I have recently read quite a few rants online from translators complaining about “bad” clients. Mostly the complaints went something along the lines of clients making changes and reducing the quality of a translation, clients expecting unreasonable turnaround times, clients telling you that they could do your job if they had time, clients questioning your terminology choices, clients wanting to use Google Translate, etc. Who has not had one of those?
Nonetheless, I believe that the only bad client is a client that does not pay for a service delivered; in which case that is not just a bad client, but a criminal one. All other clients are either good clients, potentially good clients or not a good fit for your business.
I will not argue that every translator who has been in the business for a few years or so will have had the odd tough experience with a client. I get it that every now and then we get a client that tests our limits and our patience, but I believe that we, the translators, are responsible for most of these experiences and I can explain why.
First, a client who attempts to mistakenly correct a translation is a potentially good client, because this client is giving you an opportunity to showcase your expertise when you explain why they are mistaken. If they insist on changing the final translation anyway, then as long as you have noted your objections and they do not attach your name to the final product, there is no reason why this should bother you. I mean, they did buy the translation to do as they see fit after all.
A client who expects an unreasonable turnaround, may just be someone who has never translated anything and has no idea how long it takes. The same goes for a client who offers a very low rate. In both cases, you have an opportunity to explain your quality process and why your translation may take a little longer or cost a little more than they expect. This is also a potentially good client.
Clients who cannot be persuaded when they have unreasonable expectations in regards to deadline and rates, clients who do not believe you need to be a professional to do your job, even after you have shown how different a professional translation is from an amateur one, and clients who want to use Google Translate are just not a good fit for your business.
Many of us seem to operate under the premise that business is business and we need to take whatever comes our way. I think that is a massively flawed premise, and I am not the only one who thinks so. I have recently read an article summarizing the main trends arising from the Localization World Conference in Dublin, Ireland, and basically the third main trend is saying no or “firing” clients who do not fit into your business model.
I think firing is a harsh word, but, as a service provider, working for someone for whom you do not wish to work for, or do not have the competence to work for is doing both your business and your clients’ a disservice. For example, I do not wish to work for someone who has unreasonable expectations. If a client comes to me with an unreasonable deadline and cannot be persuaded that either the quality of the job will suffer, in which case we may need a “work in progress” approach to the translation, or the deadline has to be flexible, I will kindly advise this client to find another provider.
The problem is, if I take this job and deliver within the deadline, the quality will indeed suffer, and it is my name and my business that may become known for poor translations. This client, who was expecting a high quality product, may become unhappy with the final work delivered and choose to never come back, or worse, bad mouth my services. It is likely that this client will have a hard time too, because he will have to find another translator, thus overextending his deadline and budget anyway, or “make do” with a substandard translation. In short, no one will have a positive experience.
Some clients may be ok with a poorer translation, in which case I am also happy for them to find a cheaper provider. It is only fair, and I do not feel bad when they do not choose me for budgetary reasons. I cannot help but care for the outcome of my work, and I would not accept much less money, because I know I would work just as hard.
As business owners, we need to determine the kind of business we want to be and who we want to serve. In other words, what characteristics make a client a good fit for our business.
The clients who are a good fit for my business are those who want a personal service, who want an open channel to talk about their expectations and questions, who want quality and understand that this may take a little more time or cost a little more.
They want flexibility from me, in terms of deadlines, last minute changes, etc., but they are also prepared to be flexible if necessary and work with me to ensure the best possible outcome.
The clients who are a good fit for my business want to have a relationship with their translation provider, they want to know that they do not need to recruit a new translator each time they have a job in my language pair, and they want to know they can trust that they will have a product that I, and they, will be proud of.
The clients who are a good fit for my business know that a good translation will boost both their business and mine, and they know they can expect that commitment from me.
Clients who want different things, may be better off finding a different provider.
When we adopt a “good fit approach” we feel more at ease, because we work with people who want to work with us. Everybody has a positive experience that fulfills their expectations and no one feels like they are being over charged, underpaid, treated unfairly or unappreciated. The final product is actually final and of good quality and both businesses thrive.
When you decide to embark on a career in translation, one of your first road blocks is that every agency you get in touch with requires experience. Even when getting in touch with direct clients for the first time, you may feel that your CV is not yet something to be proud of and may feel discouraged and overwhelmed.
You are then faced with the dilemma, how will I get experience if I cannot get work? This frustrates many beginner translators, who may start wondering if they will ever get any decent work.
The reason why I am writing this post is because I have a different perspective on this, which took me some years to realize, and I think it may help you feel more motivated and ready for the challenge.
Unlike being a doctor, for which your training starts when you enter university, being a translator involves a lifetime of training. Acquiring language competence in two or more languages takes much longer than it does to train a doctor. So even if you never go to translation school, all your years of learning both your native(s) and foreign language(s) were preparing you to work as a translator. Thus, not for one second allow yourself to believe that you have not been preparing and, therefore, have no experience in translation.
When you read something in a foreign language about a topic of interest of yours and then relayed this information to a friend or relative, you were translating. When a song in your foreign language moved you and you shared it with someone for whom you had to explain it in a different language than it had originally been written, you were translating. Translating becomes such a natural part of our lives when we speak more than one language that we often forget how often we do it. This is something that is not readily obvious to someone who does not speak more than one language, but when you are competent in at least two languages, you have a lot of translation experience.
What you lack is formal training and experience on how to translate professionally, such as best practices, computer-assisted translation tools, memory and terminology management, etc. All of this can be learned, through formal training and/or experience, but it does not mean that you cannot start working now.
This may sound like I am undermining the role of an experienced professional translator, and that is not at all my intention. An experienced professional translator has the benefit of years of working with particular topics, has the advantage of in-depth knowledge of vocabulary in that translator’s particular specialist fields, in addition to being more knowledgeable about resources, tools and practices that can facilitate the translation process. Hence, from a client’s perspective, ideally you would want the best of both worlds, a professional translator who is highly knowledgeable about the topic of your translation. Nonetheless, my intention is to encourage and empower beginner translators to leverage their life experience, instead of being discourage by their current lack of specific professional translation experience.
In practice, what this means is that if you have an interest, a hobby even, or formal education in an area other than translation, and you have been using your language skills to further your knowledge of these topics, you have the leverage of being familiar with vocabulary and the style of communications used in that particular field. You may be a beginner translator, but you are not a beginner in that field and this can be used to leverage your CV when introducing yourself to agencies and direct clients.
Agencies may be more stringent in their criteria, but direct clients, once they see how knowledgeable you are about the topic of their translation, and how linguistically competent you are, they will be pleased to allow you to translate their materials.
Hence, I do advise you to follow the traditional route of studying, doing volunteer work, maybe creating some high visibility translations of topics of interest to you and promoting them online, etc., but also, make sure you do promote the knowledge that you have. Do not undersell yourself, just because you have not been a translator formally for x number of years.
In other words, follow the traditional route, but do not be discouraged in pursuing the direct clients and high-end agencies as well, because if you are linguistically competent in more than one language, you are no beginner!