Posted by: patenttranslator | August 11, 2011

Another One Bites the Dust – Or How to Kill Off a PIA Client Without Kindness

So far this year I lost two translation agencies that used to be among my clients. It’s more like I killed them off because I did not want to work for them anymore. And I feel good about it.

The first one is a really small agency that started sending me work about 5 years ago. This guy paid decent rates both for Japanese and for German and he would usually give me plenty of time to do the job, which is something that I can really use. The patent law firm that sends him the patents probably knows that haste makes waste.

He was a slow payer from the beginning, but at first he would be usually no more than about 10 days late. I don’t like it, but I can live with that. But from this year it started taking him almost three months to pay, while my terms are 30 days net. So I raised my rate to him in the hope that he would get the message. In the meantime I found out that this technique is often used by freelancers and that it is called a PIA (Pain In the Ass in US and Pain In the Arse in UK) fee. But he did not get the message and let me wait 80 days again after the PIA rate increase. So when he e-mailed me another patent for translation, I informed him politely that I would work for him only if he prepaid his order with a credit card through my website. I understand that these are tough times, but it is not my intention to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He refused to prepay, he said that this would not work for him, especially since I already raised my rate to him. I will probably never hear from him again, which works for me just fine.

The other PIA client is also a small agency. I started working for this agency also about five years ago. They claim that they have offices in no less than four cities in United States on their cheap looking website which looks like one of those 100 dollar new website specials, but I would always deal with the same three guys. Maybe these three guys take turns flying between their sumptuous offices in Washington DC and San Francisco and the other three cities listed on their cheap looking website. More likely, they hooked up with some people who live in those places or the suite number is really a P.O. Box there with call forwarding.

This agency used to pay very quickly the first four years or so, usually within two weeks, which is kind of really rare in the translation business. So I did not want to lose them. They also sounded intelligent when I would talk to them on the phone, which is also kind rare for a translation agency.

But eventually, they got too greedy, which is not rare in the translation agency business at all. Early this year they asked me for a discount on a particular project (not patents) which continued on an off for several months. They said that I was the only translator who was being paid as much as what they paid me (3 cents less per word than what I usually charge). I found out that it was a lie because a friend of mine, let’s call him Jim, (which is not his real name), who has a PhD in Japanese studies told me that he was being paid the same low rate on the same job. Since there are really not too many experienced people on this planet who can  translate Japanese to English, at least not that many who can do it well, if you lie to one of them, the rest of them are likely to find out the truth at some point.

I understand that sometime you may have to lower your rates on certain types of jobs. But this type of arrangement only works for me if it is a temporary arrangement applied to only one project. When they asked for a permanent discount of 2 cents less for my patent translations, which is my bread and butter,  I offered a discount of 1 cent.

But they would not pay me 1 cent more than what they wanted to pay me, which was 1 cent less than what they used to pay. A quarter century of experience in a field that takes about a quarter century to master is not worth an additional cent per word to these people. So I am not working for them anymore.

Below is an excerpt from the response I received after I sent an e-mail to my friend (who I am calling Jim here) to let him know what I think about this particular outfit:

“Heh.  I quit working for them too, altho for different reasons.  In my case it wasn’t the pay but rather because they wouldn’t pay me on time, & it got worse & worse to where I couldn’t pay my OWN bills properly so I finally just quit.  My last job for them was in April & I haven’t worked for them or heard from them since.  I finally told them that if they couldn’t pay me within the 30 days stated on my invoices that I didn’t want to work for them anymore & that was it.”

And here is an excerpt from the response to Jim from the agency:

Masters of the Universe Translations [not their real name] has never had any difficulty paying its bills on time … We are incredibly solvent and so please don’t ever say that again out loud please.  As I mentioned several times to you before, on this large project as with any large project, we are not paying bills based on the translators’ invoice dates.  Your invoice date is not relevant to us.  We are paying them based on our batch close dates.”

[Below is Jim again]

“Note how he says that my invoice is “not relevant” to them.  THAT [Expletive deleted by Mad Patent Translator].  Who the hell does he think he is, anyway?  So that’s when I just said the hell with it, if they can’t pay me on time then I won’t work for them, period.  I don’t need them anyway.  It’s too bad too, cuz in the beginning, i.e., last yr., they were paying on time but then it just got later & later & later.  So that’s it.”

[And back to me again]

I don’t really have any agency clients at this point, although I used to have quite a few, at least not agencies that are likely to be sending me repeat business. And I think it’s for the best. Most of the time I have enough work from direct clients, mostly patent law firms. Increasingly, I am forced to function as an agency myself. For instance in this moment, 3 people are working on my projects (in languages that I don’t translate myself), and 1 person already finished 3 jobs for me so far this month in another language that I can’t translate myself.

Now, I am just as greedy as the next guy. I understand that the difference of 1 cent per word less to the translator is 30 dollars more in my pocket, per day and per person, based on an average daily output of 3,000 words.

But I think that twenty five years of experience in the field of patent translation covering quite a few technical fields and several languages in my case, or a PhD in Japanese studies on top of decades of experience in the case of my friend Jim, should be worth an additional cent per word.

Actually, I believe that in the real world it is worth a little bit more than one cent. There are only a few people on this planet who can do what Jim and I have been doing for the last few decades. As opposed to many thousands of brokers such as this particular translation agency.

The fact that they don’t realize this simple fact is to me clear evidence of their arrogance and stupidity.

I should add that both of these former customers of mine combined accounted on average for about 7% of my income over the past few years. The key to independence and survival in freelance translation is not to be heavily dependent on a single client or even a few clients. Because if you are heavily dependent on one or two clients, you can’t really fire them, even if they turn out to be a major PIA.


  1. Unfortunately, you are preaching to the choir. School teachers, no matter how fabulous, will never make what even a bad surgeon makes. I used to know a Latin American musician who was great on timbales. He also played other instruments, including the guitar, but when it came to tuning, he would say, “That’s close enough.” Most people think of translating the same way, so you just have to move on, so to speak.

    Again, working for the ol’ US Gubmint spares me/us from all this. Of course we pay through the nose, so to speak, but there’s little or no hassle.


  2. Based on my experience, being a school teacher in Europe was quite a prestigious job when I lived there, although teachers did not make much money either.

    We had to call our high school teachers “professor”. They were clearly among the best educated people in the little town where I grew up and people used to respect education when I was a kid.

    Here, there is no prestige and no money in being a teacher. No wonder the country is going to hell in a handbasket.


  3. It does not take anywhere close to 25 years to become a good J>E translator, patents or otherwise.

    A Ph.D. in Japan Studies does nothing to guaratee the quality of translations, either.

    Should patent translators with a technical degree normally get 3 cents more than one with a history or linguistics degree?

    Are non-native English speakers worth 2 cents less than native speakers?

    These are all signals to the employer who then can decide if the translator is worth paying some amount in the future.

    It doesn’t matter that there are only “a few dozezn” who can do J>E patent translations. (While true years ago, I doubt that few today.) Your old employer lowered the rate becuase he knew he could find someone else.


  4. It does not take anywhere close to 25 years to become a good J>E translator, patents or otherwise.

    1. How could you possibly know something like that? You are not a translator.

    2. And you forgot to mention that machine translation will put us out of business.

    Are you OK?


  5. Of course I translate. Ergo, I am a translator. But it is only a small percent of what I do.

    How could I know somthing like that? Because I know people who make 18 cents a word and have done patent translations for 5 and 10 year, respectively.

    Do you really not know your own field?


  6. So is your first language Japanese?

    And why do you hide behind your icon?


  7. My first language is English.

    You don’t have to answer my questions, but most companies prefer that the translator is a native speaker of the target language, right?

    You are neither a native English speaker nor German speaker yet those are the languages you translate into. Nor do you have a tech background.

    Those may not be disqualifiers, but it is something to keep in mind when you make a list of what deserves an extra 2 cents per word.


  8. If your first language is English, it really is a waste of time talking to you.

    Obviously, being a native speaker is not all it’s cracked up to be, since you are one, although I can hardly believe it.

    I didn’t write altho, the friend of mine did that, the one who has a PhD in Japanese studies, can’t you read?

    You should have finished the damn high school Jeb.
    Sorry, I don’t want to talk to you anymore.
    Find some other blog to troll.

    But it was fun while it lasted.


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