There are three categories of translation requests, in relation to when a translator can start working on them. Firstly, there are projects that can begin right away; this is the most common. Secondly, there are requests to confirm availability for a potential project, asking a translator to state how much time will be needed to complete the project. And then there are requests to reserve capacity, telling a translator to wait for a project on a specific date and complete it within an agreed time frame. It is this third type that I want to discuss in this article, because such requests may end up being harmful.
Suppose on Friday, a client tells a translator that a translation project will be sent to her on Monday and will be due next Friday. The translator confirms availability and waits patiently. However, the project does not arrive either on Monday or Tuesday. In the meantime, the translator has to reject work from other clients for the same time period, because of the prior commitment. Wednesday and Thursday are also spent in fruitless waiting. Finally, on Friday, the client lets her know that they are experiencing delays and expect the project to be sent only the next week. The translator lost five business days waiting for the project that never came. Those five days generally represent one fourth of her monthly income—quite a hefty sum. The question is, who takes responsibility for this lost profit? The common-sense answer is the one who created the problem, but this is not how things are in the real world of the translation industry, not at all.
One major reason is that many people have a hard time meeting deadlines, in particular today, when almost everyone is under stress from having too many things to do and not enough time. Delays on the client’s end result in wasted time for translators. Unless translators don’t mind this, they must exercise caution with this type of requests.
It is okay to forgive once.
When such a request comes from a particular client for the first time, the best strategy is to trust the client. Doing otherwise, e.g., asking for a retainer fee, can be viewed as too unfriendly—not a good result, unless you are prepared to lose this client. If everything works out fine, you can continue trusting this client unless the client proves unworthy of that trust.
After the client lets you down once …
After the client makes it clear that respecting your time is not their priority, even if this is the first time, there is no reason to trust them any longer. Next time they have a similar request, ask for a non-refundable retainer fee. If the project does not arrive on time, you keep the fee. It it does, you deduct it from the invoice. Make sure to explain that the reason you are asking for a fee is the history of failed reservations. The added benefit of doing so is that your client will likely respect you more and get more disciplined.
Dealing with inherent risk
Obviously, there is a risk of losing the client. But look at the other side of the coin: if the project does not arrive, the client “walks away,” and you are the one absorbing the entire loss. If you do not protect yourself the next time, the client will think that is fine with you. Letting clients stomp all over you by accepting initially win-lose conditions is the wrong way to run a business to begin with.
A note about agencies
Agencies tend to exacerbate this problem in two ways. Firstly, even more projects become “potential,” because some agencies send the same request to several translators at once. However, only one translator gets selected. Secondly, by virtue of being a middleman, the agency can create additional delays. Of course, there are good translation agencies, but there will be less of them, since agencies are increasingly under pressure to provide more value while cutting costs. This a global trend that drives middlemen out of most industries. The first reaction for some agencies is not to optimize its processes, but to pay less to freelance linguists and start treating them like toilet paper. This means that you should be particularly aggressive with retainer fee with agencies—more than with direct clients.
Agencies: To build healthy relationships with your translators, it is important to respect their time. Thinking “Oh, well, there is nothing wrong in keeping Joe waiting another day, this is a good project for him anyway,” is not acceptable.
Translators: Just as it does not make sense to work with agencies that treat you like a commodity, it is also unwise to reserve capacity without some kind of a warranty from a client that has a history of broken promises. Unless you take steps to protect yourself from lost profits, you will continue to be walked over.
Further reading about risk management for translators: Translation Requests through Mass Emails.