Five common mistakes new freelance translators make

This post was inspired by a thread on the forums with the title “My “client” doesn’t want to pay half of the work-translation and reviewing/editing differences?” Reading it threw up so many blatant red flags that I just had to write something about it. The summary of the thread is

  1. New translator finds client on online platform
    2. New translator slaves for client for several hours for peanuts
    3. Client refuses to pay said peanuts to said translator
    4. Much sadness ensues.

The point of this post isn’t to blame the victim for what happened but rather to point out some of the errors she made along the way so you can avoid making them yourself.

Mistake 1: Working for far less than market rates
The proposed fee for this job was a pitifully low €75 for a 15,000 word job or €0.005 a word. Ridiculous. Unacceptable The (imperfect but still helpful) Proz rate calculator gives the standard English to Italian rate as €0.09 a word, 18 times what the translator worked for. She offered to do a €1350 job for a €75 measly.

Why was this a mistake? Firstly because offering/accepting a joke rate marks you out as a joke translator – ignorant, unserious, gullible, or extremely desperate. Serious clients will head for the door and only the scammers and abusers will remain.

Secondly you will get “anchored” to that low rate and find it much harder to raise your rates in the future. Certainly not with clients who are accustomed to dirt-cheap rates. Best case scenario you’ll end up ditching all those initial clients anyway, so why not seek out well-paying clients to begin with?

Mistake 2: Not adhering to the rules of the platform
If you meet someone on a work platform and they immediately want to give you work away from that platform, run a mile. Most online work sites like oDesk, Upwork and Fiverr issue strong warnings against doing that for a good reason. If anything goes wrong – and 99% of the time it will – you won’t be able to seek redress through the official channels of that platform. And the client knows it.

Don’t buy any excuses from about how they “can’t attach files” or “don’t want to waste money on middlemen” or any other reason why they can only work with you outside that platform. Report them to the site and cut off all contact ASAP.

Personally I would caution against even looking for work on such freelance sites in the first place, but that’s another post for another day.

Mistake 3: Assuming that any experience is better than no experience

The translator claims s/he took the poor rates because the only alternative was volunteer translation. No, the other alternative was to spend more time looking for freelance translation work instead of accepting the first thing that comes along. The ideal scenario is to have a regular job (online or offline) or have several months’ worth of savings stashed away before starting any self-employment venture. That buffer takes out the desperation factor and leaves you free to screen clients and projects carefully and say no thanks to anything you don’t feel comfortable doing.

Someone might argue “Yeah, but €75 is still better than €0, right?” Hardly. In this case the translator got €0 anyway for doing €1350 worth of work. And that’s what often happens when you approach translation with the “anything is better than nothing” mentality. Take your time, study the situation and run from anything that looks fishy. You’ll be much better off in the long run.

Mistake 4: Not being clear on the scope of work

After doing the translation, the translator in the thread spent several hours a day on Skype going over their work line by line with the client. This was all unpaid work, which simply should not be. This is where a purchase order (PO) or similar work agreement comes in handy. It pays to spend a little time at the beginning of every job clarifying what exactly you’re expected to do.

XXX words at $YY a word, due by MM/DD/YY at ABC pm is the bare minimum you need to agree upon in writing. I can’t stress the “in writing” part enough. Agencies will usually have their processes for editing and correcting your work, which you should clarify before you start working with them. For direct clients you must agree on how many revisions you will do for how long, how much you will charge and what will qualify the job as “complete and fit for the purpose.” Unlimited free revisions are out of the question. That way lies madness.

As a freelance translator, you will have to juggle several clients and projects at all time. Your time is valuable. Charge for it.

Mistake 5: Not immediately disengaging from a clearly abusive client

“You teach people how to treat you,” as the saying goes. The translator reports Skype sessions that involved the client literally laughing at her translation. Then there were the repeated angry phone calls from the client. The shouting, the screaming, the blame game. Trouble and more trouble. Red flag, red flag, red flag.

You’re a human being, not a door mat. Respect yourself and insist on being respected. “I do not like your tone of voice.” “That was rude and uncalled for and I will not be spoken to that way.” You’re well within your rights to say all that and more. Stand your ground, keep records of all conversations and be prepared to invoice for work completed and walk away if the client’s behavior does not improve.

Freelance translation is a fun and rewarding careeer, and one of the best things about it is the fairly low barrier to entry. However a low barrier to entry also means there’s no shortage of bright-eyed newbie translators for scammers and abusive clients to take advantage of. I hope this cautionary tale can help spare a few people from the costly consequences of making these common errors. Thanks for reading and stop by anytime.

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