Posted by: patenttranslator | December 18, 2011

Is Honesty Still the Best Policy for Your Freelance Business?

Many modern business practices are extremely dishonest. The bait and switch method is a typical example of such practices. Most advertisements shown on TV are filled with half truths and outright lies. For example, they no longer mention the real cost of a subscription to anything in ads on TV or in your junk mail anymore. Instead, they only tell you how much “the first three months” will cost, a cost that has nothing to do with the real cost over time. The only real information in your junk mail is the part at the end that is marked by an asterisk, hiding in a small font designed to make you skip it. The rest is mostly lies.

When I buy a cell phone these days, I have no idea how much I am actually paying for the cool toy that I am purchasing because I either have to sign up for a two year plan, or buy the phone at a price that is probably inflated to make sure that I go for the bait instead.

I think that business practices are probably more dishonest in America than in other countries. For example, all price tags on products in European Union show the actual price including the tax. In US, the prices are shown without the tax to make them seem cheaper. Another telling example: while the law in European countries stipulates that genetically modified food products must be identified as such so that the customer could chose, in US the law says that genetically modified food products may not be labeled as such to make sure that the customer remain ignorant. The corporations have such a powerful hold on our so called representatives in our so called democracy now that the representatives and senators basically need a signed permission slip from their major election campaign donors if they want to go to bathroom.

I think that the main reason why modern big business practices are so dishonest these days is that unlike small business people, extremely highly paid CEOs who run large corporations don’t really care too much about the long term effects of deceptive practices on the business of their company as long as they can make out like bandits in the short term. In a few years they will be practicing their skulduggery in a new company anyway based on the excellent results that were achieved thanks to their leadership in the previous company.

But it is not true that all businesses practice equally deceptive sales techniques. It may make sense to trick your customers into doing something they don’t really want to do if you are a big corporation that keeps launching slick advertising campaigns to bamboozle new victims, but does it make sense to subscribe to this basic principle of big business if you have a very small freelance business?

I don’t think so. The smaller the size of the business, the more honest it usually is. The guy who comes to your house to fix your kitchen sink really cannot afford to trick you with a low-ball estimate because the chances are that you will figure it out and never call him again. A big wireless carrier does not really have to care about that too much because only a few large companies have a near monopoly on the market here and they all use the same playbook. It probably works the same way also in Europe and elsewhere.

But freelancers can’t afford to pay off politicians. All we have is our reputation.

I once shared a long Russian translation on an extremely short deadline with a  translator who was a native American English speaker and who was recommended to me by another Russian translator who was not available – she was going to the ATA conference that weekend. I was quoted a reasonable rate by this other translator, not too high and not too low, so the job was his.

He did good work. Very good, in fact. But his invoice was about 20% higher than what I thought it would be because he charged me for complicated formatting in addition to the per word cost. The formatting was complicated, but there was no need to recreate the exact formatting in the translation. The translation was for a patent lawyer who did not care about formatting, he just needed the information contained in the documents. I simply created a simpler format in my portion of the translation.

So I gave the translator a choice: He could either send me a new invoice without the formatting charge, or he could insist on the amount in his invoice. I told him that I would pay it, but I would never call him again. He sent me a new invoice with a lower amount. I never called him again anyway.

I often compete for a project with other translators and translation agencies when I give a price quote to a law firm that just found my website online. I never know how much the other guy is quoting or how many bidders that are.

It can be complicated to bid on a Japanese patent, for example, based on the expected English word count, which is the standard method that is used in US. There is a number of reasons for this: different categories of patent documents have different formats and different fonts (unexamined patents vs. utility models, newer patents versus older patents, patents published in Japanese in Japan vs. PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty) patents published in Japanese).

Another aspect that complicates the word count estimate is that the English word count also depends on what kind of “words” are used in Japanese. For example, chemical patents have many chemical terms transcribed in katakana which will take up a lot of space in Japanese, but which will be translated as only one or a few words in Japanese. Text that has a lot of Japanese characters in it, as opposed to a lot of the two Japanese characters called hiragana and katakana, will translate into a lot of English words.

I always try to estimate the word count in English on the high end, although it means that I may be losing the bid to somebody else who has a lower word count estimate. If I do get the project and the real word count is lower than my estimate, I still charge the lower cost for the actual amount.

I could probably get away with charging the higher cost because that was the quoted cost.

But I would only do it to a customer who I don’t want to come back to me again with another project. And I basically want all of them to come back and to recommend my service to their colleagues.

I believe that honesty is the best policy when you run a small business. It makes you stand out in the ocean of deception that is slowly washing away what is left of ethical standards in modern society.



  1. I agree, Steve. I always quote high and charge for the actual cost. My clients are usually very pleased that way. Everyone is always happy when someone comes in under budget – be it a roofing contractor or a translator.


  2. Thank you.

    But some translators can do pretty stupid things.

    Patents often have an International Research Report about prior art, which is attached at the end and which has been translated from a foreign language by European Patent Office. So I add a translator’s note stating that everything has been already translated and scan the English translation of the report (for free) into the translation for good measure.

    But last week one translator retranslated this already translated report, a total of about 600 words. I had to ask her not to include the word count in her invoice to me because I deleted it from the document.

    She did that, and hopefully she learned that it is not a good idea to make your customer mad at you, be it an agency or a direct client.


  3. To avoid all the misleading factors of the work at hand for translations the simple per hour-rate would be the easiest and clearest. Why not go for that?


  4. Because some people translate on average only about 200 words per hour and some people can translate on average 600 words per hour.

    That is why the word unit is a much better quantifier of the value.


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