The Translation Job

The translation job is what most people who don't translate for a living think translation is all about. Translating is after all what translators do. A translator is also a business person, and so must attend to all the other matters that we are looking into in this article series. For now though, we will look very closely at a canonical translation job, dissecting it for all we can find, and perhaps even coming up with some problems or issues that veteran translators can learn from, or at least nod knowingly with as they read.

The Translation Job

The first thing you have to do when you get a job, be it by fax, overnight mail, or email, is confirm that it was you expected it to be. I’ve actually received jobs which were supposed to be in Japanese but in fact were in Russian, and I’ve been sent the wrong material more times than I can remember at this point. Make sure you’ve got what they said you should have.

Once you are certain of the material, you should make sure that you can translate it. This means not only that you have the requisite knowledge and resources to deal with the material, but also that you can complete it within the allotted time. There is nothing agencies hate more than not getting work when they are supposed to get it (except perhaps losing their clients). Never deliver a translation late! I know I have said this before, but it is the number one complaint of clients, so I say it yet again: Never ever, ever submit anything late. If after looking at the assignment, you think you won’t be able to do it within the time frame, call the agency and tell them. They may revise the schedule, or ask you to do only part of the job. But part of a job done properly and on time is infinitely better than all of it done late or incorrectly.

Often the agency won’t be able to tell you how long the material is. Remember that just because they send you a job in Chinese doesn’t mean that anyone there actually reads the language. If they can’t give you an estimate, tell them that you need to see all of the material before you will agree to a time frame. If they don't yet have all of the material, and this can happen when they are awaiting arrival of the rest of a document from their client, then inform them firmly but politely that any estimate you give now will be subject to revision, possibly considerable revision. Agencies realize this, or will accept it once you tell them, and so will be happy to await an accurate estimate from you. Also, do not accept a page count: we all know that desktop publishing obviates the utility of a page count.

Once you have confirmed that you can do the job on time, all you have to do is do the job and then deliver it. We’ll get to delivery in a moment, but before that, let’s look at some of the more common disasters and crises which can and do occur while translating.

For starters, since we all work on computers, a hard disk crash, CPU failure, printer failure, disk drive failure, virus attack, and even having the computer stolen are facts of life. I know many translators, myself included, who have struggled through disasters such as these. So first and foremost, back up everything you do every day. If worse comes to worse, send them the disk and let them deal with it. The best reason to back up is that your work is your income; you wouldn’t keep money in an unsafe place, practice the same level of paranoia with your data.

Even if your computer is stolen or simply picks the day before the assignment is due to croak, you can always rent one on the spot either by going to a place like Kinko’s and using theirs or getting one from a local computer store. You can bum one off a friend–I’ve lent out my laptop many times to desperate friends–or you can go to a school where they know you and use theirs. And you can buy computers through the Web and get them delivered the next day, so there’s little excuse for being without a machine for more than about 48 hours.

The other major problems that afflict translators involve the original text. Such difficulties include terminology, the printed quality of the original, idioms and dialect, neologisms, and the quality of the writing in the original.

In theory, terminological problems are to be resolved by looking in a dictionary. But if you work in a very technical field, or if you work with new material, you’ll find that you’re encountering words and phrases which have not yet been created in your target language. Discussing how to handle this with your client is your best approach. They may give you carte blanche to create your own words and then let their editors repair any linguistic damage you’ve wrought. Or they may give you a glossary to work from. Regardless of the resolution, dealing with terminology is your responsibility as a translator, and don’t shirk it. Proper terminology is very important, often more so to the end-client than good style or punctuation is.

The printed quality of the original is mostly an issue when the source text is in a language such as Chinese or Japanese, but this is always haunting translators because of that boon and bane of their existence: the fax machine. When you receive a hand-written text which was faxed from a photocopy of the fax which the end-client sent the agency, you may start to understand how hieroglyphics experts feel when they work.

Translators are well within their rights to demand (nicely) a clean, crisp, clear, coherent copy of the source text. But even so, clean copy does not guarantee that the handwriting is legible. Then what? Well, do what I do: struggle along as best you can, show it to friends and see if they can help, and try to talk to the person who wrote it. If all of this fails, the agency is usually quite understanding about any illegible portions of the text. Just be sure to tell them about it and ask them how they want you to annotate any illegible areas in your translation.

Idioms and dialect are one of the joys of language but one of the challenges of translation. I find that relying on native speakers is the only way to get at the heart of an idiom or dialect. I give non-native English speakers explanations about American idioms and dialect (yes, we have dialects, or why would we have D.A.R.E., the Dictionary of American Regional English?), and they in turn help me with idioms and phrases in my B languages, their native languages. Neologisms are also best handled in this manner.

I strongly suggest you keep some sort of glossary of terminology, official translations for proper names of business and government entities, and good translations of idioms, dialect, and neologisms. Whether you do this in a simple word-processing file, a more sophisticated database environment, or a dedicated terminology-management package is up to you, but do something with all that valuable information you collect. If your information is truly precise and organized, consider sharing it with other translators.

Last, the quality of writing in the original. There is an unwritten truism in translation which everyone had best remember now: the translation will never be much better than the original (or in tech-talk: GIGO - garbage in, garbage out). If the original is an incoherent, illogical piece of drivel, so shall the translation be. If the source text is a brilliant piece of scholarship with great literary merit, then the translation should be the same. The point is translators cannot go much above the quality of the original, and people who employ translators should not necessarily blame a bad translation on the translator.

Now, what to do when you are translating and the original is so bad that even the person who wrote it is not sure what it means? Well, my solution is generally to create an equally vague or poor statement in the translation. This may seem unfair or irresponsible, but consider what translators are paid for and what their job is. Translators render information from one language to another. They do not rewrite the original, they do not improve its style or content, they do not insert their own clever ideas or original phrases. They translate!

Of course, if a text is truly beyond comprehension, the only responsible course of action is to contact the client and leave the decision regarding whether or not to translate the material to them. You may lose a job this way, but you will likely win the confidence of a client. The latter is ultimately worth far more than the former, needless to say.

Finally, in terms of translating a text, most agencies do not expect their translators to be literary and linguistic geniuses. Such geniuses would be writing brilliant literary novels or pontificating on the brilliant literary work of other novelists. Agencies do expect (and deserve!) quality work free of errors and omissions and delivered on time. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, some translators are either unwilling or unable to provide such work by the agreed deadline. If you distinguish yourself as a translator who can provide quality work on time, you will get more work.

So I state here in the most emphatic language possible: If you are going to translate something, do it right. Make sure that there are no errors, omissions, spelling or punctuation mistakes, and that you deliver your work on time in the form that the agency requested. If you do this, you will get more work. If you don’t, retire now and save yourself and others a lot of grief. That said, the most important thing to remember about contacting agencies for the first time is that everything counts. You have to convince them that you are a competent, responsible, capable professional who will honor agreements and produce quality work.


When the project is finished, you have to deliver it. Delivery is sometimes in person. I live so close to two clients that I walk over, put the disk, print-out and invoice in their hands, chat for a few minutes and then return home. Usually, however, I have to send it to them, as you will. How you do this is up to your client, not you.

Terms of delivery should be worked out when you accept the job. The only time this changes is when one, the client asks, or two, when you ask, or three, when the technology involved, for instance a BBS, the Web, or an FTP site, isn’t working properly.

Let me tell you a story. I had gotten a very short (200 words) assignment one evening and was asked to deliver it first thing the following morning onto the agency’s BBS. I finished the assignment around 8:00 p.m. and tried to put it on their BBS then (I always try that as soon as possible, in case there are problems). But it wasn’t a 24 hour BBS, so I waited until the following morning. I tried again but couldn’t get through. I called the agency and no one answered, but I did get an answering machine. I was in a hurry because I had an appointment that morning, so I simply read the assignment over the telephone and left it as a ‘message’ on the answering machine. The agency called me later that day, apologized for being out of the office and leaving the BBS off, and thanked me for the rather unusual delivery, saying that it was better than having nothing. The moral of this story is: be creative and make sure you deliver the job on time.

When sending a file to a client, whether over the Internet or by FTP or direct modem-to-modem delivery, make certain to use the filename the clients asks for or to create a useful file name, such as one that consists of the job number and a short acronym to indicate the language. For instance, you might deliver your French-to-English translation of a job numbered 31415 as a file named "31415fr.doc". As for file extensions, use them. The Internet handles file transfers much more effectively if it knows what it is sending and receiving. An extension gives the Internet, gateways and routers to be specific, just that information. Common extensions are ".doc" for MS Word documents, ".rtf" for RTF (Rich Text Format) documents, and ".txt" for text (that is ASCII) files. Do not compress, encode, or encrypt a file unless a client specifically asks you to. You do not want to make receiving the file difficult. And remember that e-mail attachments cannot at present exceed 2 MB in size, so if you are delivering a truly monstrous job, you may have to break the file into smaller chunks, and then send each chunk attached to its own e-mail message.

Along with the assignment you have to provide the agency with an invoice. Some agencies will specify exactly what they want on the invoice, but most don’t. If you create your own invoice, you should always include the following: your full name, address, telephone number, company name (if you have one), fax number, the date of the invoice, the name and full address of the agency, a description of the job, and the details of the amount invoiced. If you are being paid by the word, specify the word rate, how many words there are, and the total. If you are being paid a project fee, specify that. Never round off a word count, and always follow the client's preference for source versus target language counts. Finally, always keep a copy of the invoice for your records.

Job delivery is a great time to distinguish yourself as a translator. You can submit your work a bit early, if possible, and truly impress your clients. Always attempt to be a bit early, if only to allow for problems on the Internet or with your file. And take the time to contact your project manager when you send the file so that she knows the file is coming. I make a point of thanking, both on the telephone and in the e-mail message which accompanies my translation, the project manager and the agency for the assignment, as well as passing on any pertinent information about the translation. In essence, the easier you make life for your clients, the more likely they will be to choose you for the next translation job they have.


There are, arguably, five rules in business:

1: Keep money for as long as possible

2: Get money as soon as possible.

3: Never break the first two rules.

4: Only the first two rules really matter.

5: There are no other rules.

Unfortunately, translators are on the receiving end of the rules; in other words, you want money from other people, but you aren’t giving money to other people, unless you count your rent/mortgage, utilities, car payments, etc. So, you may have to wait some time before an agency actually pays you.

How long is reasonable? you ask. It depends. Many contracts will stipulate exactly how long the agency takes to pay you. Some will say 30 days, others 45 days, some even 60 days. Occasionally, you’ll find an agency which takes only a week or so, but that is hardly the norm. According to what I’ve heard, the average time from invoice to check seems to be about 40 days, give or take a little for weekends, slow mail, and check-writer’s cramp (a connective tissue disease which afflicts all but the most noble of business people).

Once in a while, the check will simply not come. This is most frustrating, because there seems to be very little you can do. However, stomping your feet and screaming at the agency representative on the telephone are not likely to be productive.

To clarify this sticky issue of money, I’ll draw on my own experience and methods. You might disagree and prefer to send hate mail or exploding packages to agencies which don’t pay you, but I’ve managed to get paid for everything I’ve ever done and continue to work with the same agencies and organizations. It should also be noted that I've had as much trouble collecting outstanding invoices from direct clients as I've had with agencies, so please do not conclude that only translation agencies play such games. By and large, I am paid on time, and in most other cases, the check merely arrives a few days late.

So how long is long enough to start worrying. From your point of view, perhaps four or five weeks. However, from a business point of view, one month is nothing. Many corporations do not settle bills for 90 days, so the agency might be waiting to get paid long after they pay you. Therefore, my rule of thumb is 60 days, unless the agency specifically states something different.

As an aside, if an agency says we’ll pay you in 10 days, then you are well within your rights to expect payment within 10 days. If you don’t get it, follow the suggestions below.

Many agencies will specify quite precisely how long it will take to pay you. Good enough. You can enter that number into a ledger or database, or an invoicing program, if you have one (I do, they’re great). Then, forget about that money until the waiting period has passed.

Let’s say Joe’s Translations contracts with you for a 10,000 word assignment at $0.10 per word and says that they will pay you 45 days after you submit the invoice. You finish the work on August 1 and submit the invoice and then wait until September 14. No money shows up. Now what?

First, don’t panic. The galaxy won’t explode and civilization won’t collapse simply because you weren’t paid on time. There are a host of reasons why the check didn’t get to you by the 14th. For instance, the U.S. mail service was involved in delivering it. I watched my local post office take three weeks to forward a check from my old address to my new one (I moved three blocks to the south a few years back). Joe’s Translations might cut checks on the 45th day and then send them out a day or two later. In other words, don’t do anything until three or four days after the due date. You don’t want to make a pest of yourself. Not yet.

After the three or four days pass, it’s time for action. Compose a nice, polite letter which reminds them of their financial obligation to you and asks when you can expect payment. Enclose a copy of the original invoice and then send it off to Joe’s Translations. Keep copies of all written correspondence. They will be useful, should a worse-case scenario develop.

A letter like this will usually do the trick. I’ve found that nine times out of ten, the agency will call you on the day they receive the letter, apologize profusely and assure you that no harm was meant, your money was not diverted to armed revolutionaries, and that you will get your check soon. And you do, or at least I have. If however you are too eager or anxious to use snail mail, then make a phone call. Ask to talk to your project manager or to the accounting department, then tell the person you speak with that you are wondering about an outstanding invoice. Be calm, patient, and polite; in most cases the delay is a result of nothing more than slow mail, a bureaucratic snafu, or some other minor problem.

If you send a letter, allow three or four days for them to receive the letter and respond. If you have a good relationship with the agency or are not worried about damaging your relationship with Joe’s Translations, call, ask them if they received the letter, and then ask them what to expect. Be polite and pleasant, but at the same time, demand concrete information. Sappy statements like, "Yeah, we’ll get to it soon" or "Uhuh, it’s in our accounting department across the street" don’t cut it. If they try to palm off responsibility on the accounting department across the street (and that’s really sappy, since most agencies are one-office operations), get the complete address of that department and the name of the person in change. Arm yourself with information.

If after the first letter (or phone call), you still haven’t received your check within the specified time, write a similar letter, but emphasize that this is the second letter, you demand to know what’s going on and you’ll be calling on such-and-such date at such-and-such time (make sure to give them time to get the letter). You can also do this by fax, but letters are nicer. Then call and politely demand to know what’s going on. Make sure you talk to the person in charge of money, not some project manager or secretary. The best person to talk to is the person who writes and signs (sometimes different people) the checks. They will know what’s going on; others could be out of the loop.

This will get you paid 99% of the time. Now, for the remaining one percent. If Joe’s Translations still ignores you after your second letter and phone call, it’s time for the last letter. In this letter, demand (don’t ask) in no uncertain terms to know when you’ll be paid or why you haven’t been. State emphatically that if you do not receive a reply within 10 days (10 is the standard number in business, you might make it a little longer if a vacation or holiday period is coming up) you will do the following:

  • Contact the Better Business Bureau in your state and the state where Joe’s Translations is
  • Contact any and all professional organizations for translators (e.g.: ATA, NCTA, etc.)
  • Tell every translator you can possibly find that Joe’s Translations does not like to pay its translators (via the Web, of course; use this URL:
  • Begin legal action against Joe’s Translations.

The Better Business Bureau can be very helpful in dealing with an errant agency like Joe’s Translations, as can many professional organizations. Moreover, the mere threat of a boycott might scare Joe’s Translations, since agencies need translators as much as translators need agencies. And of course, legal action, though perhaps costly to you, will at least get you some of your money, especially if you can do it through Small Claims Court.

The above paragraph should make clear the need to keep copies of all your correspondence and agreements. Those represent are your evidence. Typically, Joe’s Translations would pay you long before you ever contacted the BBB or a lawyer. Unfortunately, in some cases, agencies do go out of business, leaving you in the lurch. It doesn’t happen very often, but if an agency enters Chapter 11, you might not get paid, ever.

The moral of this story is keep records, be persistent but patient, and don’t give up. Besides, in almost all cases, you’ll get paid on time.

But what if you aren’t paid the right amount? You are probably assuming that they have not paid you enough. But I’ve been paid too much and have even received two checks for one job. I’ll omit the lecture on business ethics and simply state that I always inform an agency if there is any discrepancy in my payment, be it to my or their advantage. Usually there is a logical explanation. The most common is the word count.

Few if any of us count the number of words in a document ourselves. Instead, we use a word processor to count the words. As you probably have noticed, every word processor on the market comes up with different word counts, with the difference can be as much as 10%. Most agencies will accept your word count, but some will not and will use their word processor (usually the one which gives the lowest count, unfortunately) to do the count and then pay you based on that result. An agency I worked with some years ago continued to persist in using Word 5.1 (WinWord 3) almost two years after Word 6 (Word 95) was released. When they cut me a check for 10% below what I expected, I called them, suspecting what had happened. Without being accusatory or disrespectful, I asked if they were still using Word 5.1. When told yes, I briefly explained that Word 5.1 had a reputation for giving word counts 10% or so below what any other word processor gave, and that one could draw the conclusion that the agency was using this outdated word processor as a way to cut costs. The agency immediately agreed to split the difference between the Word 5.1 and the Word 95 counts with me, and used Word 95 for all future word counts with me. In other words, be polite and reasonable in such situations, and stick to verifiable facts. If you suspect something fishy is going on, suggest it indirectly, without making any accusations. This has worked well for me in the few cases in which I've been forced into checking such things. It will work well for you, too, though I hope you never need to do anything like this.

How To Win Agencies and Influence Them

Why do some translators seem to have lots of work when others are twiddling their thumbs at the keyboard? Why do agencies choose certain translators over others? And how can you the translator improve your chances with the agencies?

Along with all the suggestions and advice in this and the preceding articles about being a responsible, honest, professional, there are a few other things you can do. Here they are.

First, send letters to agencies regularly and remind them that you exist and are active in the industry. Keep them updated about your abilities, equipment, and accreditation. Call them and speak with someone there for a while. If you are close enough to visit in person, do so. Remember, you have to spend money to make money.

Second, get to know other translators and recommend them when you can’t take a job. The agency will appreciate it and will think well of you, even though you didn’t do the work (of course, this assumes that the person you recommend does a good job; don’t recommend bad translators). The other translators will probably reciprocate, though if they don't, you should consider not recommending them any more. Being open and friendly about business is a good policy, to a certain point. But there is no reason for you to be nice to people who aren't nice to you. Just stop dealing with them and find people who will appreciate your openness and friendliness. Ours is a tit-for-tat industry; so let the rules benefit you.

Third, be active and involved in the industry. Keep track of the big trends, such as machine translation systems and the changing laws for independent contractors. Keep up to date with which agencies are doing what and keep in touch with the ones who might need your services.

You may scoff and say that it’s not important to be aware of the big issues or send out lots of letters. Nevertheless, I guarantee that it helps. Agencies want to work with serious, committed, responsible professionals and it is up to translators to be professionals. Of course, the opposite is true, too: translators want to work with professional agencies, not the one-person, one-phone fly-by-nighters. So think about it in reverse. If you’re a translator, think about how you would run an agency. If you’re part of an agency, think about working as a translator. You’ll understand soon enough, if you don’t already.

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