Posted by: patenttranslator | September 6, 2014

How Far Should a Translator Go to Accommodate a Client?


Of course it would depend on what the client wants, right?

But to a large extent it will also depend on how the translator sees himself. I believe that many translators define their job too narrowly, as was argued for example in this guest post on my blog last year. I have been on occasion guilty of having blinders on too. When I started my translation business, I was basically interested only in Japanese, because that was my major in college and also because I thought that I would probably be able to make more money with Japanese than with other languages that I know almost as well as Japanese, and now sometime even better, depending on the technical subject.

But eventually I started to translate also other languages that I know, and later I also started accepting translations from languages that I subcontract to other translators from languages that I don’t translate myself – only jobs from direct clients, of course, the numbers would not work otherwise for me.

I can definitely do a much better job than your typically clueless and often monolingual project manager who works for your average translation agency that “translate every subject from and into any language” (because it has “thousands of translators in its database”).

Instead of saying no to a customer, I got used to finding the right translator for the job, regardless of what language it is.

Never say no to a customer was my motto for quite a while, especially since I found out that it is in fact often much easier to make more money when most of the work is done for you by other people than when you have to do the translation yourself. Incidentally, once I match a good translator with a given technical subject, I generally make about 3 times as much per hour for fairly light-duty proofreading as I make when I translate (and I am doing very well when I translate too).

But a few months ago I did say no to a customer and I am still wondering whether it was the right thing to do.

The customer in question is a multinational corporation. I have been translating patents and articles from technical journals for them from a number of languages for about 8 years now. Initially they were sending me only Japanese, but once I told them that I do other language as well, they started sending me German, Russian, French, Chinese, Korean, etc. For a long time they would only send me the number of the patent with the understanding that I would find the patent myself online and translate it for them. I had no problem with that. If it is a patent publications that has been already published, it is available for free on the Internet and I can find it within a couple of minutes.

A few months ago they asked me whether I would be able to find technical articles for them in various languages that they need to have translated. They said I could just charge them for the time and put it on my invoice.

But I politely declined their request. I told them that I would not be a suitable person for something like this because I have no idea how things like that are done and since there are many companies providing precisely this kind of specialized service, they would do a much better job. That is of course true, but was that the main reason why I said no?

Probably not. It is also true that I did not want to have to learn something new because I see myself mostly as a translator. Yes, the typical translator with blinders on, who sees only what he wants to see and a who knows nothing of the real world, just like the frog in a dark well in a Chinese fable.

One could also say that the main reason why I said no was laziness.

After I turned down their request, all of a sudden translation requests from this particular source of work stopped coming. Since this client accounts for about 15% of my income, panic set in. Maybe they dumped you because you said now, I was thinking to myself, and I fired off an e-mail to the secretary who was my main contact at the company to find out what was going on.

“Many people are on vacation”, was her reply. And indeed, after a lull of about two months, the work from this source picked up and to my great relief, it is now back to normal again.

Should translators say “yes” to requests for services that don’t really have anything to do with their own work, if this is something that the client absolutely needs, as well as something that translators can learn, probably quite easily?

I am still kind of torn about this issue. A part of me wants to say, yes, of course, this is precisely what we should do to enhance our competitive edge.

But my alter ego, the little translator in me who is oh so happy when all he has to do is simply to translate stuff without having to bother about anything else, the guy with limited experience and limited vision, given that I was doing little else beside translating for the last 27 years, keeps saying to me that what I did was precisely the right thing to do.

I kept the client, and the client got what they wanted from a specialized source that can presumably do a better job than this translator.

What do you think, if a client asks me next time for something like this, (if there is a next time), should I say “yes”, or should I say “no” again?


  1. When I was a kid, my father used to say, “The smarters go just as far as the stupids,” each time when I regreted to have made a bad choice or when I got excited for a little gain through a seemingly right choice. I did not understand him for a quite a few years. You see, Steve, my father was 52 years older than I was.

    Now I am about the same age as he was when he first told me that the smarters have as long way to go as the stupids. And now I know what he meant.

    We have each day a lot of decisions to make and we never know which one is the right one. We might have asked ourselves: what if I had taken the other way? But it matters less and less since a while, since we make decisions automatically, according to our genetical dispositions which decide our inclinations and the social circumstances which we encounter by chance.

    So, “What do you think, if a client asks me next time for something like this, (if there is a next time), should I say “yes”, or should I say “no” again?” Don’t worry, Steve. You always make the right decision, no matter it’s a “yes” or “no,” for we don’t have much choice left. We have only our pride to keep – pride that such people like you, me and all those people whom I regard to be friends would fight to keep.

    One of those people died 5 years ago. I was glad for him that he died after 4 months in coma. I know how he would suffer with his pride if he had known how the nurses had to take care of everything for him. I wish I would stay a proud translator to the last minute and accompanied.

    A handicapped German pastor wrote in his book, “Lieber Arm ab als arm dran,” there is a time when we say, “Hauptsache, die Gesundheit.” But there is also a time in life when we say, “Haupsache, begleitet.” And I wish I would keep my pride accompanied till the end.

    Translators shall stay with their pride as a translator.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Say yes or say no?” That depends on whether you are just a translator….. or a business person.

    The translator sits at their desk and waits for someone to call him/her with a job. A business owner is out there scrambling to attract clients so that he can feed as many such translators as possible.

    I am constantly amazed by some of our subcontractors who refuse to translate a simple document if it isn’t into their native language. “Sorry” they say, “I don’t translate English to German (for instance), only German to English.”

    Are they so wealthy that they can afford to turn down the money? Or, are they such lousy translators that they can’t even translate a birth certificate into any other language than their own?

    I say “take the job!” Serve the customer’s needs. Help him out if he’s in a bind. If nothing else, make it a learning experience for yourself! The worst that can happen is that he will never call you again.

    The best that can happen? Ahhh….THAT my translator friend, is what it’s all about!!


  3. “I am constantly amazed by some of our subcontractors who refuse to translate a simple document if it isn’t into their native language. “Sorry” they say, “I don’t translate English to German (for instance), only German to English.”

    ” …. Or, are they such lousy translators that they can’t even translate a birth certificate into any other language than their own?”

    What you just said, my friend, is about as smart as saying “I am constantly amazed by heart surgeons who refuse to do a simple gum surgery. Don’t they have a scalpel and don’t they know how to cut meat with it?”

    You obviously know nothing about translation. Why am I not surprised that you work in a translation agency?

    Your comment is a good illustration of how incredibly ignorant brokers in the “translation industry” are about the product that they are selling.


    • Thanks for this article!
      I have a question. What do you say to your clients when you take jobs you outsource to others? Do they know someone else will do the job? How do you approach the matter? Thanks in advance.


  4. I could not agree more!


  5. @Magda

    Of course they know that I personally translate only some of the documents. No translator can translate every language on this planet by himself.

    I have several levels of prices. I charge less for languages that I translate myself, because that means that I don’t have to pay a translator, for jobs that I classify as “non-rush”, which means that I can generally still fit in other work within a given deadline.

    I charge significantly more for rush translation and for languages that I don’t translate myself. But of course, I only subcontract work to other translators when I work for direct clients at a higher rate than what I charge translation agencies for translations that I do myself. This system has been working for me quite well for more than 20 years now.


  6. I would have done the same (say no to the client in this case), and in my opinion it’s a matter of personality. Some people like branching out: it’s how they keep going and feel that they grow and get energy. Some people like specialising: it’s how they keep going and feel that they grow and get energy.

    I guess you’re a specialising person, and there’s no shame in being any of the two.


  7. @Wenjer and Tanja

    I think that you both are saying that there is something more important than business: whether what you do makes you happy.

    I agree with that.


  8. If you made a decision that, once the dust has settled, you’re ultimately satisfied with, it was the right one, IMHO.

    You *sound* satisfied with it, on balance. Some like to diversify (although it seems for many, this diversification takes the form of getting paid to tell other people they need to diversify), some like to specialise, some do something in between. While I understand why people diversify, I think my view of it is encapsulated in the saying about Jack and his trades and his mastery of same.

    I suppose in theory you could have outsourced the new work yourself, but I suspect that in your position, I would have responded similarly, if that helps 🙂


  9. @Charlie

    Thank you for your comment. I am satisfied to the extent that I got to keep the client, but I am somewhat torn about my somewhat short-sighted decision. Maybe I would have enjoyed being a multilingual librarian/information specialist for this company. And it would not be a bad thing for me if they became more dependent on me.

    Here is my comparison: a long-distance truck driver should know how to drive a truck and how to fix it. If he is asked to also do some shopping for boss’s wife as a part of his job on the other coast of the country, he should say “hell, no” if he is asked to do it for free in his free time.

    But if he is offered the same pay for this service as for truck driving, should he say yes or no?

    As several people have said already, it would depend on the personality of the truck driver.

    I think that next time, if there is a next time, I will think long and hard before saying no, as long as I can charge for my time, whatever is being asked of me.


  10. In the case of the truck driver paid to shop, I guess personality would be a key factor, as most people have the necessary skills to go shopping. The ability to perform the request is not in doubt, so as long as there is adequate remuneration, it essentially becomes a question of willingness and availability.

    I’m fairly sure I don’t have the skills to perform what you were asked to do, and I don’t think I want to learn them! Hence my response of either “no” or “outsource”, depending what other resources I hypothetically have available.

    If, on the other hand, you think you could have done it, or learned how to without adversely affecting your current business, I can see why you might have doubts – your point about increasing the client’s reliance on you is valid, although in contrast it would work both ways (the time spent doing this new role would be time you couldn’t spend translating for another client).

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I operate the same way like you, albeit on smaller scale. It is a judgment call and it depends on your relation with the client and on particular situation. Trust your guts.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I understand your dilemma – I would probably have said yes to a good client. They were going to pay you for your time, it would have been a learning curve and you might have discovered some interesting aspect to it.


  13. @ Elizabeth

    I find it interesting that so far you are the only translator who would go out of her way to accommodate a valued client.


  14. Objection, your honor 🙂

    I merely expressed reservations about that particular scenario, and said why – namely I don’t have those particular skills and I have no interest in acquiring them. At no point did I reject “going out of my way” under all circumstances – I’d be happy to cut a client’s lawn or walk their dog if they paid me enough 🙂

    Indeed, in one of those happy coincidences that make life interesting, only yesterday I was contacted to do something I have never yet offered as a service, to write some English text from scratch. This is the first time (as a freelancer) I can remember being asked to do something other than translate. Far from rejecting it out of hand, discussions are continuing…


  15. @ Charlie

    I did not say that you or other people rejected the idea, I just said that Elizabeth was the only one who expressed willingness to do what the client wanted.

    Also, I think that writing something from scratch in English is not exactly a sacrifice requiring a major effort for an excellent writer such as yourself, Charlie, n’est-ce pas?


  16. It’s true that it’s something I feel I ought to be able to handle, although it’s slightly out of my comfort zone, as modern jargon has it (what did we use before comfort zones were invented?).
    I can defend translation choices quite easily, not least by pointing at the source and saying “that’s what it says here”. I’m not sure what legs I’ll use to stand on in the face of adverse criticism of an original text.

    Which is where personality types come back into play. Sure, I’ve (probably) got the skills needed. Have I got the character? (Confidence?) Dunno. And this can also be a factor in people’s decisions when asked to do something different. Interesting discussion, especially for me this week – thanks for bringing it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. One good advice that I got years ago from someone who I consider to be a successful business owner with a great and analytical outlook on the business world (noways he would probably be called an entrepreneur) was to never put yourself in a box, while adhering to restrictive artificial boundaries that was put by you and/or others in an attempt to define your so-called professional line of work.

    Most people have more than one skill; they have areas of interest; hobbies. We are not one dimensional beings. When a client comes to you with an unusual request – never say automatically no just because you think it is outside the scope of your service. Sometimes the request involves things that you can (or even would enjoy) to do, at other times you don’t have the skills, knowledge or inclination to do it.
    As long as the client is willing to pay for your time (i.e. you maintain or increase your hourly fee), and you are willing and capable (this is key; NEVER do something like that if you are completely clueless, this is a great and proven way to lose the client altogether) of doing the work, why not?

    People spend so much time on market research and attempts to make up artificial problems so they could offer some made-up “innovative” solution for them, while completely ignoring the real-world needs and problems that the customers bring to them. Instead of using these requests to identify potential unanswered needs in the market that one might serve, or identify opportunities to expand and supplement one’s core service (or even launch another business if you have the skills but the job doesn’t fit your current business), people just decline or even take offense because this is “not what I do”. There is usually a reason why a client came to you with unusual request instead of someone else – they think that you can help them with their problem, and they trust you. If you indeed can help them, the sale practically closes itself. Even if they were wrong, and you can’t help them, there is a lot to learn from such experience.

    In your case Steve I think that you made the right decision. You didn’t want to deal with it from the get go. It wasn’t about money or some kind of professional vanity – you thought that you don’t have the required knowledge and skills to do the job properly, and you didn’t care to invest effort in learning them. A perfectly valid reason to decline The request.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. But I still think that I may have made a mistake …. mostly because I am too lazy.

    Next time I will probably say yes.


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