Many translators would say that they generally agree to a waiting period of 30, 45, or 60 or more days because these are the customary payment terms for translators these days.
But the truth is, there is no such thing as customary payment terms when it comes to translation. How long a translator will generally have to wait depends on the following two factors:
1. the client
2. the translator.
Yesterday, for example, I finished translating a Japanese patent for a brand new client who last week found my website on the Internet and decided to entrust me with a rather long translation of a rather complicated chemical patent (although chemical patents are generally quite simple as far as the sentence structure and general concepts are concerned, the terminology can be very complicated).
Because I could not really ascertain much from the website of this new client except that this was a small company located abroad (in Germany), I asked for a down payment of 50%, the rest on delivery. Judging from the reaction of the client after my translation was received (“Thanks a lot for the excellent work and fast turnaround. Hope to work with you again in the future.”), this particular client had no problem with my immediate payment terms.
Unfortunately, unlike for instance plumbers, hairdressers, or garage door installers who get paid when the job is done, translators often have to wait a long time before the payment finally appears in their mailbox or bank account.
Has there ever been a translator who would dare to ask a translation agency for a retainer corresponding to 50%? I don’t know, maybe a few in the last few decades. Although St. Jerome probably did ask 15 centuries ago Pope Damasus I who commissioned him to provide a definitive translation of the Bible into Latin for a modest retainer followed by payments at regular intervals. After all, even saints have to eat and pay rent.
While it is a common practice to ask a direct customer for a partial or full prepayment, translation agencies will generally frown upon such a request. So far I asked two agencies for full prepayment in 27 years, one was just 40 dollars and one was about 500 dollars. Both paid as I thought they would, because they really needed the translation ASAP, and also because I accept credit card payments, which means that they might have received their payment before the credit card bill became due.
Generally, if I work for a translation agency, I insist on payment within 30 days. Most of the time the agency agrees, although in real life “30 days net” often means 5 or 6 weeks before a check is received.
But not all agencies are alike when it comes to payment terms. Some pay immediately, and some pay within a few days, or twice a month, generally on the first and the fifteenth. Although I mostly work for direct clients at this point, I still work regularly for three agencies that pay really fast and I am eternally grateful to them for the prompt infusion of payment amounts into my dwindling bank account.
If an agency wants me to wait 60 days, or if it agrees to 30 days but then let’s me wait for more than 5 weeks, I will not work for it.
Most patent law firms will also agree to the “30 days net” terms, but some of them will let me wait for the check 6 or 7 weeks. Generally, the smaller firms pay faster, while big corporate behemoths will often take close to two months to pay, regardless of what was agreed to.
One patent law firm in Australia told me that their payment terms were “90 days net” (“90 days net is not unusual here” said an e-mail from the accounting person at the firm when I had the gall to ask them about the missing payment after 30 days. Since this experience, I am suspicious about law firms in Australia).
Patent lawyers who are sole practitioners often pay when the translation is delivered. I assume that they do this because they first request full prepayment of the translation cost from their client and once the service has been provided and they are happy with it, they see no reason to sit on the check.
You can generally tell whether the company will be a good or a terrible client depending on how long they let you wait for the payment. But even if a patent law department of a major corporation lets me wait for 7 weeks before the check finally arrives (although my invoice clearly states “30 days”), I still continue working for such companies.
However, I will generally try to charge them higher rates on a next order, for example by insisting on a rush surcharge even though I would try to charge a non-rush rate for the same amount of words within the same deadline to a law firm that pays me more promptly.
Although I am mostly a translator, I also work as an agent or an agency with about a dozen translators every year, and some of them have been working for me or with me on regular projects for a number of years now.
My payment terms to these translators are “when the client pays or within 30 days, whichever comes first”. If the amount that I owe is relatively small, I generally mail a check to the translators within a few days, whether I am paid first by the client or not. If the amount is large and the balance in my bank account is rather meager, I let them wait full 30 days.
Most of the time I have to pay the translators before I am paid. But I try to pay quickly whenever possible because I know that even a relatively small payment is greatly appreciated by a translator when the payment is received within a few days …. because it is a cool, cruel world out there and most other people will let translators wait for a long time before they are finally reimbursed for their work.
I try to pay translators promptly not because I am such a nice person (opinions on this subject may vary), but because once I get used to a translator, I don’t want to look for somebody else.
And prompt payment is the best way to make sure that when I need these translators, they will find time in their schedule for my project if at all possible.