Posted by: patenttranslator | January 15, 2014

How To Tell a Good Client from a Potential Client from Hell

It is true that, as the British economist John Maynard Keynes put it, in the long run we are all dead.

Incidentally, Keynes also said this:”I work for a government for ends I think are criminal”, and this:”Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking”.

How very appropriate for our times.

What happens before that final inevitability occurs is kind of important. Which is why translators need to  choose their clients carefully because they may be living with them for a long time.

And the fact is, for every really good client out there, there are at least a hundred clients from hell.

How can one tell a potential good client from a potential client from hell?

It’s not really that difficult. A good client will accept your rate without trying to haggle, pays on time and generally treats you with respect.

And, most importantly, a potential good client will never ask anyone to work for free.

Unfortunately, most translation agencies don’t belong to this category. The people running and working in these agencies somehow got it into their pointy little heads that translators are cheap hired help and think nothing of asking them for free work. After all, workers are exploited in many companies, big and small, and they are often asked to work overtime without appropriate compensation too these days.

A telltale sign that a potential client is an extremely unethical person, i.e. somebody who you really don’t want to do business with, is when you are asked to do a “free translation sample”. By this I don’t mean when you are asked for a sample of your previous work, or for references. That is as it should be.

I mean a request for “a free sample” which is a request for “free work”.

This is how a translation agency person justified the ethical nature (from an agency’s viewpoint) of this particular requirement in a recent discussion on LinkedIn.

(Introduction: Unlike the Rest of the Agency Scumbags, We Are A Very Nice Agency!)

“There are lots of agencies out there who are unscrupulous and are looking to get things done “free” or “on the cheap”. We are not amongst them. It’s been pretty much covered above, but yes, don’t work for free at all. Decent agencies won’t ask you to.”

 (Argument: But Nice As We Are, We Want You to Work for Free Anyway!)

Samples are actually really important to us. So many clients ask for a few samples from various translators in order to pick the translator they want before we start doing any work for them and in the “cut throat” world of translation, it would not work charging the client for them – as so many other agencies (particularly ones with in house translators) do this for free. It would cost us a fortune if our translators all charged us for these, and so we don’t pay for them.

It is not really true that “many clients ask for a few samples from various clients”. I have been working for patent law firms for almost 27 years now and not once have I been asked for a free sample by a single patent law firm in all that time.

There may be direct clients out there who would ask a translator to work for free, but probably not that many. And here is why: If I need somebody to come to my house to fix my leaking sink or air conditioning that stopped working, I generally call 2 or 3 numbers listed for my zip code, and invariably I will be quoted a fee for coming to my house just to take a look at the problem, usually 90 dollars.

If a company offered to come for free (give me “a free sample”), I would be very suspicious of them because that would clearly indicate to me that they are very hungry for work. To me this would mean that they don’t have or can’t keep many customers, probably because their work is shoddy.

The difference in the agency-driven translation business model is not really that direct clients expect a free sample from translators, because most people (direct clients) are in fact generally ethical, and an ethical person understands that to demand free work from somebody is … well, extremely unethical. There is a word for this kind of relationship between two people in the English language, and the word is …. slavery. A bloody civil war that has been fought not that long ago in my country was largely based on a disagreement as to whether this kind of relationship between people is ethical or not.

The difference in the agency-driven translation business model is that translation agencies seem to live by different ethics. To them, asking translators to work for free is perfectly normal and perfectly ethical because so many other agencies from hell are doing it too.

**********

I do remember that I did agree to a free sample once, almost 27 years ago, to be exact.

It was a complicated medical article in German that I translated, after some cajoling (I did refuse to do it for free first) for a translation agency in San Francisco that no longer exists. Agencies come and go, translators translate until they drop dead because somebody has to do the work. It led to a relationship between a beginning translator with no experience (myself) and this translation agency which lasted for about 2 years. It was a very lucrative arrangement for the agency because once the law firm which was looking for a translator accepted my translation, I was working for the law firm through this agency for low rates (6 cents a word, or 30 dollars an hour when I was translating in the office) for about two years, until I was able to find other, better paying clients.

What really happens in the agency-driven business model is that translation agency operators offer free samples to potential clients, partly because so many other scumbag agencies do that, and partly because they don’t have to do the work themselves – translators will gladly do all the work, so what the hell!

Under these circumstance, even an ethical direct client, who would never ask for free work, will accept such an offer.

So if you are a beginning translator and a translation agency asks you for some free work, you may want to accept this offer for a prospect of having some real work to do at some point, although more often than not, nothing comes out of such offers.

But you should remember that by accepting such an arrangement, you are bringing back to life an ancient and illegal business model which is based on free work and used to be  called slavery.

So make sure that you are constantly on the lookout for better, ethical clients, because they will pay you more, faster, and generally treat you better.

I think that what Keynes meant was that what happens “in the short run” is really important given what happens “in the long run”.

So if you are forced by circumstances to become a slave, albeit temporarily, make sure it does not last too long because we only get a shot at having a life once.


Responses

  1. You see, these requests for free samples also reflect the fact that, in the US, anyone can put together a resume and claim to be a translator, a situation I find deplorable. Your plumber or electrician must be licensed, unlike a translator. In my 35+ years in the translation industry, I have worn lots of hats, including that of a project manager in a translation agency. So I can see where they come from. But on the other hand, a portfolio of samples from previous translations and a couple references should suffice.

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  2. Dear Patent Translator:
    Well put! You have revived an issue that has been talked about ad nauseam and brought something new to the table. While it may be a bit controversial to compare free translation samples to slavery, I think you have a point, and I enjoyed your tone in this post. Thank you for making it explicitly clear why one should not work for free.

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  3. “While it may be a bit controversial to compare free translation samples to slavery, I think you have a point, and I enjoyed your tone in this post.”

    Thank you. As Keynes put it:

    ”Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking”.

    Like

  4. A very common way translation agencies get free work (intellectual property) is by demanding the translation memories created by translators during an assignment. The translator has invested time and money in the software and learning to use it, and the tm should belong to the translator, but agencies act as though they are entitled to receive the tm along with the translation.

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  5. Right, and these days they stipulate in contracts that this is their right.

    And it is because slaves have no rights.

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  6. I agree that the whole “the client asked for samples” is probably baloney, but I’m not really upset about agencies asking for short free samples. I’ve proofread some ridiculously incompetent stuff, and as long as translators are not required to be licensed there has to be some way to verify ability. When I was starting out, pre-accreditation and without much of a resume, I figured it was an easy investment to get the jobs rolling, and I’ve found some pretty good agencies that way. Your point that submitting your own samples would do the same thing is well taken, though. But I don’t think it’s unusual for professionals to offer some introductory service for free. Lawyers and doctors offer free initial consultations in my experience, but maybe that’s not true everywhere.

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  7. “But I don’t think it’s unusual for professionals to offer some introductory service for free. Lawyers and doctors offer free initial consultations in my experience, but maybe that’s not true everywhere.”

    Unlike most translators, most lawyers and doctors charge (here in US) outrageous amounts of money.

    An aspirin prescribed by a doctor at a hospital can set you back more than a hundred dollars.

    Throwing in a freebie a couple of times a year helps them sleep better at night.

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    • Haha yeah you got me there, although I don’t envy them their malpractice insurance premiums, either😉

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  8. Dig the pointy hair reference😉

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    • Where have you been, Rob?

      I thought you stopped reading my silly blog.

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      • Oh no, Steve, I’ve been here all along. But with so many witty and intelligent commenters, it’s not easy to find something original and worthwhile to say. (As my comment above demonstrates.)

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  9. […] It is true that, as the British economist John Maynard Keynes put it, in the long run we are all dead. Incidentally, Keynes also said this:"I work for a government for ends I think are crimi…  […]

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  10. Never truer words were said. The whole “free sample” concept sounds so scammish. And I shamefacedly confess having been taken in by such a request more than once, I’m afraid. As you rightly said, Steve, more often than not, nothing comes out of submitting such a sample. On other occasions, it is simply a ruse to get a translation free of charge (divide it up among many unsuspecting “marks” [read naive translators]). So at some point I said to myself “enough is enough” and I absolutely refuse to do free samples. The more so as I am certified, and have the diplomas to prove it. So it has given me great satisfaction to counter such overtures with a corteous (and reasonable) offer of doing it against an upfront payment and if work ensues as a result, to discount the cost of the “sample” from the first invoice. Invariably, the answer is the loudest possible silence.

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    • They must be thinking “How dare-you, Nelida, to offer to go half the way when we want to you go the whole way and simply work for free and hope for the best, especially since we don’t have any real work for you anyway”.

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  11. “So many clients ask for a few samples from various translators in order to pick the translator they want before we start doing any work for them…”

    I love this argument because it is a great telltale sign of the type of business that claimer is running. It is usually on of the following: A mere reseller that managed to assert itself into the non-value chain under a big (and usually abusive) agency, while pushing the translator aside and down for no apparent reason; or a generalist (we do it all and in all languages) agency that targets the low to very low types of end clients. After-all, if the end client is in position to judge the quality of translation and pick-and-choose the translator, why would they need that agency in the first place?
    In today’s marketplace, many (I’m even tempted to write most) agencies are just resellers who compete with independent translators on the same project that are funneled to the market through other agencies.

    This is even without addressing the fraudulent intentions that accompany some of the requests for free samples, and the fact that in most cases they are useless as an evaluation tool and can be so easily abused.

    A proper agency can limit its exposure to fraudulent and incompetent pseudo-translators just by the way they do their business in. Most of those in concern about being scammed by some random translator off the internet are usually the ones targeting that crowd by the way they do business.

    Slavery is the correct and accurate way to call this (and other) practice, and another great evidence of how translators are their own worst enemies.

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  12. “After-all, if the end client is in position to judge the quality of translation and pick-and-choose the translator, why would they need that agency in the first place?”

    Because individual translators are invisible to direct clients.

    If you Google “translation” with the particulars of the text to be translated, the first dozen or so hits are likely to be translation agencies.

    Very few translators have figured out how to create and maintain a website that will be found by direct clients who are looking for the kind of services that they offer.

    For that we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

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    • True, as I’ve said, translators are their own worst enemies.

      Looking at many of the common unethical practices in the marketplace, many can be traced back to the historic passiveness and lack of business culture demonstrated by the translators (I’m generalizing, of course; there are others, like those you call Hybrid Translators and even a few agencies that are run by translation professionals who obviously did go in a different path) that enabled the unscrupulous brokers to found the ground they needed to infest the marketplace.

      Translators are guilty of other things that helped devalue the profession and its services, but this is probably a topic for another discussion.

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  13. […] and translators have in common 7 Secrets to Successfully Presenting Your Price (and Getting It!) How To Tell a Good Client from a Potential Client from Hell 5 Ways a Freelance Translator Can Combat Work Isolation Logotechnique III — Notre langue et leurs […]

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