How Bad Is a Late Translation Delivery Really?

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Photo by Belen Backer, http://www.flickr.com/photos/20255355@N03/2393382468Are you able to accept an occasional late delivery from your translator? If not, you might have a problem working with freelance translators. Read this article to learn why late deliveries are typical for the translation industry and what you should make of it.

As a translation agency, we set a high standard for ourselves in terms of deadlines. This results in missing no more than one deadline a year on average. But we have systems in place to prevent late delivery. We make sure that we have a cushion of time on almost any project, in case something goes wrong. We always have a backup linguist who can provide a helping hand, if a deadline is in jeopardy.

But as a translation buyer, we do not expect from our freelance translators the same standard that we are committed to provide to our clients. Of course, we’d love to see all our translators deliver every project on time. But we have realized over the years that this is unrealistic. As a result, we are tolerant of occasional late deliveries. Here is why:

  1. This industry relies on freelance translators working from home. Many like it that way; others would prefer to rent an office, but cannot afford one. This is actually one reason translation rates are low. The problem is that working at home means distractions, which often ruin work plans. So late deliveries can be viewed as the price that you as a translation buyer pay for being able to buy translation at low rates.
  2. Generally, requiring translations to be 100% punctual is just as unnecessary as requiring employees to arrive at work at exactly the same time each morning. Such requirements are too formal and do not fit in the real word very well. The result is more important than how it was achieved. As long as the work gets done well, being late by a few hours is usually not that big a deal.
  3. Everyone, even top-notch professionals, has to deal with emergencies from time to time. When delivery time comes, all kinds of unforeseen problems may occur, making timely delivery impossible. Power outages, computer breakdowns, or family emergencies will clash with a project deadline occasionally. Even though late deliveries are undesirable, expecting that they will never happen is unrealistic.
  4. A late delivery is okay, as long as translators warn their clients in advance. By doing so, they make it clear that the late delivery is not a result of procrastination or forgetting about the project completely, but a well-thought-out decision. While working on the project, the translator realized that the original deadline was not feasible, reassessed the scope of work, and is now letting the client know ahead of time. I think this is a sign of a professional, so I am never disappointed to hear such warnings. But on the other hand, if a translator emails you after the deadline, saying that he is finishing the job and will deliver soon, this is bad news. It usually means that he has not even finished the translation yet, let alone any revision or quality assurance checks. You can be almost sure that a translation delivered under these circumstances will have quality issues.
  5. To make up your mind about how to react to a particular late delivery, it is useful to know when the translator started working on the project. Starting on time and running into some problems that prevent timely delivery is one thing, but starting at 9 PM, with delivery scheduled for the next morning, and working in a hurry overnight is quite another. Knowing what was going on helps you understand what caused the late delivery. Ask your translators to include an exported translation memory with their delivery. The time and dates in this TM will tell you when the translator was actually working.

Summary

A translator who is constantly late is a bad partner, no doubt about that. But occasional late deliveries are often not as bad as they might seem. If you are buying translations from a freelance translator, I suggest being tolerant about deadlines to a certain degree. Deadlines are about treating translators like human beings, not machines that are always punctual.

As a translation buyer, you can also make things easier for a translator by avoiding unreasonably short deadlines.

6 comments

  • Patricia Will says:

    While I agree that the agency should avoid unreasonable deadlines, and translators should not accept deadlines they cannot possibly meet, I think it is perfectly reasonable to expect a professional translator to deliver at the agreed time, in the same way that I expect other professionals to do what they have undertaken to do by the required deadline. I do wonder what kind of translators you are working with if you feel that late deliveries are not unusual and are even acceptable. There have only been two occasions in my many years of freelancing where I have not delivered a job on time and both of those were extreme family emergencies, one involving a sudden trip overseas. Like many colleagues I pride myself on keeping to deadlines and I believe this should be the norm. If you cannot meet the deadline don’t accept the job. Most professional agencies will factor in enough time for proof-reading etc. but the translator should not assume that the agency can constantly shift the deadline. I also dispute your assertion that because freelancers mostly work from home you cannot expect them not to be distracted by domestic matters. A true professional will organise themselves and their workload so that they can commit fully to the job, regardless of where they are working or their personal circumstances. And I think that you should expect the same high standards from freelancers as your clients expect from you. Perhaps you need to pay a bit more to get a professional service.

  • Ricarda says:

    I fully agree with Patricia. Being late is bad habit, and I have never delivered any translation too late. Furthermore I work together with many freelance translators who do translations for me, and none of them has ever had a late delivery. I also cannot see that this is “normal” for translation industry.
    Working from home has nothing to do with rates or delivery times. Most of my customers do not know if (and are not interested in that) I work from home, from a cafe or an external office. The only thing they care about is that I deliver a translation in highest possible quality in time. I don’t see why freelancers working from home should have lower rates. Yes, they probably do have lower costs than those with an external office have. But they do exactly the same work and should be paid the same rates.

    • Dear Ricarda,
      I do not have anything against freelancers working from home. Some of our best freelance partners are working from home actually, and at above-average rates. If you think late delivery is fine, then why are so many translators on ProZ.com make timely delivery the cornerstone of their marketing message? Perhaps, it’s because they know clients are tired of late deliveries and look for someone reliable above all else. Thank you for your comment!
      Best,
      Roman

  • Marinus Vesseur says:

    Fully agree with Roman. Many professionals do NOT always deliver on time. The entire building construction branch, for example, is notorious for it. Computer programmers: same thing. I’m afraid that mediocre translators are fooling themselves about the “quality” of their service by being overly punctual, overemphasizing their punctuality to make up for a lack of quality in content.

    Punctuality should be the norm, of course, and there are situations in which it is essential, which is what Roman describes here very well. In such a case it would be wise for the agency to point that out to the translator, at the same time calculating some time for possible delays.

    Freelancers have to manage their own time without any monitoring by someone else other than what comes from the project manager at the agency. Some freelancers are not very good at time management. A little careful coaching goes a long way here, I believe. Request the translator to deliver in increments, or ask for a short report on their progress in regular intervals. I’m often amazed at pms that give me a job that lasts a month and then I never hear from them again until delivery time. Procrastination is a very human trait, particularly when the job is somewhat boring. I for one would appreciate a little more interest in how the project is coming alone.

    • Hello Marinus,
      Great examples, thanks so much. I loved how late Stephen Covey’s used to say, “What is common sense is not always common practice.“ Punctuality is indeed common sense, but let’s face it—some people have problems with being on time. Yet, this is not the reason to assume they are bad.
      Yours, Roman

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