Posted by: patenttranslator | July 11, 2013

Translations Cannot Be Returned for a Full Refund Once You Click on the “Send” Button

There was a story in yesterday’s US media, if we can still call it that, about a Saudi princess who according to New York Times ” … was arrested on charges that she pushed her maid down a flight of stairs … and held the live-in Indonesian maid in conditions of involuntary servitude ….. “. Among other things, it is alleged that the princess did not allow the Indonesian maid to leave her room, confiscated her passport and had been withholding her salary for 2 months.

Unlike maids from third world countries working for psychopathic princes and princesses, translators are rarely pushed down a flight of stairs or otherwise physically attacked by their employers.

But they too can be easily mishandled by their clients, usually by being shortchanged on what is owed to them, or simply not paid for their work at all. Discussions of translators on LinkedIn and in other online venues where translators like to congregate (misery loves company) are full of stories about insulting, unacceptable, shameless rates (insert your preferred adjective) being offered to translators.

And stories abound about translators who were simply stiffed after days, weeks or months of work, and who lost hundreds or thousands of dollars, Euros or pounds.

For example a translation agency in Japan last year failed to pay a number of translators, including a friend of mine, many thousands of dollars for a translation project related to a lawsuit, although the translations were ordered and delivered on time.

Tangible products such as clothing, shoes, or TVs usually have a warranty period during which the customer can return the product if he feels that the product is for some reason deficient, or simply does not like it. These products can then be resold, albeit at a discount.

But since intangible products like translations cannot be returned once you click on the “send” button, what can you do if the client says that the translation is not good enough – for example not literal enough, or too literal, or not enough or too much of something else? How can a translator defend himself when the client is obviously always right? If the client says that the translation is no good, well, then it’s no good and that’s that.

Being stiffed on a bill for several thousand dollars can be even worse than being pushed down the flight of stairs by an enraged princess when you really need the money to pay your bills.

As a translator,  I often have to worry with a new client whether I will be paid for my work when I work as a translator because my payment terms are usually 30 days net, except when I can make the client prepay the order which does not happen very often.

Double is the worry when I work as a translation agency. I remember how much I worried when I was managing a crazy rush job into Japanese quite a few years ago. I knew nothing about the client, I just made the bet that I would be paid on time. I faxed the long patent application to Japan …. and waited. I was so exhausted once I finally finished the project that I forgot to turn on the car lights when I drove home at about 11 PM from my office, about 14 miles on the highway. I only realized it when I was in my garage. The next morning I had an e-mail from the law firm in Japan thanking me for saving the day because the patent was filed on time.

I made six thousand dollars in three short days on that occasion. But I could have just as easily lost six thousand dollars in three short days because I told myself that I would have to pay the translators no matter what.

Nowadays I try to stay away from projects that seem too risky. I don’t have the nerves for it anymore.

It is a wild world out there, and you can never know for sure who you are dealing with, often in another country, thousands of miles away.

It is pretty amazing how little money I have lost so far on all those projects that I have been working on over the last 26 years. I did lose some money, but not a lot, and only once did I have to pay a translator out of my own pocket although I never got paid myself (the company went bankrupt).

It is a wild world out there and it makes sense to try to minimize the risk. I think that most translators after a while develop a sixth sense when it comes to trying to gauge the risk involved in a seemingly lucrative project.

Translators can of course fight back when an unscrupulous client does not feel like paying the bill. There are a number of methods at our disposal, from filing a claim in small claims court, or hiring a collection service, to disclosing shameful conduct of a non-payer on Internet where it will stay forever.

But since we can only recover the money, or some of it, if the client has money, it is best to have a finely tuned sixth sense for identifying potential trouble and staying away from trouble.

Unfortunately, one can only acquire this precious sixth sense through personal experience, which is to say, by being burnt a few times first.

Hopefully only a few times, and hopefully when only relatively small amounts are involved.



  1. It’s nice (and perhaps useful) to dream from time-to-time. So, what if we made it part of our terms and conditions that all rights to a translation, including it’s use and/or passing it on to a third party, remain ours until we provide a transfer certificate upon receipt of full payment.
    It would certainly put agencies in a difficult (but appropriate) position 🙂

    I know it sounds a bit far-fetched, but so did Martin Luther’s dream on 28 August 1963.


    • Contracts put potential clients off big time. I know that I get really mad if I ask for instance a plumber to fix my sink and the guy pulls out a contract to sign, to the point of sending him home and finding replacement.

      Although having such a contract for agencies would be nice, it is in the realm of dreams as you put it.

      Last month I snatched a bid from a translation agency because they had a moronic contract – while this mad patent translator had no contract.

      After I submitted my bid, there was no response. After a few days, the paralegal e-mailed me and asked me whether I would match the bid of a translation agency which was one cent per word lower then mine.

      The law firm was going to send the job to them, but decided not to do so once they read the agency’s “stupid” contract.

      So I lowered my price by one cent, and got the job and a new client.


  2. […] There was a story in yesterday's US media, if we can still call it that, about a Saudi princess who according to New York Times " … was arrested on charges that she pushed her maid down a flight …  […]


  3. Louis, most agencies and even some translators have that clause in their T&C.

    Steve, you mentioned large projects with the potential of making one lose money in the event the client does not pay. A solution to this would be to agree with the client to pay in instalments – part of the money upfront, maybe a few instalments as the project is in progress and the rest upon completion. Especially if it is a project that takes a few months to complete – you need money during this time, you can’t wait until you finish and then another 30 days to get paid. Buying insurance is also a good idea.

    And, as an agency or outsourcer who has not been paid by the client, one has responsibility towards their translators, who should be paid regardless.


  4. Thank you for your comment, Alina.

    See my response to Louis for what I think about contracts.

    These days I don’t handle high risk projects when I am the agency. I am willing sometime to assume risk – but only as a translator.

    I quote high on risky, expensive projects involving other translators, and ask for a downpayment of 50%.

    I never get these projects, which must mean that somebody else is doing them without a downpayment, or in other words, at great risk.


  5. While asking for a down payment or having a contract may seem off-putting, I still think is good to have in the case of a new client with a very big project. As you said, you have been lucky so far and hopefully you’ll continue to be and never face losses.

    As for the plumber example, things are slightly different. While in the case of the translation industry, client and translator rarely meet face to face, the plumber comes to your place and you can actually see on the spot if he has done a good job or not. I mean, if he has not fixed the leaking sink he was called for, you would not pay him, contract or no contract.

    Coming back to the article, something I forgot to mention in my previous comment: you say ‘ If the client says that the translation is no good, well, then it’s no good and that’s that.’ Well, if the client says that, they need to tell you exactly what is wrong, so you can defend your choices. Again, a contract stipulating that the client cannot refuse payment just by dismissing your work as ‘not good’ without justifying their opinion with clear examples can save you a lot of trouble.


  6. A really arrogant client can always justify why he does not need to pay for a translation.

    A client who would simply ignore the fact that in case of a non-payment, the translator was asked by this client to work for free for hours or days is by definition very arrogant.

    I had one client refuse payment by saying that the translation was too literal. (Duh, a patent translation that is not literal would be a mistranslation. The client, who was not a native English speaker, wanted something else from me, but apparently did not quite know what).

    Another client kept correcting my terminology, for example when I translated “voler” from French as “steal”, he said that it should have been translated as “spirit away”, etc.

    Fortunately, this kind of thing does not happen too often to me, and when it does, on relatively small projects, I just let it go and never work for the client again.

    But if it were a major project worth at least several thousand dollars, I would go after the non-paying client with vengeance.

    After all, “theft of service” is a crime, just like when you rob a house or mug an old lady in front of a supermarket. You don’t need a contract to go after a client who wants to stiff you, all you need is his translation order and your invoice with the payment terms stated on your invoice.


  7. As an agency, we are changing the way translators are paid – that is – as soon as possible, NOT as late as possible (14-30 days!). Finding good and reliable translators is not easy! It is simply not logical to ‘burn’ and ‘throw’ translators off by late or null payments. As a past contractor myself, I appreciate fast payment and would throw in extra effort into the job if I know the agency appreciates my work (through fast / punctual payment).

    Funny thing is, there was one translator that was hurling abuses (via email) to my project manager because of she thought payment was not made. It was in fact made within 2-3 days (maybe too fast).

    The language she used in that email was horrendous (full of threats and personal insults) and of course she was black-listed, even though we replied to each of her email abuses politely.

    She apologised only after the 2nd/3rd email sent to her convinced her to actually check her Paypal account!


  8. “As a past contractor myself, I appreciate fast payment and would throw in extra effort into the job if I know the agency appreciates my work (through fast / punctual payment).”

    So do I.

    And some translators are arrogant and apparently not terribly bright.

    I can confirm that as well. Maybe it’s connected to our slightly weird lifestyle.


  9. […] and Communication Technologies in Interpreting – Remote and Telephone Interpreting Translations Cannot Be Returned for a Full Refund Once You Click on the “Send” Button Riddle of the script: How the world’s most difficult language puzzle was solved Coping with […]


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