Posted by: patenttranslator | June 11, 2014

The First Rule for Determining Translator’s Payment Terms Is to Try to Minimize the Danger of Non-Payment


“Oooh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world”, says Cat Stevens in one of his idiosyncratic and incredibly powerful songs from the seventies. Forty years later, the world is wilder and more dangerous than ever. The chances are that forty years from now it will be an even more dangerous jungle full of hungry predators, that is, if the world is still here.

So how can a poor translator make sure that after many hours or days of hard work, he will not be stiffed by an unscrupulous customer?

It is not easy, but it can be done. Although the danger will be always there, the extent of the danger depends on the particular circumstances.

If the customer, who is at this point still a potential customer, is a translation agency, I generally run an Internet search and if I can’t find any complaints for failure to pay a translator, I generally accept a job from such a new customer. If the payment is relatively small, the risk is relatively small as well and even if I am not paid, the loss to me will be quite small. I sometime have to demand the payment a number of times or wait a long time, but I generally do get paid.

In 27 years that I have been a freelancer, I have been stiffed a few times by translation agencies (always by translation agencies, never by a direct client so far), about half a dozen times. The biggest loss, more than 3 thousand dollars, was when a translation agency in Belgium declared bankruptcy while my invoices were still outstanding. As this was an agency that up until that point paid me on time, I had absolutely no idea that I would be left holding the bag.

Because I always try to remember that the danger of non-payment is there, I never accept very long projects from translation agencies who would like me to wait a long time for the final payment. In such cases, it is best to request several early payments spread over the entire period of the project so that I could stop working on it should I not be paid on time. I have a similar rule also for direct clients who are for example patent law firms, although I am more accommodating toward such clients because as I said, I have never been stiffed by a direct client in this manner so far, only by translation agencies.

I have a different set of rules for translation agencies and for direct customers, and the details depend on who the customers are. If the customer is an individual who is completely unknown to me and who wants me to translate personal documents for a hundred or a couple of hundreds of dollars, I request payment in full in advance through my PayPal account. Since I can’t really remember a case when such a customer would balk at this request, this is probably how things are generally done in these cases.

If the customer is an individual whose identity can be verified on the Internet, including his address, occupation and position in a company, etc., and the payment amount is substantial, several hundred or several thousand dollars, I ask for an upfront payment ranging from 30 to 50% – the smaller the total amount, the higher the amount of the advance payment.

If the amount of the remaining payment is relatively small and there is relatively little that I can find out about the customer, I generally ask for payment of the remaining amount on delivery of the translation (i.e. before I e-mail it). If a customer paid you a down payment corresponding to 50% of the cost, he is unlikely not to pay the remaining 50% when he is informed by e-mail that the translation is ready for delivery upon payment of the remaining amount.

If the payment is a relatively high amount, more than a thousand or several thousand dollars, and I can verify on the Internet the identity of a bona fide customer, I generally ask for a smaller “retainer”, 30 or 35%, and then I bill the client with my usual payment term of 30 days from the date of the invoice.

Over the years I have been working for all kinds of direct customers who need to have patents translated from foreign languages (I translate patents and articles from technical and medical journals, etc., from Japanese, German, French, Russian, Czech, Slovak and Polish myself, and I work with other translators on translations from languages that I can’t translate myself).

These direct customers include inventors who have filed patents similar to a patent in a foreign language, patent investors, as well as people who are a complete mystery to me, including their occupation and the reason why they need my translation. The less I am able to find out about such potential customers, the higher the risk that I will not be paid, of course, which means that I absolutely need to minimize my exposure to risk.

But most of my direct customers are patent law firms or patent law departments of large or not-so-large companies.

With a large patent law firm or with a patent law department of a large corporation I never ask for advance payment when I am the actual translator, and I don’t even make my clients sign a contract specifying all the terms of the transaction. What am I going to do if they decide not to pay me … sue the lawyers? That could get nasty and it would be very expensive for me, but probably not very expensive for them.

I just make sure always to ask for the case number. Once I have the case number, the name of the person who ordered the translation and the payment terms have been agreed upon, the cost of the translation is just an another expense that has been already approved by the client of the law firm.

So far I have been always paid by patent law firms, and I think that there is a good reason for this. Or several reasons, in fact. First of all, the money that patent law firms pay to me is not really their money – it is their client’s money, and once their client approves the cost of the translation, it is a part of the overall cost of the case and not paying the people who work on the case, including the translator, is something that is generally not done.

The only possible justification for not paying the translator in such a case would be if the translation was of such a poor quality that a new translation would be required. But that has not happened to me so far, even when I was a beginner many years ago, although of course every few years there will be a client complaining about things like technical terms that I used in my translations. In such cases, I try to accommodate such a client (within reason, I would not intentionally mistranslate something just to “help out” a client) by changing the terms if I can do so in good conscience, or by giving them a discount to simply get rid of an unreasonable client.

If I think that a client is unreasonable, I just try to accommodate such a client as much as possible until I get paid. But after that, I never work for this client again, regardless of who it is.

I don’t believe that the advice that one should always make a client sign a contract specifying all the details of the translation in advance make sense in my case. If a direct client or an agency is a scumbag, they will simply sign anything anyway. But I understand why other people believe in importance of contracts.

It is a wild and dangerous world out there. But with a little bit of due diligence, the danger that we will not be paid for our work can be certainly minimized, although we need to bear in mind that this danger cannot be completely eliminated, especially when we accept work from people who are not known to us, but even if we work for people who have been prompt and reliable payers in the past.


  1. This is a good post, surely helpful to lots of translators, especially beginners.


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