Posted by: patenttranslator | October 25, 2014

What Do You Do When a Customer Suddenly Vanishes from Your Radar Screen?


It may seem very strange, improbable, and even incomprehensible, but sometime even an old and trusted customer may simply vanish into thin air like a plane that vanished from the radar screen of the control tower for reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable.

It happened to me this month, and it was not some fly-by-night operation that disappeared because the crooks did not want to pay. That, of course, happened to me a couple of times too, but that would be a different post. This time it was the patent department of a subsidiary of a large corporation that had been sending me long, juicy patents, my “meat and potatoes” kind of work, usually several times a month since they discovered my website in 2007.

I normally communicated with a secretary at the company who was in charge of translations only by e-mail. I would confirm receipt of new patents for translation and she would then confirm receipt of our translations, either the same day or the next day. I talked to her only a few times during the period of seven years. I had her telephone number and it was her direct line, but we only used the phone when something went wrong – once when the cost estimate for translating a number of patents was too high and the company decided to translate only claims instead, once when she did not receive my translation (their server must have rejected my file because its size was over the limit due to many scanned-in graphics – so I sent it as a PDF file instead of in MS Word).

Last month I translated three patents for them, one from French and one from German, and another one was translated by a patent translator who I generally work with from Chinese and I just proofread it.

So the company owed me about three thousand dollars for the month, out of which I owed about 500 dollars to the Chinese translator.

The secretary confirmed receipt of the first two patent translations – the Chinese and the French one, but not the third one which I translated from German. Oh, well, I thought, it’s Thursday today, maybe she is not coming to work until Monday. But when radio silence continued also on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … and then the whole week, although I sent her three more e-mails and left two messages on her voice mail, I knew that something was wrong.

But what? My three e-mails asking for confirmation of safe receipt, not counting the original e-mail with the translation and invoice attached, should have been delivered since they were not returned. And every time when I called the secretary’s number, the recorded message asked me to leave a message, so the number was still valid, wasn’t it?

I try to have a backup plan for everything that can go wrong on my side. For example, because we sometime lose power here in Eastern Virginia when rains and storms topple trees and power lines, I have two corded phones in my house, one downstairs and one upstairs so that I would still be accessible by phone even if there is no power, and I can use my iPad as a personal hotspot for Internet if I lose power. I have of course several computers and printers and scanners so that if for some reason something goes wrong with one machine and there is no time to figure out the problem, I can just move the job to another machine to finish a rush translation on time.

But I had no backup plan prepared for something as unexpected as this. I went to the website of the company and called its main number, which gave me another recording. Option number 7 was to talk to an operator “in case of a real emergency”, but when I tried to talk to a live person in this manner, my call was disconnected after a few rings.

This happened three times.

Now I knew for sure that there was something wrong, not only with my contact person, but probably with the whole company.


About fifteen years ago an electronics company that owed me money for translation of a phone manual from German to English was bought out by another company. That was how I discovered that it is perfectly legal to buy only assets of a company without assuming any obligations for its liabilities. At least that was what a lawyer’s letter that I received instead of a check said.

And about seven years ago I lost about three thousand dollars for two long Japanese patents I translated for a translation agency in Belgium. What was their name …. can’t remember now, except that it was such a cute name. I did several translations for them on several previous occasions and they did pay me on time. But instead of receiving a transfer to my bank account for those two long Japanese patents, I received a letter in French from a bankruptcy lawyer instructing me on how to register my claim.

After I did so, the lawyer started sending me letters in Flemish to make sure that I would not be able to understand them. In a way I did understand – there was no way I would receive a penny from that lawyer.

So I know how these things go: when you least expect it, somebody hits you under the belt with a mighty punch that may knock you out, at least for a while.

I tried to assume a Zen stance to this seemingly intractable problem. It’s just money, I kept telling myself, and I really would only be losing the 500 dollars that I have to pay the Chinese translator out of my own pocket, the rest is basically the time that I spent working on two translations – for free.

Truth be told, I did not feel very Zen about it at all. But I could not think of anything else to do. Let’s wait and see, I told myself.

A week passed and nothing happened. Then another week passed, and still nothing. Then finally, at the end of the second week, there was a message on my old-fashioned answering machine (I use answering machines because I believe that they are more private than voice mail) from the elusive secretary who left her home number and her cell phone number for me to call her back at any of these numbers.

Man, was I glad to hear her voice after two weeks of waiting!

When I called her back, she told me that she did not get my third translation, or any of my phone messages and that the last translation probably disappeared into Internet’s black hole because the subsidiary was no more, her job was eliminated by the company and she lost access to her company phone line and company e-mail address.

She was basically forced to retire, she said, although she did not want to do it yet, because she loved her work and could not imagine what she would be doing without her job. But she was more or less OK with it, she said, and financially she was going to be OK. We chatted for a while, and she said that she had five grown children, so she would be probably visiting them a lot.

She did not sound very enthusiastic about it, I thought.

And then she said that her boss, or former boss, took her to a dinner before she was “eliminated” and one of the things he told her was to make sure to tell the translator who was translating all those patents for them all those years to contact him directly because more translation would be needed again. And she gave me the phone numbers and e-mails of two people in the company who were in fact the recipients of the translations.

“They really like your translations, so make sure to call or e-mail”.

After I did that and resent my translation of the German patent, the next day I finally had a confirmation that the third translation was received along with the words:”I too am sorry that [insert name] is gone, but I am pleased with your work and will send all future translations directly to you.”

It turns out that no matter what we do, we cannot have a backup plan for every eventuality because too many things are beyond our control.

I know now that in addition to trying to have a backup plan for every eventuality anyway, it is a good idea to have more than just one contact person for every customer. But in the end, the best backup plan is to do good work. There will always be a need in this world for people who do good work.


  1. Ah, Sibelius’ Walze Triste mit Symphonia Karajani – that’s kind of Zehn Buddismus! Thanks, Steve.

    “But in the end, the best backup plan is to do good work. There will always be a need in this world for people who do good work.”

    There is no backup plan for life. Just do your best and go with the stream which won’t return to its origin for heading to the sea. I guess, this is why I am semi-retired, although I feel so tired with the age of 60 something. Clients come and go, but good works are always needed. Only one thing to be made sure: get paid properly. Old dogs, old clients and cash – these are the best friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Old dogs, old clients and cash – these are the best friends.”

    How very Zen!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. i’m really glad it turned out ok for you. It’s hard to be zen when you feel you’ve been had.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Yikes! At least nobody died. Yes, that can happen, especially with tiny agencies. That explained one vanishing client (RIP). But death or illness of the contact can do the same.

    I always tell clients to text me if they don’t see a translation when expected. I also will send them a “just sent” message via my phone since that takes a different route through cyberspace. Years ago, some worm practically shut down the net soon after I had sent an urgent translation. The PM was panicking, to say the least. I kept resending with no luck. He finally received it at his personal address, the company e-mail was still not delivering (and for weeks afterward, mail was delayed even for days or weeks or just disappeared). Otherwise I would have faxed it. Or overnighted it if that didn’t work…

    So I’m very nervous about cyberspace communications. Glad you had a happy ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. @Cathy

    For years I used to e-mail and mail translations by regular mail because some lawyers simply open the file and either forget or don’t bother to confirm receipt.

    But then I realized that I am probably wasting too many trees and too much money and I stopped mailing them only about a couple of years ago.

    But I need to have an acknowledgement of receipt.


  6. So glad this story had a happy ending. And the back up plan is the best one ever. Thanks for writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Steve, do you sign patent translations? I mean, are patent translations certified translations?


  8. Of course.

    If a client specifies a certified translation, I certify it and sign it.


  9. “Of course” of “If”?

    I’m asking you because you have written here:

    “My three e-mails asking for confirmation of safe receipt, not counting the original e-mail with the translation and invoice attached, should have been delivered since they were not returned.”


  10. I have no idea what you mean, but there is no mystery here.

    Some clients need certification because they use the translations as evidence in court.

    So I certify these translations for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What don’t you understand? I explained what I mean.

    I understand that sometimes you sign, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on the client, as you say. So, patent translations are not certified translations in the USA, not obligatory certified, at least. OK, thank you.


  12. “Of course” of “If”? should be: ““Of course” or “If”? Sorry! 🙂


  13. *sniff* I love a happy ending. I’m sorry for Ms. [insert name here] though. I hope she got a good severance package. Thanks for another great article, especially the moral at the end is an encouragement to us all in these days of $0.01 a word agencies.


  14. “I hope she got a good severance package.”

    Yes, she did receive a severance package.

    But I don’t know how much.


    • Steve, when you proofread a colleague’s translation of a patent, who will sign the translation – your colleague or you (in case the client wants it certified)? I’m asking because quite recently we had a discussion on this issue, and I maintained that all the responsibility lies with the the one who was the last to touch the certified translation – be it an editor or proofreader. My opinion is based on the provisions of the law, universally accepted, that the responsibility for a certified translation is strictly personal.


  15. @Rennie

    The actual translator signs the certification, which means that I only certify and sign my own translations.

    If something that was translated by another translator needs to be certified, I always ask the actual translator to certify it, even when I was the proofreader.


    • “I only certify and sign my own translations”

      If someone corrected your translation, would you still call the resulting product YOUR translation. I wouldn’t.

      “I always ask the actual translator to certify it, even when I was the proofreader.”

      So, full responsibility against half the fee, huh?


  16. Thanks, Steve — I guess I should follow your example and start a blog about maritime piracy, but at the end of the day I’m usually dog-tired and brain-dead…better than being brain-tired and dog-deal, I guess!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. “At least that was what a lawyer’s letter, that I received instead of a check, said.” : Lawyers often bluff. That’s one of their favorite techniques… Never be impressed by a letter from a lawyer of the opposite party and have its content checked… 🙂


  18. “Never be impressed by a letter from a lawyer of the opposite party and have its content checked… :-)”

    It doesn’t work like that because I would have to hire my own lawyer to go after that lawyer, which would be probably just throwing good money after bad.

    When the chances are that you will lose either ways, it is sometime best to just cut your losses.


    • Yes, of course, but sometimes it’s possible to take a legal protection insurance policy, with lawyers who will then advise you for free.

      There are also consumer associations that offer legal advice for free within the package they offer against an inexpensive global subscription.

      Some lawyers are cheaper too.

      And if you have real estate property, at least in Belgium the notary (lawyer) who usually deals with your real estate matters will also give you all sorts of pieces of advice at no extra cost (so my father used to say) because the money they make on selling your property is so huge that they can afford to advise you now and then for free.

      In Belgium, when you cannot afford a lawyer, you are entitled to a pro deo lawyer (paid by the State) who will defend you in court either entirely for free or against a small remuneration, according to your proven revenues.

      Belgian courts and communes also have first line legal advisers for free with consultation times every day at fixed hours (or on fixed days at fixed hours), if you are not sure if the matter should go to court for example.

      Of course, it’s still a hassle, it’s time consuming. So this is why lawyers use bluffing a lot… They try to discourage you.

      Maybe translators who are living with a partner can be better defended, if the partner can use some of his or her time to take care of matters like these, especially as they are less stressed out, since they are only indirectly concerned by the matter…


  19. “when you least expect it, somebody hits you under the belt with a mighty punch that may knock you out, at least for a while.” 🙂

    I have come to realize how vulnerable small businesses like ours are, especially working from home: our relations do not realize that when we are at home, we are also at our office…

    And customers who are private persons do not realize that although this is our office, this is also our private home… with no waiting room for visitors in case they arrive ahead of schedule. Nor any staff to kick them out if need be… :-/


  20. @legalandbusinesstranslator

    That is all true, but just imagine that you would have to commute every day 30 or more minutes to work as I used to when I was an employee many years ago.

    Every time I get stuck in traffic during commute hours, I thank God that I can work from my home.


  21. “Belgian courts and communes also have first line legal advisers for free with consultation times every day at fixed hours (or on fixed days at fixed hours), if you are not sure if the matter should go to court for example.”

    Maybe things are better where you live, but my instinct now tells me to stay away from lawyers and courts as much as possible.

    When I lived in California, I once sued a builder for causing a crack in the concrete in front of my garage (truck drivers working for him were told to use my driveway to turn around because it was a shortcut for them). I won several thousand dollars in Small Claims Court (the guy never even bothered to show up), but since I would have to hire a lawyer to enforce the verdict, the whole things was just a huge waste of time for me.

    I never saw a penny.


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