This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Remember To Update Your Rates!

If you go to work like everysalariedbody else, you get a raise. Or you don't. But there's a pay scale and a rank table, so you more or less know where you are and where you are headed. As a freelancer, you don't. But that doesn't mean you're forever stuck being a junior.

So don't forget to make your rates — and preferably also your presentation (business cards, website, brochures, online profiles) — reflect the natural progress of your skill and reputation.

If you agree with me at this point, you might as well finish reading here. If you aren't sure, stay on.

Q: But I work so closely with them. I get feedback on all of my translations. I'm required to be available on the phone, sometimes 24/7. I go beyond just translating and always keep their business goals in mind. I know them inside out. I'm a veteran. I'm more of an insider than any new meat with a salaried position. I'm an employee in all but name.

A: Nope, that's not the only difference, You aren't on their promotion track simply because you aren't part of the organization, no matter how closely you collaborate. You can't get promoted if you don't have a rank to begin with. Same goes for a raise.

No, it's not unfair to 'renegotiate'. It would be if you had a fixed-term contract with guaranteed fixed rates, then it would be unfair and illegal to push for a change without their consent. Or a large raise half a year into a long-term (indefinite) contract, that could be bait and switch. But to expect to always pay the same fees the same service would not be reasonable.

Oh sure, some of them will act surprised or hurt or wronged or whatever, but do you expect bread to cost exactly the same day after day for 10 years? Or electricity? Or whatever newspaper you read?

But it's not just inflation.

Remember that while you never get a formal promotion, that's simply because there is nobody to give you one, and hence there isn't any formal process for it, either. But that doesn't mean you don't deserve a raise, and not just because of longevity.

Unlike what agencies may think, career progress is about making more than you did last year or five years ago, not about creating an irresistible price deal for your clients and embracing poverty while translating multi-million-dollar contracts and presentations.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Do You Really Need To Be 'Competitive'?

If you're a fan of Marta's, you may see a similarity between this subject and the recurrent red-ocean-versus-blue-ocean dichotomy in her presentations, but we're going to look it from a different angle and focus more on something closer to NLP — or at least the way brains react to certain words and phrases and the way it can be used.

No matter which kind of freelancer you are, you probably have already at least a couple of times found yourself being expected to be competitive when in the light of the situation you don't or shouldn't really need to compete.

For example a translation agency may have told you that your rates were not competitive... when you were the sole 'vendor' actually capable of processing their request!

So why should you have to compete? Why should you compete?

But, naturally, it would be beneficial to their own financial interest if you did actually still try to be competitive even in that kind of situation, where you are essentially a monopolist. Bluff costs nothing — or perhaps they simply take it for granted that you should act in accordance with their financial interest.

It's a human weakness that we are prone to seeing ourselves as essentially free to look after our own interest only rather than other people's, while seeing others as somehow obligated to pay attention to our interest rather than only being guided by their own. Humans are not always particularly lucid or consistent, which means that, for example, a cheater in a game could still resent someone else's cheating.

It can be pretty much the same with a translation agency or client expecting itself to be the sole beneficiary of competition in the market — always having you compete, never having to compete for you.

But another human weakness is to just play along. That means, for example, doing what someone else tells you to do, without first checking if you really want to do that, or if the person telling you to do it has the authority to give you commands or if it is a justified request. Bluff costs nothing. The agency loses nothing if you just simply decline, and you are unlikely to quit on them, only to give them a slight rebuke if at all but probably not even that.

To sump, there is zero cost of trying a bluff or they may even genuinely be thinking that.

You don't want to play along. You want to identify that suggestion when it happens and oppose it. You re not doing anything wrong — they have no right to hold the reins of your business or to exploit you.

If you do want to put the agency's or the client's financial interest entirely above your own, that should be your own choice, your own sacrifice and service, not just allow yourself to be taken for a ride.

And, if I may say something, there are better, more qualified recipients of charitable donations of your time or money (which often ends up being the same thing) than for-profit enterprises. How about you donate your time to a homeless shelter instead? Or an orphanage? Or hospital? Or how about you look for civil-service employment for a modest salary if that's what you want rather than working entirely pro-bono, without pay?

Or at least make it clear that you're doing them a favour, but don't reinforce their belief in their own bluffing brilliance or privileged entitlement. (Or simple human error and lack of perspective, which it may very well be.)

Next, it's not like they're always going to directly tell you to be 'competitive' or make a 'competitive' offer; rather, it can take a more indirect form. Say, they might answer your quote saying that it is not competitive enough — if you don't stay sharp, you might even sometimes just go along with that kind of thing rather than shaking it off and realizing that, ugh, who says your quote needs to be 'competitive' in the first place? Or who are they (the agency or client) to authoritatively judge it as sufficiently competitive or not?

Again, chances are they'll just put 'competitive' in a sentence — as a begged question — and hope it works by setting the right mood, i.e. by sending your brain on the path they want it to take, which is similar to something like 'thank you for your co-operation' (which is presumed to follow and which does actually make the reader comply with the instruction if no contrary reflection intervenes).

Bottom line: Just because they want it that way doesn't meant it has to be that way. Make your own choice whether and what concessions you want to make.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Adverse Selection And Information Asymmetry

The best example of 'adverse selection' is when you get life insurance with the intention of committing suicide so that your family can get the benefits. We have laws on the books against that sort of thing, which means it must have become popular at some point, before they cracked down on it.

A less clear-cut example is when you get a policy that you know you're much more likely to cash in on than the average person. Someone looking from the insurer's perspective could be at least tempted to see it as something unethical and abusive. On the other hand, from the buyer's perspective there could be nothing more to it than taking advantage of what looked like a good bargain.

Non-insurance examples could include buffet lunches, all-you-can-eat bars, all-inclusive holiday trips. The price charged represents the average expected cost plus some margin. Some people will eat less, some will eat more, in the grand scheme of things it'll even out.

Similarly, in translation the rates tend to be more uniform than the amount of time needed by each individual translation, which is very difficult to predict up front and varies from one translator to the next to boot.

There is no question that to make your business smoother and more secure you need to learn to spot potential time suckers and learn to at least plan for contingencies, not overbook your calendar when one of your projects has that kind of potential, perhaps negotiate higher rates or switch to hourly billing.

This is something translators usually learn in the first couple of years.

However, I would like to call your attention to something more disruptive, more dangerous: problem jobs.

You don't have all of the information the client or agency has.

Perhaps you can recall, from your own experience, a situation like this:

They send you an attachment and ask you to confirm ASAP, which leaves you a short window and a lot of pressure. You mumble something, grudgingly, about them owing you one or needing to plan better, next time. Or you make it clear there isn't going to be any next time, only this once. Then you say the fateful words: 'okay, I confirm' and with the stroke of a magic wand the problem is now yours. Moments later you discover just how long the OCR or file repair is going to take — or you see the one bajilion tags surrounding every letter in the bilingual file in a CAT job. And an X-Bench/CAT QA report is required for those tags. Or the quality of the original is passably good initially, but deteriorates steadily until you no can no longer keep guessing whatever the thing was supposed to mean.

That's not the worst of it, actually. Sometimes a server is involved and that server goes down. Or someone's input is critically needed and that person suddenly becomes unavailable. Or just after you start the job they are afraid that whatever they had promised you to coax or cajole you into accepting is not actually possible. Or they unload some more reference material or client requests on you.

Unless you started a couple of months ago or you've been extremely lucky, you've probably had a couple of your own war stories like these by now. Well, now is the time to connect some dots — or at least as good as any.

I don't want you to become paranoid and see a trap in every single more-than-average complicated job you are offered by someone desperate. But I would like you to be cautious and safe. Better safe than sorry.

Here are some pointers:

  • The client or agency wants you to accept quickly and really wants you to accept the job. Unless you have good reasons to think it's about your unique skills or reputation for reliability, there can be a good reason why the want the job out of their way.
  • The client or agency wants you to accept before you can inspect the file(s) and any additional information. They seem to be rather secretive and — especially — deflect or ignore requests for information. That means there's a chance they don't want you to have that information — and why? A high probability is that's because that information could make you decline the offer. Or perhaps they themselves don't really know what's going on.
  • Technical problems with the files and little help from the client or agency when you mention it. This is an especially high risk with agencies which make it clear in your contract that once you accept a file for translation, any and everything relating to it becomes your own responsibility.
  • Any such problem should be a huge red flag with any agency whose contract or PO contains a stipulation that by accepting a job (a file) you are guaranteeing that it is doable. If the contract goes as far as saying that you 'waive' (give up) the right to 'rely on' (invoke, in your defence) any problems with the source, with the client's or agency's conduct etc. — then run away for dear life.
  • The same refers to sloppy writing in the source, especially in those huge files that have multiple different authors, sometimes all of them non-native and unedited.
  • Again, that sort of thing becomes several times more dangerous wherever there are the clauses in the contract about how everything becomes your responsibility and nothing is their responsibility any more after you accept. 
  • You should also be very helpful if someone is imploring, pleading, practically begging — but at the same time the paperwork is adversarial, hostile, there is small print in it or some dense legalese you don't understand, anything which you already suspect might be a trap.
  • Anyone who has done it once or twice and without remourse is likely to do it again. Don't judge them, but don't rely on their word for anything important, either.
  • If you work with agencies and your rates are significantly above average, then the agencies probably know of at least a handful of cheaper providers. The fact that they are turning to you — and this also applies to direct clients who have found you too expensive before — may in itself be an indication of a compelling reason to do so, which is not always as simple as wanting better quality from now on or better quality for that particular text than in most other cases.

Remember that to some people deceit in negotiation is fair game — and only the final outcome counts. That means some people will manipulate you into accepting a bad deal but will still very much believe you to be — legally, ethically, morally even — bound by that deal. That's how life works for people who believe themselves to be somewhat special. To some extent, most human beings believe themselves to be somewhat special.

Some players justify their cheating to themselves while expecting others to play by the book. In their mind, legit or not what counts is that they win (and in some of those minds it's legit even if they cheated). Alternatively, whoever can't play as skillfully as they can is fair game.

You need to be prepared to encounter that sort of character flaw in people who aren't in full consciousness trying to set you up. And, among hundreds or thousands of prospective and actual clients, someone will eventually try to consciously set you up with a bad job, too.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, scammers or desperate people scrambling for damage control may be looking for someone on whom to dump a translation/localization problem that already stinks, or a problem that isn't even a translation/localization problem in itself but can be transferred to a translator if you manage to make that translator unconditionally responsible for the quality, condition, usability etc. of the target file or for the achievement of a specific, set goal.

Remember that people who want you to give them broad and far-reaching guarantees are probably doing so because they know they're going to need them. You don't obtain such things because you don't need them, that would make no sense.

A word of practical advice: In a crisis situation it's easier to stick by rules you've already made before, with a cool head, than to make up good rules on the spot, when you're hot-headed and emotionally agitated.

Hence, you may want to develop and adopt some safety rules for yourself. For example:

  • Never make final decisions on the phone.
  • Keep a written record of all arrangements.
  • Never decide before seeing all of the source and reference files.
  • Don't take a client's word on anything which affects your ability or willingness to accept the job or the pay, get a signature on paper instead.
  • Don't accept any oral changes, amendments or supplementations to a written contract or PO. (Even if they are actually valid, proving that they existed is going to be a whole different challenge.)
  • Don't accept tech-intense jobs with short deadlines without processing the files through your CAT tool and making sure that they load and save (import and export) without errors.
  • Don't accept a job with a mandatory client glossary or TM (translation memory) before you carefully inspect the quality of that glossary or TM.
  • Don't accept a CAT job on an OCR file without checking out the tags in the bilingual file first, especially if you are required to keep tags intact or report on any deviations (e.g. X-Bench reports). CATs and OCR files don't work too well together.
  • If your software is not the newest available (e.g. Trados 2014 now that Trados 2015 has come out; MS Office 2010, now that 2013 has been around for a long while), don't accept a job before making sure your software is not too old to properly read and write the file (without damaging the layout, too).
  • Be extra careful with clients who have been unreliable before and not quite sorry for it. Especially anyone who's known to have lied to translators before.

You may need to train yourself to be a bit more resistant to the emotional pleas of people who you can already say are not being entirely open or fair with you from the get go. This may be a challenge, but it'll be easier if you know their own tricks or common negotiation tactics and if you allow yourself time to think clearly about the requirements of the job before you make your decision.

Also, don't shy away from demanding the inclusion of express conditions in the PO. This essentially means committing them to their promises on paper, with a signature. For example you may want to include the reservation that the deadline is guaranteed and the agreed fee is sufficient only as long as their assurances are true. You may want to have their signature under a disclaimer of your responsibility for things you don't want to be responsible for. For example (just a few):

  • Undisclosed expectations.
  • Fitness for undisclosed purposes.
  • Special or consequential damages of the likelihood of which they didn't inform you.
  • Technical and formatting issues resulting from processing an OCR-ed file with a CAT tool.

On a final note, once again, be very careful with people who are itching to get rid of the responsibility for their own or their own clients' files. Be extra careful with with agencies whose contracts make a point of how you're going to be responsible for each and every kind of problem imaginable from the moment you accept the job, or how — by accepting the job — you supposedly guarantee that the files are correct and the client's instructions and requirements are achievable and professionally sound (let alone sound from a business or legal perspective) etc.

That is, unless you're prepared for that sort of game. Some translators don't mind. Apart from naïve youngsters, those are seasoned old salts who are confident in their ability to detect, avoid or fix any kind of trouble, down to fending off any unjustified complaint or lawsuit. Even so, overconfidence is a great enemy.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

On Growing Some Scales

By accident, on Saturday, when alternating between serious reading and just chilling out with a bottle of amber ale after a long, hard week, I found a new marketing blog that seemed worth reading because of its no-nonsense approach with useful ideas, no trumpet-blowing and no padding. One of the first to capture my attention was a guest post by a young copywriter called Stephanie O'Brien, titled thus: Why Athletes Get Paid More Than You And How to Steal Their Strategies (and nothing less).

It'll be easier if you read it before we go on. Don't worry, it's short. Shorter than the economy reading that might be in order later.

In short, she describes it from a marketing point of view, but what she's talking about is the economies of scale (if you're German or Polish, you be thinking of it as 'effect of scale').

In some lines of business, the larger your operations are, the lower the costs of an individual operation or individual product or service can be. This is used by companies that compete on the price, often to the detriment of quality. Translation agencies can benefit from it, processing millions of orders in all sorts of languages and fields, while translators can't really, because they only have this much time to sell.

Or can they?

This is the question.

After all, athletes — and singers, and actors, and authors — are also time-limited, just like anyone else who essentially is selling his own time.

We can only earn this much when getting paid by a couple of agencies or a couple of direct clients, or a mix of both.

Seemingly. Because the larger picture is that:

  1. Our work is still used by more people than just the one person signing the PO. Only perhaps we no longer own the translation in any way after completing and returning it and cashing in the fees. But it's still out there, getting read by many people — who often rely on it in their own work for even more people — and the one guy who procured it certainly didn't make it. His company didn't translate, either.
  2. In a direct sense, athletes, singers, actors etc. still get most of their income from a handful of sources, they aren't having millions of invoices paid directly by crowds of fans. Even if they had an arrangement in places that gives them a certain percentage of every sale of something (e.g. a ticker or a copy), that money still comes from one source.

Thus, the difference is rather that they get credited for serving the masses and we don't. That part is monopolized by middlemen — agencies — and, to some extent, clients themselves. By clients themselves I mean people who act like the author who doesn't want the translator's name in the credits (it usually doesn't make it to the cover, anyway).

But imagine middlemen in sports and music trying to act like they — their companies, rather — are kicking the ball. It ain't gonna fly. But in translation it's quite viable.

(Lawyers are somewhere in the middle. The firms control the cake, but the names and faces of the individual lawyers are indispensable to the system, at least the way it is now. To some extent the same is true of sworn translators and other translators whose names must appear on the documents.)

In the end result, we aren't getting any sort of commission fees. Rather, the guys between us and the reader reduce us to the role of a wage earner, whose typically doesn't even reflect the scale of the enterprise. This is cool and dandy when our per-word or per-page fees multiplied by the number of such units add up to like one third of the transaction's worth, but not so cool when, let's say, the realtors and the lawyers are getting a percentage cut out of a couple million bucks, while the translators will have to content themselves with, say, a couple thousand words times a dozen cents per word, yielding a result in the hundreds.

The reasons are many, and I can't purport to know them all, but one thing is quite clear: the other guys either have a stronger position or face less opposition when charging in regions that are more proportional to the scale of the transaction.

When 'value pricing' is mentioned in the context of translation, the first thing that comes to mind is large texts at low prices because their subjective value to the client is low. For example because the client is intellectually lazy enough not to realize that his accounting or HR or licensing arrangements are all vital to his business despite being non-core. In plainer word, this means some people won't think in terms broader than the one or two direct steps where the money comes in, as their horizons are too tight to think in a broader picture. Except perhaps if they're talking about your responsibility rather than your pay.

So, we have two options:

  1. We could do some work that really can be sold to multiple purchasers, for example write books to which we retain the rights, of which more copies can always be made, and which will grow in value as we succeed, become more widely known, our ideas and concepts are proved by life etc. But remember, for example, that consultants who sell materials apart from advice don't necessarily make a fortune and neither necessarily do non-fiction authors.
  2. 'Leverage' the fact that we really do have large audiences quite a lot of time, at least in business and marketing translation. In other cases we act in a supportive role for something that has that kind of reach. We could remind our clients and agencies of this fact, as well as being tougher in negotiations in general.
#2 essentially means the scale is there but we need to claim it more assertively.

Other applications of scale include:

specializing and focusing — yes, it may be the antithesis of low-cost translation, but it does actually allow you to cut your costs, or, rather, use them more efficiently
CAT software — it sometimes pays for itself already on the trial licence simply because of opening access to more work
education, hardware, software, anything else that's purchased once (or at least only every once in a while) but used daily

However, it doesn't end there. There are multiple other ways in which you can tap into entire networks and make those networks work for you — starting from the fact that every happy client is likely to recommend you to other people. Thus your effective reach grows. You can compare it to the number of friends of friends or 2nd or 3rd tier connections you have on social media. Often what it takes is to just do your job well and perhaps just a little extra.

Back to Stephanie's article, though:

You could at least consider associating with people and businesses whose services are mutually complementary with yours rather than competing against them. That's a powerful combination which is hard to beat, and it also bears some resemblance to the strategies actually used by the most economically successful translators. Those strategies tend to involve a lot of mingling in the clients' world. This is a no-brainer for translators who come from other fields in their middle age and later (e.g. lawyers, doctors and engineers making a 'lateral move' for one reason or the other), but it's also worth considering as a path for the younger guys for whom translation is their first real job. But the stress here — unlike the mingling with clients and potential clients that the gurus talk about — would fall on mingling with all those people whose clients might need your services, rather than themselves.

Where's the 'scale' here? You can't reach all those people alone. But you can reach them through people and businesses that it's humanly possible for you to keep in touch with. This is essentially what networking is about.

This is also similar to controlling the entire value chain, as cost leaders (companies that sell on the price and build their business model around it) sometimes try to do, which includes the way in which translation agencies increasingly try to control you and make you their property. Except here nobody owns anybody, you're working with friends.

Last but — definitely! — not least, let's look at some really smart thing she said:

Professional athletes don’t make the stadium snacks. They don’t hold the cameras, tend the grass, or manufacture the equipment. If they did, they wouldn’t have enough time and energy to practice and stay on top of their game.
Print it and hang it above your monitor. Engrave in gold. Whatever. But defeat the urge — drilled into you by translation teachers, translation marketers, translation business coaches and even trusted translator friends — to think that you must be a 'one-stop shop' for everything that relates to a client's computer files. Or anything else like that.

You don't have to — while specialize in only 1-2 fields of knowledge to make yourself more efficient — learn the ins and outs of dozens of software suites and low-level, low-skill office tasks that bottom-feeding agencies and sometimes clients are increasingly confident about asking translators to do. Do world-class experts, high-octane consultants etc. also sweep the floors in their clients offices and carry the client's suitcase?

You won't have the time to become a really great translator if you spend time becoming a really good office gopher. Something which you should decidedly leave to people for whom it is the only choice of work or the best one (or those who are sufficiently trained in it to take it to a whole new level).

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Don't Be Too Hard On Clients Who Ask To Cancel

I don't normally post about ethical issues much, but I'll make an exception for this one. I don't aspire to the role of an ethical expert of moral authority, I just want to share my opinion as a colleague.

Sometimes clients contact you to cancel your work before it's finished.

In some cases they don't want to pay anything for the work you've already done, because they no longer need it, and they don't think they should have to pay for something they don't need.

Well, that's their perspective, which is only one side of the story. Your perspective, which is the other side of the story, is that you've given them your time and skill, and you have a right to be compensated for it. My opinion is that you'd be in your right to charge them for that work (minus polishing if it goes straight to the bin and won't be used)[1] unless you can easily sell the same translation to someone else[2].

But what I really wanted to post about is when you consider charging them for the 100% anyway.

I believe it would be unethical to not do the remaining part of the work but still charge them for it — unless with their consent.

Simply put they have paid for our time. We have sold it to them. It now belongs to them. We can't keep it to ourselves or sell it to someone else any more. One doesn't own what one has already sold. One can't sell more than one actually has. One can't sell the same thing twice — for example we can't just charge that one client for a full day's worth of work the client will not actually receive and then spend that day working for a different client to get paid for it and profit from the cancellation by doubling our earnings for that day.

We could offer to translate something else for the same client within the limits of volume or time already paid for by that client. Or we could credit the time or volume against future projects.

But not charge two different clients for the same time.

Example: Suppose you're paid on a per-day basis for 10 days. The client cancels on the 8th day. It's easy to see that charging the client for all 10 days but spending the last 2 days working for a different client and getting paid for it means getting paid for 12 days after working only 10. This would be ethically sound with the first client's freely given consent, but not as the translator's dictate. Without the client's consent it would be like having one's car stolen and then returned but still claiming compensation from the insurer for the full value of the car (rather than lost enjoyment for some time, cost of checkup, repairs, cleaning etc.).

It isn't really different when the billable unit is word or page — only harder to visualize.

However, even if we simply take an improvised holiday, do completely nothing but just rest and regenerate our strength, then we're still keeping that time to ourselves. It isn't really fair to still charge the client for it and make the unexpected holiday our gain. That would be an unduly translator-centric perspective — just like it was unduly client-centric perspective to pay 0% after cancelling the work midway through as no longer needed.

We could also spend such time doing all sorts of things that need to be done anyway. Invoicing, taxes, administration, marketing, CPD, chores, even house chores — as we need to do those some time or other anyway. In fact, we'll probably end up doing something like this.

Notably, by shuffling our schedule around a bit — moving things to different days or hours — we're making ourselves more available for any future assignments, for which we'll be paid. This means no actual loss is suffered, only the inconvenience of having to adjust the schedule.

Perhaps the inconvenience of having to change our plans should be compensable, but it simply is not the same as actually losing the time we were expecting to sell. This isn't fresh meat or fish rotting because the buyer balked.

Thus, if we also forced the client to pay for our time, we'd effectively be profiting from the same time twice, which is little different from selling the same time to two different buyers.

Back to the insurance example: If we had insurance against cancelled contracts or other loss of work, the insurer would expect us to mitigate the damage by at least looking for different work, or, as an absolute minimum, not turning down viable offers. The insurer would only make up the difference.

The core principle of compensation is that one isn't supposed to profit from accidents. It isn't free lunch for the victim.

Bottom line: Having a PO or a signed contract is not a licence to be unproductive, or to sell the same time to two different clients.

However, I would also add to this that it's not okay to just go ahead and finish the work and force the client to pay for it, either, for very similar reasons.

We can find different work. We can rearrange our schedules. We can do some CPD, marketing or admin, or chores, or take an evening off today rather than tomorrow. This doesn't inconvenience us in any serious way.

Hence, let's not use POs and contracts as weapons of extortion.

Exception: The situation is different where at the same time:

  1. we had to forego alternative work in order to accommodate that client's work; and
  2. we needed work to pay the bills, can't find other work on short notice and can't really accommodate a holiday etc.
— in which case we shouldn't have the choice made for us by a random circumstance to have a holiday instead of working (for example). That would make me see it in a different light, ethically.

But normally it would be better to charge only moderate cancellation fees beyond payment for work actually done.

One also needs to remember that ruthlessly profiting at the client's expense is not compatible with the ethics of learned professions such as doctors, lawyers and other advisors.

Would you be happy if your lawyer or doctor charged you for previously agreed work you no longer needed, if he could easily take on another client or patient or spend the time managing his own affairs to free up more time for paid work tomorrow or later this week?

[1] After finishing the translation in the normal course you would proofread and revise it on your own, then apply some edits etc., which is a time-consuming process. Hence, 50% of translation alone is not 50% of the whole job when you apply 0% of the final polish that was normally expected. In other words, the percentage you are at in translation alone is not the percentage you are at in your whole work.
[2] In some cases, which will typically be translations of published works, you may be in a position to finish the same work for a different client, for example a different publishing house. An argument could be made that you should give it a try before charging a cancelling client.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Will Machine Translation Displace Only Those Humans Who Translate Like Machines?

Here is the text of the popular Internet meme, coined by dr Arle Richard Lommel of the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence, himself a freelance translator:

Machine translation will displace only those humans who translate like machines

There is also a less known second sentence, which I don't see in those memes, and which reads:

Humans will focus on tasks that require intelligence.

I'm not sure if I actually disagree with dr Lommel, but I disagree with what I think the meme is likely to be typically understood to mean. Which is that only low-skill unimaginative human translators will be displaced by MT.

In the world around you, do you or do you not see MT used in the wrong place, for the wrong purpose or reasons or both?

In real life MT is used where it's not up to the task and where a human translator would do a better job.

The longer explanation is that people don't really know how translation works, human, machine or otherwise. They aren't necessarily motivated to learn, either, or even capable.

But what everybody can see — and what they are guided by in their decision-making — is that MT is cheap or free of charge, fast, or rather instantaneous, and readily available.

Choices made by clients in real life are not made the way the meme seems to imply that they are, i.e. objective reality + poetic justice. Objective reality is something they may or may not be aware of, and poetic justice is, well, poetic. So don't allow sentiments to get in the way of your logic.

Clients makes their decisions rather on the basis of what they know and what they want to do and what they ultimately do do with that knowledge.

Hence, rather, MT can displace human translators:

(i) for those clients who:

  • can't afford the higher cost of human translation (if it is higher), or
  • don't know the difference and don't have some other reason to stick with human translation (whatever that might be), or
  • know the difference but don't see it as worth paying for, or
  • know the difference, see the value but still go for MT for other reasons (whatever those might be) 

(ii) in that type of translation in which:

  • MT produces results that are fit for the purpose, and
  • human translation doesn't offer any benefit the client is interested in (or, more precisely, willing to pay for), whether that's more-than-fit quality or something else

This could be understood to mean that in at least some of those cases we all translate like machines. But that's not necessarily true — it only means we achieve the same results that a machine can achieve.

And machines can do amazing things with enough processing power and the ingenuity of, surprise, surprise, human engineers.

Next, 'even' structurally bound rule-based translation that relies on substitution as a method is not necessarily a task that doesn't require intelligence. It's only a task where artificial intelligence may be sufficient and in some cases superior. Just because Kasparov lost to Deep Blue doesn't mean chess doesn't require intelligence, does it?

Finally, MT with human post-editing (PEMTing) is not the same as MT without it, in terms of risks. Human-assisted MT is more of a threat than pure MT.

Make no mistake:

  • Just because you don't see yourself as a low-skill translator, or just because you objectively aren't one, doesn't mean that rules-based MT with good input data, good rules, a lot of processing power (millions of operations per minute etc.) and especially human assistance (PEMTing or otherwise) can't produce results that are x% as good as yours in x% of cases, for example 80% as good in 80% of the cases. Don't kid yourself, not everybody wants or even needs[1] the double 100% figure, nor can you actually achieve it (it's humanly impossible). It may be helpful to read up on bounded rationality, i.e. full optimization versus satisficing, and maximizers versus satisficers. As a translator, you are probably more likely to be a maximizer than a satisficer (100% pure maximizers probably don't exist, so it's not a 0/1 matter, more like, say, 0.9/0.1). An economist, business manager or IT person — or PM for that matter — is more likely to be a satisficer than you are (there are exceptions, some of them notably quite annoying, e.g. in the literal reading of some translation agency contracts only 100% of the best theoretically possible result will do, else they'll reject your translation; how does that feel?). Most people use simplified heuristics in their decision-making. This means they make 'approximate decisions' and accept certain risks in exchange for time and cost savings. You aren't immune to the 'like machine' just because you're good, let alone if you should be merely not too bad at what you do.
  • In real life MT displaces human translation just like bad human translators displace good human translators. Read Paul Sulzberger's interview with Luigi Muzii to get a better understanding why (Gresham's law: bad money drives out good), though it's not just the price. Some of the people who would otherwise be your clients will go for MT just like some of them go for cheaper translators or DIY translation, for all sorts of reasons.

Get proper context. You're only immune if a machine can't translate like you. And if you can convince your clients that the difference is worth paying for.

[1] It's important to note that fit-for-purpose quality — one of the core concepts behind MT, or at least behind its more responsible incarnation — is not fundamentally flawed. Simply put, it's not true that nothing is good enough unless it's absolute best. We can argue how good is good enough, or how beneficial it would be to go beyond the enough. We can — and should — protest when the bar is set too low. But we can't pretend that only the absolute best is ever good enough. Reductio ad absurdum: Most of us would be unemployed if only the best translators and translations were good enough for any client and any job. And most of us would be spending n times more time editing and QA'ing.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Translation Is Not A Shameful Secret

One would think that most of such theoretical considerations: 'foreignization' (I maintain it's not a valid word) versus 'domestication', should the translation read like an original or like a translation (no, there is no one and only pre-ordained answer to this), should you cover your tracks as a translator or not — belong to the word of literal translation only.

Heck no. That's not true. Only, they are seen and judged through the perspective of literary translation, which is what probably 90% of practicing translators are not doing.

Maintaining that full-on domestication is the only right way of translating is a hoax, along with the resulting sentiment that it is good to disguise your translation even at the expense of sacrificing accuracy with no corresponding gain in beauty or quality, just to make your text farther removed from the original, less traceable to it. Like that's even a legitimate goal!

(Which it is not, it's hoax.)

The translator's job is to translate, not to validate and promote phobias (including xenophobia) and superstitutions, and a lot of modern translation creed is superstition that has little basis in real science. It just gets repeated over and over and dressed in the trappings of ethical precepts That Must Not Be Questioned. They just get repeated over and over.

This collection of attitudes is harmful to us. It reinforces our clients' beliefs that were shameful, best not mentioned, best swept under the carpet, you know, like in that Bismarck quote:

Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.

Seriously? Why should one willingly allow one's profession, one's calling, one's job, often one's hobby or passion, to be held in that sort of prejudiced regard?

It is also consistent with the business model and business interests of translation agencies. Think about it: To whose benefit is when translators are nameless, invisible, tucked in the shadow, swept under the rug, in short: they supposedly don't exist?

And which kind of client is being wooed when appeasing and actively catering to and feeding xenophobic feelings is the value proposal? — Parochialism would be the most charitable description of that sort of thing.

Just like you don't need to be ashamed of your core service and core value in your value proposal and price justification, you don't need to be shamed of your work in, well, your work.

Translation Is Worth Charging For!

Dear Reader, what I'm saying to you tonight is at variance with what most translation speakers and writers and gurus say — all of them more experienced, more economically knowledgeable and economically and professionally successful than I am. You have more reason to listen to them than to me. But I still say it. I can't not say it:

Translation is the core value of what you do, the service you provide to your clients. Don't advertise and build your brand and USP on 'more than translation'. Don't justify your prices with additional services or added value.

If your value proposal and your proposal in general is based on additional services or added value, you are sending the message that your core value and core services are not valuable, not worth charging for.

By contrast, translation is a prestigious professional service.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Rush Fees Are Legitimate

Essentially, there are two legitimate reasons for charging someone a price, just as there are two major types of pricing:

  1. cost to provide, or harm or inconvenience sustained on the part of that someone (similar to cost plus pricing)
  2. benefit created for that someone (value-based pricing, which does not necessarily involve manipulation of supply and demand)
For a more detailed picture see congestion pricing and relationship-based pricing.

Your costs are not only the bills you pay and the prices of equipment and software you use but also all expenditure, loss, detriment, inconvenience etc. suffered on behalf of your client, as well as opportunity costs, which means anything that you sacrifice in order to satisfy your client's needs or desires.

They include:

  • lack of remaining capacity for other work, sometimes also on the day after (because you will be too tired to work — a small surcharge doesn't make it even)
  • consequences of unavailability to your other current or prospective clients (new relationships not formed, existing relationships strained, substitute translators taking over)
  • increased fatigue, exhaustion, loss of sleep, which, apart from being unpleasant, you just can't afford to repeat too frequently for fear of more serious complications
  • loss of family time or time alone or private opportunities, including many things that don't even have a price tag on them (what's the price of not putting your child to sleep)
  • sheer inconvenience of dropping everything and upsetting your plans

Your client's benefits include:

  • ability — or increased ability or capacity — to reap the benefits of short-term opportunities by responding timely to them (e.g. time-limited bargains, RFPs/tenders with tight deadlines, certain types of commercial transactions)
  • stronger image and better PR because of acting first or responding in time, decisively and proactively
  • competitive advantage over those who can't or won't
  • ability to avoid negative consequences (including long-term) of all kinds (not just purely financial but also image and goodwill) of failing to meet deadlines and schedules or respond to opportunities
  • sheer convenience of jumping the queue

As you probably realize, your client's benefits mostly relate to commercial transactions and investments of which the goal is profit, not charity.

Transactions involve transaction costs: the costs of searching, negotiating and enforcing, all of which can require translation assistance. Translation is also part of investments, or an investment in itself, hence translation cost is investment cost, which means the necessary cost paid now for a greater profit in the future (which will not be shared with you).

Bottom line: translation fees are the result of your client's profit-making operation.

You can't have a French website without translating it into French any more than you could have apple jam without planting apple trees — or paying someone else to plant them for you. You can't just spend your last savings on an expensive car, you need to be able to afford fuel and insurance. You can't just buy machines, you need people to operate them. You can't just buy a building for a one-off price, there's upkeep to pay forever after.

Having to pay for translation — or faster translation than would normally be available — is not any more unfair than having to pay the cost of seedlings for plants, fuel for cars, phone bills, electricity costs, salaries of employees and everything else, including any applicable urgency surcharges.

The expected profit from your client's business transactions is not a holy birthright or human right that you should drop everything to help secure. It's an investment that depends on initial costs, a normal commercial profit, not a humanitarian cause.

A for-profit business enterprise looks quite silly expecting return without investment.

It also looks silly expecting you to be a partner in investment costs without making you a partner in investment returns.

By the way, have you noticed that nowhere here did you and I consider supply and demand, only costs and benefits?

Not that there would be anything wrong in using supply and demand to avoid being underpaid (railroaded into 'best rates') by manipulation of supply and demand to begin with!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Two Different Ways of Working With a Proofreader (and Pitfalls and Scams)

There are essentially two types of translator-proofreader relationships (other than role switching between double-hatting equals, i.e. two similarly qualified translators serving each other's second pair of eyes):

  1. The proofreader, as the more experienced party, is also the reviewer, reviser and overall sort of supervisor responsible for the final quality of translation. (Proofreader ultimately responsible.)
  2. The proofreader, as the less active party, with less exposure, is merely the translator's assistant, where the translator makes the final decisions. (Translator ultimately responsible.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to both models.

In #1 (dominant proofreader) the choice of proofreader/editor/reviser(/reviewer/supervisor) doubtless seems prudent, but coupled with the choice of rookier adepts of the profession to handle the core, substantive translation, it inevitably calls for the following question:

Why was the more qualified person not selected to do the translation in the first place?

And that question is spot on. Final quality was apparently looked on from the rear side, so to say. In other words, the decision-maker's focus was on assuring the best possible proofreading, which was commendable, of course, but it happened here at the expense of core translation, which was less commendable. Having the more highly qualified translator start from a clean slate would most probably have led to better results.

Agencies and clients may be tempted to adopt this model in order to achieve cheaply the same final quality of translation — they would think — as if the more expensive senior professional did it from scratch. Except they likely won't get it. The extent to which someone else's translation can be salvaged without being violated is limited. Revamping even a passable translation to make it excellent often takes more time that translating excellently from scratch. At half the price, naturally. Which is convenient to agencies but not to translators, of course.

Even if that exalted expert proofreader (or 'proofreader', as the job carries a lot more to it than its modest name would imply) actually did pursue his own quality standard, he would still need to make a lot of subjective changes that wouldn't go down well. He would be challenged for 'reversing' the translator without a good cause, charged with being whimsical and unable to justify his opinions and back them with evidence, or with being unfair to the translator whose work is being proofread, or with altering the vision of the translator whose name is put on the translation, who basically 'owns' it and thus his choices should command a certain measure of respect even if they aren't optimal.

On the other hand, in #2 (dominant translator) the proofreader's role is more reserved, more restricted, he stays in the background rather and acts as a typical QA link in the chain. Doing it that way should theoretically make sure that the translator's vision is not interfered with, his decisions aren't unfairly challenged and changed etc. However, if the translator's role is seen as more essential, then it's somewhat probable that a rookie will be chosen for the proofreader's billet. And that will mean a lot of silly questions for the translator to answer, a lot of errors flagged that aren't really errors but false positives — because the proofreader knows less than the translator does, he has to ask more questions and is more likely to be wrong.

Furthermore, where the proofreader (or editor or reviser) has less credibility than the translator, the translator is both free and somewhat tempted to just reject all changes off-handedly without justifying himself in detail. And that defeats the purpose of proofreading.

It's an 'either or' kind of situation: Either the translator ends up answering a lot of ignorant questions and even ignorant allegations of error in his work, or the proofreading ends up being more of a superficial pretence than reality, a rubber stamp to meet ISO requirements.

Neither model can be simply judged to be better or worse than the other, but what really leads to serious mess is when parts of the two models get mixed up, aggravating the problems that are already found in each basic model. For example:

  1. Junior translators selected to be 'proofreaders' and editing, revising and reversing people who have more knowledge, experience and possibly talent than they do. That is — unsurprisingly — outright harmful to translation quality if they have the final say. On the other hand, at a risk of repeating myself, if they don't have the final say and their authority and credibility is low, then they'll end up being more of nuisance and smokescreen than anything to do with what proofreading and revising really is supposed to achieve.
  2. More highly qualified translators who are relegated to a mostly passive and marginal proofreader role (in the dominant translator model) can't do much for quality — even if the quality is bad and badly in need of fixing. To still think that such proofreaders can somehow guarantee the same quality standard as if they were translating that same text from scratch would be a gross misunderstanding and an unfair situation to be in. And if they do retranslate entire passages (will they be paid properly for it or will they have to do it free of charge out of their sense of duty?), then someone else — a less qualified person? — will have to do the proofreading if the principle of two pairs of eyes is to be preserved.

You can't magically have the cake and eat it too by paying 50% or 33% of a great translator's normal rates to have him fix a 0.02 translator's work. You will NOT receive 100% of the quality for 80% of the price.

The cost of the kind of 'proofreading' that is in reality more of a rescue operation traditionally is a lot higher than the going rate of a simple cursory QA check that corresponds to 'proofreading' in the typical understanding of the word in English-speaking countries.

If you try to pay less, you expose yourself to the same risks as everybody else who tries to purchase goods or services for less than they are worth. Naturally, it gets worse when you try to buy at or especially below the vendor's cost-to-provide.

Obviously, even having the good translator's work proofread by an assistant with some language skills is preferable to not having it checked at all, by anyone. If you run an old-fashioned translation company with in-house translators, having a seasoned professional proofread, correct and educate the rookies is more than viable, it simply is the standard way of business. Those rookies later graduate and enter into supervisory roles themselves.

But quit thinking that you can somehow, magically, get top translator quality without paying for it.

Rather, think thoroughly and honestly about legitimate ways to optimize your costs without counting on a miracle to happen. For example work with fully professionally qualified full-time proofreaders who are not simply double-hatting translators but for whom proofreading and editing really is their calling. Pay a fixed salary rather than freelance rates. Use rookies for simple texts that they can handle with some supervision from a senior professional equipped with the final say and make it clear who is responsible for what. Or match senior, expert translators with 'assistants' to help spot the occasional missing comma, ambiguity or slip of style. But above all plan with the assumption of having to pay the full price of the quality level you want to achieve, whichever level of quality that is. Don't cut corners, it won't work.

Bottom line: you can't (i) achieve top translator quality by assigning a top translator to do the proofreading and a less qualified, cheaper translator to do the translation, and (ii) you can't really bring the quality of a good translator's work to a higher level by pairing him up with a less experienced or skilled proofreader.

For translators: scam risk by certain agencies and clients:

To hire a more qualified translator to do the proofreading with the expectation of e.g. receiving 100% of the quality for 60% of the price is nothing new or merely theoretical. It's not even unreasonable from a purely economical point of view, a purely economical sort of rationality.

Since agencies and PMs don't sell their own time but rather earn their commission on thousands of such sales, the effect of scale makes all those two-cent savings here or there add up to much more substantial numbers that seem worth pursuing (even if they aren't really, compared to adopting a more sustainable and less corner-cutting business model).

Thus, in the broad market of today it is probably reasonable to be cautious with proof jobs and carefully check all the relevant factors before accepting such a job. Try to make it as clear as possible what standard of final quality your are supposed to achieve (or especially guarantee) within what budget. This includes finding out (i) whether you will be paid extra for extra work, as well as (ii) whether you will be required to do extra work for no extra pay if such a need should arise (which would mean the agency outsourcing the risk to you, which is a known and scientifically researched and optmized method of risk management for companies).

Next, agencies can exploit less experienced — and cheaper — translators by having them sign quality guarantees and indemnity clauses (hold harmless etc.), so that those translators can ultimately be required to pay a more expensive translator's bill when their own quality, surprise!, is not found sufficient. Often at the agency's 'sole discretion', as some of those churlish people dare actually write in their standard contracts. 

The above essentially means hiring a 20-cent translator at a 6-cent translator's expense. A beautiful business plan, isn't it?

It is the bigger, meaner cousin of dodging payment by hiring an inexperienced rookie whose work can later be challenged easily and penalties imposed to avoid payment.

Another trap for you lies in not knowing that you are supposed to achieve a particular standard with no editor, proofreader or reviser being hired as should be the case in a real, professional publishing process or in normal professional translation. As a result, you can be expected to pay the proofreader or editor's bill out of your own pocket.

Alternatively, you can just be told that there's no proofreader or editor, so you need to handle it all on your own — with no extra pay. And that too is a scam, essentially, though not of the same gravity. It's not actually fraud, it's just a tricky sort of extortion — if it even is that — or simply a bad deal.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Customer Empathy

Many of you may know me — if you do — as someone who is not a great fan of introducing customer service notions to professions, including ours, or 'client-centricity' in translation. This is because I don't view translation as a normal, typical service industry, especially not one that's predicated on just making the customer feel good as opposed to rendering good service. This places me at odds with many agencies and even translators to whom pleasing the customer is core activity and translation is only secondary, i.e. a means of achieving the goal of pleasing the client.

However, today I would like to focus — rather than on any of the client service jazz — on the plain human emotional suffering clients can experience in their dealings with a company or a professional service provider.

It pains to be excluded or cut out of the loop
As you well remember from childhood and from school and perhaps from turbulence of teen age and college life, exclusion is one of the most powerful tools of torment one can use on another human being. The history of criminal justice is history of using that tool in various iterations throughout millennia.

... Especially when you have been a long-time supporter of your business
Relationships are by definiton mutual. A long-term client has not been getting his translations from you free of charge, of course, but the money you've been getting from him was not tax, damages or payment back of a loan — it has always been payment for a service that was bought. A long-term client, in a certain sense, is a sponsor or patron. Yes, you are in charge of how you run your translation practice. No, that doesn't cut it.  Because relationships are mutual, and it stings when only one party makes decisions that affect both parties.

People don't like change
Especially when they've been long-term supporters of your business and their opinion is not sought before a game-changing decision. You can't just redefine your service or your way of providing it and expect your clients to be happy with any and every such decision no matter what it is. They have an emotional interest in how you run your practice (or your business, if that's what you'd call it).

Misguided visionaries are a pain to deal with
Perhaps you know the type: perhaps they've been right once or twice or on a couple of things, but they have their own idea of running their business, even if it means running it into a tree. They won't listen to anyone else — even when everyone else but them sees where exactly they're headed. Nobody will be telling them... until it's too late to hear any advice from anyone. You don't want to be that trainwrecked business.

... As are those who are superheroes in their own eyes
Be lucky that you are not chased away from the court they hold for those lucky mortals who are admitted into their exactled presence. You'd better not speak without being spoken to, unless your message is one of praise, in which case some liberties can be taken at the discretion of the object of your praise. But try saying something critical... You know those people, and you don't want to be one of them to your own clients.

Especially if they begin to 'manage' it
Just like you don't want to be a 'resource' to your clients, your clients don't want to be managed like a resource by you. They don't want to be a dehumanized figure in your calculation sheets when you start managing relationships like they are a piece of maths. If you don't want to connect with people, that's fine. But once you do connect with them, it has to be real. When it's being 'managed', it's not real, it's being gamed. You can delete negative feedback and you can ban people from posting comments on your own website or blog, but you can't change reality by pretending it doesn't exist. If that reality looks bad to look at it, then it's time to change the way you treat your clients rather than trying to control the way they speak about you.

Clients don't necessarily want to be your 'fans'
It's fashionable in modern marketing to 'turn clients into rabid fans' or whatever your respective marketing guru is calling it. Guess what. The standard, normal person, a human being just like you or me or anyone else.

In the words of a real expert, David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising:

The customer is not a moron. She's your wife
(D. Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1964, p. 96)
According to Wiki he made that remark 'in response to typical advertising practices of the early 1950s, which featured loud and hectoring voices and blatantly exaggerated print.' You'd think something would have changed since then...

Your client doesn't want to be 'rabid', nor even necessarily your fan — that it need to deserve but even then can't just claim as your birthright. It is something that's totally at the discretion of your client. So don't presume. Don't treat clients like fans or admirers, especially when you know that the quality you offer isn't perfect.

Self-enthusiastic PR does not make you really be all that
Anybody can write that crap. It doesn't become real just because it gets published on your website or some other place you control. Some people will buy into it inevitably, but the bubble will burst if you exhaust your initial loan of confidence.

It gets worse when you start to believe it, at which point things get really serious and — I dare say — at that point you begin to need professional help.

Not everybody who is critical of your direction is your enemy
For starters, they probably wouldn't be wasting their time talking to you if they didn't care for you. If they wanted to really just take it out on you, chances are a smear campaign would be taking place instead. As long as they talk and talk to you, they probably still want to communicate and give you a chance to regain their trust.

Not even if they sound angry
Perhaps they have a valid reason to. Consider that for a while — don't presume they're wrong and you're right just because they are they and you are you . Don't hide behind platitudes like 'constructive criticism' or 'civil atmosphere' — just like with any 'managed' image, any remotely smart person will see what you really are doing. Once again: the customer is not a moron, she's your wife. With your wife, you wouldn't be trying that.

This post was inspired by a certain company whose name starts with the letter P.

About Complaints

The first thing you want to when you see a complaint is:

calm down and keep cool.

Really. That's like the single most important thing. This is not to say you should be oblivious to the gravity of a serious situation, if there is one, but fretting out will never help you. You don't need to prove anything by acting agitated — nor can you, really.

So try not to be too agitated when you read, think and reply.

If anxiety mounts up too high and it's impossible for you to stay calm without knowing what's there, take a look, get the gist of it, still take a walk outside before replying.

Next, there are complaints, and there are complaints. And then there are complaints.

Ordinary 'complaints' are less real than a real, formal complaint.

Simply sending you a revised version of your work is not a complaint. Nor is asking questions and voicing doubts. Or even pointing errors out, or even commenting on their gravity and number. It hardly is a complaint if it doesn't make some sort of statement to the effect of being disappointed and wanting money back (or some other form of redress).

Clients who do want money back — which does not always necessary require a full formal complaint but sometimes happens in informal negotiations — come in two sorts: the one is legal-minded, the other is business-minded.

The legal-minded sort of complaining client seeks a legal sort of remedy, whether justified or not. He relies on a legal sort of right that results from poor performance. It may be based on simple fairness, but it's about right and wrong, moral or ethical codes and so on.

The business-minded sort is essentially revisiting your price negotiations, whether in good or not so good faith. Fairness may be called upon but not really articles and paragraphs. In any case, it's more about business than about moral or ethical principles.

Once you distinguish between the two, it may be a good idea to learn to use a different approach with each type.

The amount of rebate sought by either sort is quite subjective. It can go either way, really, although with time you will notice some patterns. For example the more business type may be after substantial discounts based on lack of subjective satisfaction (as a legalist you'd frown at that sort of thing or even be incensed at it) but not really want to take your money other than not paying you. By contrast, the more legal type could be less whimsical and flimsy about the grounds but actually go after you for damages.

Thus, in practice, although the lawyering sort would need (to at least trump up) a shade of a credible ground to claim any substantial discount, whereas the negotiating sort could claim a 50% discount based off of sheer lack of satisfaction, but the business sort could still let you off the hook after reducing or denying your pay, without coming up with a long list of damages and losses general, special, direct, indirect, circumstantial, incidental, exemplary and totally imaginary.

Either of the two sorts can use two different styles: collaborative or adversarial.

This pretty much means what it says; the labels are self-explanatory.

Be aware, though, that just because someone talks softly doesn't mean he isn't carrying a big stick. On the other hand, just because he's talking tough and throwing his weight around doesn't mean he wants to blast your kneecaps. This is, essentially, the meaning of style. Whether they want to really collaborate with your or be your adversary is quite a different thing.

The adversarial style is likely to resort to unseemly things such as yelling, insults, exaggerated demands with enough padding to go down a notch or five in a settlement, possibly some vague, frivolous or outright fake claims, like grapeshot of which some will hopefully stick. Don't assume it's for real, but don't assume it isn't. Only time will show. So be prepared but don't fret out and don't let them see you're scared (if you are).

Bottom line: stay calm. Even if the situation really is quite serious, you don't need to freak out to prove that you understand the gravity of it. A level head will keep you out of trouble.

The next essential thing to always bear in mind is that:

just because they say it doesn't mean it's true.

Granted, you already know this on an intellectual level, but to really believe it is a whole different matter.

Not only in theory, but in practice that specific client who's complaining about your work specifically, who is complaining right here and now, may very be 'tangibly', provably wrong. So find out.

No matter what you may have been told by Stockholm-syndrome-afflicted translation teachers, speakers, writers, bloggers and all the other assorted gentry, your client's word is not the law.

Your client's word is not the law of the land and especially not the law of grammar and style. Nor can your client be both a party and judge. In short, your client is not the last arbiter. The court is, and not the first court that enters a ruling in your case, either.

So don't associate your client's claims with too much finality. Rather, what the client says is tentative. And it certainly is likely to be warped, one-sided, partly self-serving, partly misinformed (who's the professional at your job?).

Next, and in connection with what we've only just covered:

any huge demands are likely to be phony or desperate or psychotic or just intimidating and softening you up before real talks or any combination thereof.

One million dollar in damages, really? You get the point.

If it's something that the client's QA found, relax and breathe, the damages-generating event most likely hasn't happened and cannot any more.

Unless some sort of one-time opportunity was well-documentedly lost due to your fault, or an absolutely final, non-restorable deadline was not met, with some disastrous consequences, you are most likely not liable for anything more than a reasonable reduction — if they even have a cause for one. It's down to defective performance now (if it really was defective), and you're normally entitled to a go at fixing it before money can be claimed from you.

Aggressive negotiators are likely to try and charge you for the reviser's bill, except to really be able to do that they'd need to have consulted you first, to prove that you were unavailable or would not have been able to fix the problems that they found, and, obviously, that those problems were real. Not to mention that they can't just go and pick the most expensive old fox of a translator to finish a job they assigned to a green rookie to save some bucks.

it probably isn't going to get worse than non-payment if they don't have a surefire case, anyway

Granted, they can declare all sorts of demands, since it costs them nothing to try, but actually going after you with a lawsuit, especially in a foreign country, especially on a different continent, is a whole different thing altogether.

And most people will not sue you for the kind of cash that won't cover the lawyers' bills. Unless perhaps it's personal (so don't make it), but probably not even then. Or unless they have unlimited resources and something to prove — some corporate lawyers do fall into this category.

As for non-payment, it isn't too easy to oppose a valid invoice without solid, concrete proof of bad performance. Even if you don't sue them (for example because the money is too little to bother or because they're in a different country and legal system), which you'd stand a good chance of winning but likely need to incur heavy costs out of your pocket (ironically, most of those could be translation fees), insisting on non-paying a persistent translator is a reputation risk many people would not take without believing in the justice of their cause.


it's not the end of the world if they found some real issues.

Let's not take things out of proportions. Culpably introducing a fateful error in a medical translation or safety manual and causing someone's injury or death is one thing, failing to spot a type or typing in the wrong word in a normal business text or press material or something people read for pleasure likely isn't worth a discount at all, other than perhaps a token couple percent as a show of your goodwill, at your discretion. Which, actually, I would often advise that you grant liberally in order to be fair to your clients and preserve your relationships with them.


don't admit to errors you didn't make.

Whoever thinks client service requires owning up to mistakes and wrongs you know you didn't do needs to... well, never mind, that person is simply dead wrong.

As for real errors, I'd say don't get defensive, rather own up and make up, but I need to make the disclaimer that admitting your liability means admitting your liability so you can't sue me.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Beware of Great Bargains — For The Client

Beware of deals that are… such a great deal for your client, except not for you.

I'm not writing this to encourage a what's-in-it-for-me kind of attitude. By all means, do charitable or pro bono work, be generous and not greedy, give compassionate discounts and even have affordable pricing throughout if you want to.

But all that's just not the same as walking into a setup.

It's understandable that standard fee and deadline schedules are not the best fit for all situations and that clients may feel averse to fees that don't make sense to them. No wonder they'll want to talk first, not always in perfectly polite and agreeable terms. Remember, businesspeople are more likely to be hard-hitting go-getters than your average Joe is and they didn't likely build their business on being gentle.

Speculation of various kinds, some of which doesn't look particularly pretty to outsiders, also is to some extent part of the job. Exploring the routes, looking for cheaper supply channels and new sales outlets. That's part of their nature. Merchants were always like that before Vasco da Gama set sail for India and before the Phoenicians built their first ships.

Like it or not, you're going to have to deal with some of that.

In making a proposal that falls short of industry-standard pricing or what we believe to be ethically justified rates and deadlines, they may be just tentatively exploring something they don't even mean to be a one-sided bargain, but they aren't taking the responsibility for making the deal profitable to you. They think that's your job. So you might as well do it, they won't mind.

Alternatively, they may even be aiming for a mutually beneficial relationship in the long term or transaction in the short term but lacking the information to realize what is and what is not profitable to you and by what margin. So inform them.

It's probably worth noting that some broader cultures and some individual people just can't not haggle. In their world, a balanced deal rarely leaved both parties feeling ecstastic about the bargain. Rather, both sides are content and taking comfort in knowing that they had their field day and did the best they could.

That's all quite normal when dealing with business-minded people, or even with people in general.

But, in the broad realm of outsourced translation, if you are being approached with one of those sweet agency deals that are extremely advantageous to them or the client while requiring a certain sacrifice on your side (usually in return simply for getting that job), more may be involved than simply making less per hour but getting more hours of guaranteed work.

Consider the following:

  1. Are they paying through the nose for everything and to everyone else but not you? If yes, for what reason are you, as the translator, singled out for the cost reduction? In what light does that reason put your situation now and in the future? What are they going to expect? Are they going to be reasonable?
  2. If, on the other hand, that cost-cutting is a more holistic approach — what and who else did they save on? Example include the original author or the guy who translated into the language you are translating from. Also the whole venture (e.g. the contract you're translating) may be a high-risk affair. In some cases the agency itself may be a high-risk operation (but don't jump to conclusions, almost every agency is cutting costs these days).

Either way, there's an increased risk of:
  • unpaid overtime, typically connected with the poor quality of the text (if they skimped on the writer) or some problems with the file or with poor management (e.g. inefficient chain of command or information flow), this includes waste of time resulting from some of the items below
  • wider scope or even type of services than just your own normal job — since it's already clear that normal rules aren't going to apply to this job
  • underqualified or unqualified people editing or reviewing your work, disputing it, asking questions and demanding answers, expecting you to give an opinion on their proposals etc.
  • QA process as an extension of price negotiation, with disproportionate reductions requested on shaky grounds (since translation is so subjective and no human work is perfect, it really isn't hard to trump up at least a token 10% claim)
  • non-payment or late payment if they are already in trouble or acting suspiciously or both
  • other professional or legal standards not being respected in what's essentially a half-professional project
  • problems getting information, assistance, co-operation or respect where the work and pay relationship already shows that only one side of this transaction is being taken seriously

Risk means two factors: (i) the bad things that may happen (and how bad), and (ii) the probability that they will happen. Not all problems affect both factors equally or at all.

TL;DR: Offers that are too advantageous to the offering agency or direct client should make you cautios.

Actually, one more thing: Remember that you can always say no, make a counteroffer or request a better offer. If you think it's your professional obligation to provide however much the client wants to receive for however little the client wants to pay, then you've already been manipulated, and it's time to shake it off.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

You Don't Have To Do All They Ask (Or Buy What They Sell) To Be Professional

This is going to sound rather controversial and may ruffle some feathers, but:

you don't have to do all they ask.

Or, rather, you don't need to be available to do just about anything your current or potential client wants done — whether by someone, some translator, in general, or by you in particular.

Just like you don't have to enable precisely the kind of rates your potential clients want to pay, you don't have to enable service specifications — or service bundles — that they want.

For example, these days, if you go to the bank, you can probably pay some bills and even ask the bank to pay any future bills of the same kind for you, which means you don't need to remember about them any more. On the other hand, how many banks have you seen that will agree to handle just about everything for you in B2B, including accounting and salaries and everything else? Some banks get close, but only few of them.

And how many law firms will agree to include accounting, HR, PR, whatever else floats the client's boat? Some will, but by no means all of them.

So just why should you, as a translator, need to be available as a copyist, paralegal, all-purpose office gopher and concierge for the client's other needs? You don't have to.

If you do want to, then I think you still shouldn't anyway, but that's a discussion for another day.

The point here today is that you don't have to. Whether you want to (or not) is a whole different issue.

So don't take all those talking heads as messengers of truth revealed when they say that in order to be a professional in today's world you need to buy from translation and other office software companies.

The same companies which may well be sponsors of translation-related events, owners of translation agencies etc.

You don't need to buy their products — or the associated training courses and certifications — to be professional at what you do.

The same goes for agencies. It is in their interest to turn you into a one-stop shop to which they can outsource everything that needs to be done — and everything else which can possibly be done and which will sell and bring some profit margin — but in order to be a professional translator you really don't have to offer all those included or additional services that they are capable of thinking about.

Do you want some fries with your translation, sir?