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.