Posted by: patenttranslator | April 28, 2012

I Am Not Mad – The Rest of the World Is Mad When It Comes to Signing of Contracts

When I read advice on various blogs of other seasoned translators or in publications for translators and freelancers, I often experience this strange realization that although I have been in the patent translation business for a quarter century now, I must be doing everything wrong.

On purpose.

Let me count only some of the ways in wich my madness is clearly manifested.

1. I don’t make my clients sign a contract. I don’t use contracts. I think that’s called being very unwise.

2. I don’t use Trados or various other assorted CATs because I don’t like them. I think that’s called being a “Luddite”. On the plus side, I don’t have to worry about things like “fuzzy matches”. I strive for a crystal clear match each and every time.

3. I don’t use any accounting software such as QuickBooks because I find the Letts of London Monthly Diary ideal for my accounting purposes. That’s probably also called something, although I am not sure what. What is the proper medical term for accounting software phobia?

I could go on and on. But I don’t want to bore you with a reasoned substantiation of why I do everything wrong. I will just mention a few things under point 1 because otherwise it would take too long. Perhaps I can deal with the other points again in another post.

I feel that don’t need to make my clients sign anything because first I do due diligence by dividing potential clients for my purposes into three categories: A. patent law firms, B. translation agencies, and C. people I know nothing about, such as inventors. And here is how my triage system for potential clients works:

A. If the potential client is a patent law firm, there is no need to have a lawyer sign a piece of paper once your invoice is being processed by their accounting system.

Once I have the client’s reference number (billing code), the billing code goes on my invoice as a part of a bill that will be submitted to the lawyer’s client. In other words, it is really the client of the law firm who pays my bill, not the lawyer. The key here is that it is not the law firm’s money. If the lawyer’s client agrees to an amount, even if it is a lot of money, the law firm will pay my invoice as long as they can use my translation successfully in court or for filing and thus make money for themselves.

Another reasons why they need to pay is that they know that they will need to use me again in the future or find somebody who can do what I do for them, which may not be so easy.

Even if I had a piece of paper signed by a lawyer, do I really want to sue a lawyer if I don’t get paid? I would have to hire one first. So I don’t make them sign anything.

B.  It is a well established fact that some translation agencies will stiff translators.

There is only one remedy for this problem: try to work for agencies that you know well, do your research on the Internet before you take on a new agency client, and never accept a long job from an unknown translation agency if something seems wrong. If something looks fishy, it is probably an outfit that you want to stay away from.

I did lose a few thousand dollars to a few translation agencies that stiffed me over the last two and half decades, but not that much. Most people in various other types of business lose money regularly to deadbeats. Just ask the guy who comes to fix your kitchen sink. These days I don’t really work for agencies much anyway, with the exception of two or three agencies. If you don’t work for them, you’re perfectly safe.

But even if I did make a translation agency sign a piece of paper, how would that exactly change things? It would not change anything. They would still stiff me if they were so inclined.

Their acceptance of your e-mail offer to do a translation at a certain price within a specified period of time is already tantamount to a contract. Another piece of paper is not going to change anything. So I don’t make translation agencies sign anything either.

C. Even people that I don’t know anything about don’t have to sign a contract with me.

Individuals unknown to me who are not a law firm and who don’t even have a website so that I can’t find anything about them with Google either still don’t have to sign a contract with me because I usually make them prepay at least half of the cost through a handy PayPal icon on my website instead of making them sign a piece of paper.

If the amount is relatively small, I make them prepay all of the estimated cost. If the amount is significant, I make them prepay 50%. If they don’t want to do that, the chances are that they would probably not pay once the translation has been delivered. If they pay the first 50%, the chances are that they will pay the remainder as well now that they have some skin in the game. Even if they refused to pay the remaining 50%, which has not happened to me yet, I would still be reimbursed, although only partially. It would be like working for a really low rate, which would not hurt nearly as much as wasting your time for free.

So as far as I can tell, despite all of the advice to the contrary, there is no need to have a translator’s agreement.

A contract is worth more than the paper it is written only if it is enforceable. And you can only enforce a contract by using the existing legal system, which is extremely expensive, very time consuming and stacked against the little guy.

It makes much more sense to do your due diligence in advance instead.


  1. Hi,

    No you are not mad – just different!
    Like us, we don’t use fussy matches or binding contracts – If a client want us they will stay with us because we keep our promises and deliver high quality.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Couldn’t agree more.


  3. Always nice to hear about someone who does something differently. A lot of advice out there can start to sound like a bunch of regurgitated Marketing 101. What you say makes sense!


  4. Thank you.

    It is hard to tell marketing BS from actual information these days.

    I hope to hear from other non-joiners who have their own system that is based on common sense rather thant accepted wisdom.


  5. If I am dealing with a private individual, I usually now require payment in full up front, as I have had problems with getting the balance after delivering the job based on an initial part-payment.


  6. I do that too, but only for small amounts, such as for translations of private documents. I also accept work from agencies that pay habitually late only if they prepay.

    But for example when I deal with inventors who need to have a number of patents translated for more that a thousand dollars, I check them out online and usually also talk to them over the phone to get a feel for the person and then I ask them to pay 50% in advance and the rest on delivery.

    I feel that it would not be fair to ask them to prepay everything before they have even seen my translation. How do they even know that I can translate?
    They don’t.

    I am aware that I am taking on a certain risk in these cases, but I think that a contract would not really help me much if at all.


  7. I agree with your way of doing things, I must say. I also avoid this kind of paperwork like the plague. The other day an agency contacted me about working for them, and their rates were fair, but I still did not accept because they sent me about 5 or 6 pages of forms to fill in. I just don’t have time for that. And once, I passed on a translation to a colleague, who asked me word a project order. So I told them that I had enough paperwork to do already, but sent them a link to my LinkedIn profile so they could check that I was an actual person.

    There are also a lot of sites dedicated to collecting the names of bad payers, like Payment Practices, which are a great help when working with agencies for the first time. Then again, I reckon in the business of patent translation, your clients are mainly reliable companies with a decent reputation.


  8. A long contract with a number of somewhat demeaning clauses where a simple Confidentiality Agreement would suffice is a good enough reason for me not to work for an agency.


  9. I rarely sign contracts, but if asked I do. I just make sure to read them carefully and cross out anything I don’t agree with. I use accounting software though. It makes life easier when preparing my taxes for my tax guy.


  10. […] the Blue Board tell more about bad translators than about bad translation companies? I Am Not Mad – The Rest of the World Is Mad When It Comes to Signing of Contracts How do translation professionals handle the customer who questions their expertise? Is Translation […]


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