Céline’s 10 Tricky Situations Translators Might Find Themselves In and How To Get Out of Them

Being a freelance translator isn’t just about having the ability to take language from one culture and turn it into another. As I allude to elsewhere in this blog, there are aspects of this career which require negotiation skills and business awareness. When you start off, for example, or have a new agency contact you promising a juicy contract, it can be tempting to bend over backwards to get the job. Experience has shown that there are a few important issues to consider before taking on a new job/client and I’ve put them together below. This is shamelessly inspired by Mark W. Lewis’s Top 10 Lies told to Naive Artists and Designers (via lifehacker) and is called Céline’s 10 Tricky Situations Translators Might Find Themselves In and How To Get Out of Them.
1. "We’ve a got a huge project coming in next week. Make sure you don’t take on any work in the meantime."
If you haven’t received a purchase order specifying timescales, wordcount and price, do take work in the meantime. A lot of projects get delayed and even cancelled, and you might find yourself twiddling your thumbs and regretting turning down other jobs.
2. "You need to take a free test so we can make sure we want to work with you."
If you’ve got experience and credentials (nevermind references), surely this demonstrates that you are a seasoned professional who can be trusted to do a good job. If you’re a beginner, be careful. What some unscrupulous agencies might mean is "Do a section of this for free, we’ll put it together with all the other "tests" we’ve sent round and voilà! Our project is done for free". However, don’t dismiss all tests that agencies may ask you to do. I agreed to do a free test this year because the person who wanted to work with me sounded extremely professional, was offering interesting projects and didn’t haggle over rates. This has turned into a mutually beneficial work relationship. Trust your gut feeling on this one.
3. "We’ve got this 2,000 word really easy document to translate, can you deliver tomorrow?"
Before agreeing to deliver a translation at a certain time, even verbally, you must have a look at it. The 2,000 words might magically turn into 20,000 words (it has happened to me) and the "really easy" prose may be full of technical jargon that only 8 years of study in space science could prepare you for.
4. "Hello, we’re agency X calling out of the blue and we’re great, can you do a translation for us?"
Maybe. First of all, ask for their details and carry out a quick Internet check to make sure they actually exist. Next, use translators’ lists on payment practices to ask colleagues whether they’ve worked for that agency and what their feedback is. Lastly, trust your gut feeling: is the tone of the email/phone call professional? Do they mention terms? Do they give details of the project?
5. "Lower your rate for this job and we’ll give you much more work."
No self-respecting professional would try and get another professional to cheapen themselves. You won’t be respected as a translator by devaluing your own work.
6. "Hi, we’ve got this 5,000 word document, but there are lots of brand names and repetitions in it, so can you not charge us for those words?"
Of course, no problem. I just won’t include those words in my translation, and you can just add them yourself after delivery. Seriously, a text is an entity, and it is not practical or fair to ask a translator to not charge for certain words just because they appear more than once. We still have to type them, and they’re an integral part of sentences. Besides, "can" might well appear lots of times in your document, but just because I translated it a certain way the first time I came across it doesn’t mean that it should be translated in the same way in its subsequent occurrences.
7. "Your rate is too high. We normally pay our French translator xxx."
One colleague’s rates and business practices are nothing to do with me. I charge a fair rate, which allows me to live decently and stay in business. Lowering my rates might mean having to take on another job, which would impact on the quality of my translations, or stop translating altogether and chose a more lucrative career.
8. "A Purchase order? We don’t do purchase orders. Don’t you trust us?"
Business relationships aren’t personal relationship and have to be regulated so that both parties agree on some basic terms. A purchase order protects the client (you’ve signed a paper specifying when and how you’ll deliver your translation) as well as the translator (you have proof that you got commissioned to do work in case of payment delays or problems).
9. "Our proofreader has been through your translation and has spotted lots of mistakes. You must do the translation again."
Can you please send me the proofread translation with annotations from the proofreader? I am fairly certain I sent you a decent document and I would like to discuss any problem that arose at the proofreading stage before I accept to redo the translation.
10. "We can’t pay you because the end client hasn’t paid us yet"
This is none of my business. My business relationship is with you, not the end client. If you agree that I delivered a quality translation on time, then stick to the terms of our agreement and pay.

By | 2016-10-18T15:50:18+00:00 October 11th, 2006|Freelance Translation|8 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Percy October 11, 2006 at 10:17 am

    Excellent article! Do you mind if I link to it from my own blog?

  2. céline October 11, 2006 at 10:23 am

    Hello Percy, I had never come across your blog before, thanks for delurking and link away!

  3. Hugues DESESQUELLES October 17, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    Hi Céline,
    Certainly a most valuable piece of advice you give us here, and with a nice touch of humour, which makes things even better. Thank you !

  4. bulbul October 21, 2006 at 1:50 am

    Excellent advice, Céline. I wish someone had given it to me five years ago, it would have saved me a lot of trouble, not to mention money :o)
    Mind if I add something from my own experience?
    2. I’ve been burnt on the whole “free test” thing more than a few times. What I do now is offer to do a certain agreed upon number of words at a much lower price (about 300-500 words for each combination at 30-50% of my usual rate) for testing purposes. I find that really professional agencies and/or business entities are more than willing to accept this arrangement.
    4. Some markets are too small or too disorganized to provide such mechanisms as translators’s lists, like the one I live and work in. As a result, I never hesitate to ask for an advance payment or payment on delivery for the first two or three assignments.
    6. I certainly agree, though there may be exceptions. If you’re using a CAT tool, it is perfectly acceptable (at least to me) to charge an appropriately lower rate for repetitions and fuzzy matches.
    7. Truer words have never been spoken. It’s a free market – you don’t like my price, go shop around.
    9. In a similar scenario (happened only twice so far), I demanded a full report from the proofreader. Turns out the company that ordered the translation (a very technical manual to a very complicated machine) had failed to provide a glossary and translation guidelines and then complained that the translation did not conform to those guidelines. Since it was a large project, it all turned into a rather nasty dispute and at some point, lawyers had to be involved.
    I would therefore add no. 11: Ask for any and all glossaries, guidelines and supplementary materials before you accept a project. If they tell you they don’t have any, get it in writing.
    And one small remark:
    “We can’t pay you because the end client hasn’t paid us yet” – I’ve actually added this to famous list of biggest lies, like “We’re from the IRS and we’re here to help you” or “The check is in the mail” (or rather, “Your invoice is with the Chief Financial officer”).

  5. Ramon October 22, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    Excellent advice, Celine.
    So excellent, in fact, that I’ve place a link back from my “Links” page so that other colleagues can find it also!

  6. James Ward January 16, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    This is all great advice for any freelancer, regardless of the profession or industry.
    I especially like item 7. It can be so difficult to properly value one’s own work.
    I’m going to remember your words and use them as my mantra next time a client tries to get a job done on the cheap.

  7. Susanne Aldridge III January 16, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    One comment to the purchase order – I run into this problem too, but from the other end. We really don’t do POs on an item like translation basically because there is no fixed amount to be entered. For an open purchase order, I will not find anyone with signing authority to sign a blank purchase order for me – understandably so.
    I usually don’t expect a new translator to just trust me, but I offer other translators who I work with, as a reference. They vouch for me that I am in good standing with regards to payment and then I actually do expect that they trust me because we have a legally binding contract when I order the translation. If that is not good enough, we probably won’t get into business with each other 🙁

  8. céline January 16, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    How lovely to hear from someone working “on the other side”, Susanne. If a client came to me explaining what you’ve just outlined, I would have no problem trusting them.

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