Posted by: patenttranslator | December 1, 2013

Why Do People Expect Translators To Work For Free?

Nobody expects car mechanics, plumbers, dentists, lawyers, doctors, landscapers, or interior decorators and baby sitters to work for free. Even if the job to be done is quite small, most people automatically assume that some kind of reimbursement would be in order because it would be unethical and insulting to ask a car mechanic or a babysitter to work for free.

True, some lawyers sometime do pro bono work, but I suspect that most of them do it to assuage their guilty conscience because they get away with charging outrageously high fees.

Unlike lawyers or doctors, translators don’t charge high fees. Their fees are probably somewhat higher than what most babysitters charge, but typically lower than what most plumbers would charge. But unlike car mechanics, dentists, lawyers, doctors, landscapers, or interior decorators, some people almost automatically expect translators to work for free as if it were our sacred duty to humankind.

I will give you one example.

A few years ago when I was working on a translation, or more specifically struggling with a poorly written and poorly legible Japanese patent, my telephone rang and on the other side of the line was a policeman who found my phone number in Yellow Pages. “Hi”, he said, “do you speak Russian?” “Yes”, I said. “OK, great”, he said, “I have an old Russian lady here who does not speak any English and I don’t know what she wants, can you translate for me?”

So I found out for him from a scared Russian lady who was wandering the streets of Virginia Beach that as she was visiting her daughter who lived there, she decided to go for a walk and could not find her way back. The poor Russian lady did not remember her daughter’s address, and get this: she did not even know her daughter’s married name, probably because those damn non-Russian names are so hard to remember.

I’m afraid this was not a very smart Russian lady. I do hope she somehow found her daughter’s place, although I have a feeling that it probably took a while.

“OK, great, thanks a lot”, said the cop and hung up. Perhaps it never occurred to him that the polite thing to do would be to ask “So how much do I owe you?” Or maybe it did occur to him, which was why he hung up so quickly. It took me only a few minutes to get this information from the Russian lady and explain the situation to the cop, but because I lost my concentration, I could not get back to my work for a long time.

I no longer advertise in Yellow Pages, partly because although I had to pay a lot of money for a tiny ad, most calls that I used to get from the listing were a waste of time, and some people simply expected me to work for free, like the cop in my example.

Because I am basically a nice guy (ask anybody!), I actually enjoy helping foreign tourists who seem to be lost. It happens to me quite a bit, especially in Prague. I remember an elderly Japanese gentleman who, clutching a Japanese guidebook, asked me a few years ago in almost incomprehensible English for directions to a museum of marionettes. So I responded in Japanese and kept interpreting for him for free until we found out from locals that the museum was moved (the Japanese guidebook was obsolete).

Russian tourists in Prague in particular ask me for directions because people in my age group are much more likely to speak Russian than young people who are no longer obligated to learn their language. I enjoy practicing my Russian with lost Russian tourists every now and then.

But I made it my policy not to give away my services for free … until such time as I make as much money as lawyers who make so much that they feel the need to offer once every few years to work on something pro bono. Once I make at least three hundred thousand dollars a year, I will be much more open to the concept of pro bono work.

But until that happens, the chances are that I will not translate for anybody for free any time soon … with the exception of my monolingual relatives in Europe and in Japan, of course!

Obviously, I will continue translating for them for free! They are family and we are supposed to do things for free for people who are family, right?

But everybody else will have to pay me, no matter how small the job. Not a whole lot, but still, they will have to pay for my time.

Next time when my phone rings and somebody asks me “Do you speak Russian?” (German, Czech, Japanese), I must remember to answer “Who wants to know and why?” just in case it is somebody who wants me to work for him for free again.

After all, instead of a cop, it could be a mafia enforcer who just found my phone number on the Internet and who needs to elicit my help, for free, of course, to extract information, by torture if necessary, from a hapless victim who does not speak enough English.

UPDATE:

It seems that translators are not the only highly specialized professionals who are expected to work for free, see the link below.

http://tonysleep.co.uk/no-budget-for-photos

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Responses

  1. That’s something that used to puzzle me too and I thought of an explanation that, as Italians say, if it’s not true, it’s well devised.

    Nobody charges anything for “just” speaking.
    Nobody has to go to school for over 18 years (5+5+3+5=18, in Brazil) in order to be a ‘speaker’, as lawyers, dentists or engineers (me!) do in order to charge for what they’ve learned.

    Talk is so cheap that you can get away with just asking for it, for free…
    At least that’s what people, unconsciously, ‘think’ when they think about translating.

    Like

  2. But lawyers and politicians charge mucho dinero for just speaking, and unlike translators and interpreters, they mostly lie at least half the time.

    Like

  3. “I no longer advertise in Yellow Pages, partly because although I had to pay a lot of money for a tiny ad, most calls that I used to get from the listing were a waste of time, and some people simply expected me to work for free, like the cop in my example.”

    Well, Steve, that must be also one of the reasons why some really good translators I know don’t advertise at online portals. A registration at a translator association suffices. There come quite a few people expecting something for free.

    I usually don’t read or write German, English, Spanish, French, Russian or any other languages, unless someone comes to me with a decent proposal.

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  4. “I usually don’t read or write German, English, Spanish, French, Russian or any other languages, unless someone comes to me with a decent proposal”

    I know what you mean, it’s just work, and at our age who wants to work for free?

    Like

  5. […] Nobody expects car mechanics, plumbers, dentists, lawyers, doctors, landscapers, or interior decorators and baby sitters to work for free. Even if the job to be done is quite small, most people aut…  […]

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  6. […] Why Do People Expect Translators To Work For Free? Nobody expects car mechanics, plumbers, dentists, lawyers, doctors, landscapers, or interior decorators and baby sitters to work for free. Even if the job to be done is quite small, most …  […]

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  7. It’s about photography, but the message is relevant for translation (and other similar professions) as well:
    http://tonysleep.co.uk/no-budget-for-photos

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  8. Dear Steve:

    Artists in general are asked to work for free I think. My girl Amy is a theatre maker, so her ideas and energy are her lifeblood and many people drain your energy and ask you to spend it for free. Just as time is money for a translator, creative ideas and creative energy are money for theatre actors who create, write and star in their own productions.

    The good news? It’s easier to barter with people who understand what it takes to produce the thing in the first place. I only do free work for other translators, editors, interpreters, friends & family, etc. And myself of course! Unfortunately I am not always on the clock when I am working for myself.

    Like


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