more flexible as they are able to accommodate what is called “the going rate”, as well as a reasonably quick and predictable cash flow cycle for small businesses, including also individual freelance translators.