Translators: Working with Agencies and Direct Clients

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While the translation market has consistently evolved through globalization, professionalization and specialization, and even though a lot of agencies and direct clients require translators to have a predetermined number of years of experience before hiring their services, competition in the translation field has not died down. In fact, it has only increased, and continues to increase each day.

Even though it may seem daunting to new translators, it is wise to remember that many people come into the profession each year. In order to increase your chances of breaking into the translation market, here are a few tips on how to work with translation agencies and direct clients, whether you contact them to offer your services or they are the ones who initiate the contact.

Research Your Client

That is right! Whether you work with a translation agency or a direct client, you are the provider and they are your clients. As such, it is highly advisable to do your homework and find out who they really are. Find out where they are located, make sure they have a professional website, and that they don’t use free email addresses. Ask for references and discover how reliable they are, how good (or not) they treat their providers, what their payment practices are, whether they respect their providers’ terms, etc.

Do Your Part and Be Professional

Send your CV. Make sure that it is up-to-date, contains information about your education as a translator, your years of experience and your specializations, and that it is in your client’s mother tongue. It is not because a client is looking for a translator in another language that they necessarily speak that language, correct? So, make it easy for them to read it.

Clearly Specify Your Language Pair

>Remember that professional translators should only work in their mother tongue. While it is true that some people do have two mother tongues, it is actually suspicious when translators declare to have more than two mother tongues. Make it easy for your potential client to know your language pair by writing it on your email subject line, as well as on the body of the email.

Share Your Rates with Your Potential Clients

Have specific rates for translation and proofreading work. Make sure they are fair and in accordance with the industry and your country of residence. Do not cheapen your work and your status as a professional translator by charging less than the standard rates, only to make sure you will get the job. Also, do not allow clients to depreciate your work by accepting their request to lower your rates. If a client cannot accept the value of your work, they are definitely not worth having as clients!

Limit Your List of Specialties

It is not wise to present yourself as a jack-of-all-trades. One or two very well defined specialties will give you a better chance at projecting yourself as a subject matter expert. Remember, clients are looking for experts they can value and have a longstanding relationship with, not non-professionals whose services cannot comply with their high standards of quality.

Set Your Own Payment Terms

Upon first contact, explain your payment terms to your client—agency or direct client—and be polite, but firm about them. Remember, you are the client’s provider, not their employee, which means that it is you, not the buyer or client, who set the terms of payment. Inform them as well that any late payments incur late fees, which you will not hesitate to apply.

Should you be open to negotiation on your payment terms, feel free to negotiate, but make sure the negotiation takes place because you so decide, not because the agency or client tries to force it upon you.

Always request a signed payment agreement based on your terms, not theirs. Should they refuse to sign this agreement, do not bother trying to work with them. Move on to the next client because this one is not serious, nor trustworthy.

Download your Working with Agencies and Direct Clients Checklist and streamline your translation application process!

Beware of Late Payers

If a direct client doesn’t pay you on time, they cannot be considered professional enough for you to continue dealing with them. Use any legal methods available to you to obtain the money owed to you—including interest on the late payment—and stop being their provider. They are not worth your time and expertise.

If a translation agency doesn’t pay you on time, it can only mean that they are not professionals and their management practices leave a lot to be desired. Should you decide to try and work with them again after you have obtained the past due payment, make sure to request advance payment for any future projects they wish to assign to you. If they agree to comply, ONLY start working on the new project after having received your advanced payment. Should they refuse any advance payment, stop working with them for good; they are not worth your time, effort and expertise.

Always get a signed purchase order from your client

The purchase order must contain all the specifications of the project, such as:

  • Language pair(s) requested
  • Word count
  • Deadline
  • Special instructions
  • Rate per word—translation is usually billed based on the number of source words, not target words (make sure this is clearly specified)
  • Delivery format and method
  • Payment terms
  • Method of payment

Sometimes a written confirmation by fax or e-mail might be enough in certain places, but an official purchase order is always preferable. Do NOT start any translation project before receiving the required purchase order.

Does your client require you to sign a contract?

Read it carefully, and don’t sign it if there is any doubt in your mind, even if the doubt is slim.

Do NOT sign any contract that specifies that the translator will get paid once the agency receives payment from their client. This clause is against contract law, as the contract the agency has with their client is completely independent and has nothing to do with the contract the agency wants to sign with you. Whether the agency gets paid by their client or not is no concern of yours. Under contract law, the agency still has to pay you, the translator.

Translation Capacity

Be honest about the amount of words you can normally translate in a day. Do not accept volumes that you cannot easily handle within a certain deadline. It is not only stressful for you, but it is also dishonest and puts in peril the quality of the final product, as well as your reputation.

Training Your Client

Educate your clients as to what translation really entails. It is absolutely not the exchange of words from one language to the next; it requires creativity, knowledge, research and expertise in the subject matter. A translator is a copywriter, a trained author, not just someone who exchanges words here and there. As such, a document that took time to be well written in the source language will also require the adequate amount of time to be faithfully translated to a high standard.

Beware of Phony Clients

Agencies that contact you, or post jobs on the internet, without giving information about their business, or “clients” that contact you using free email addresses instead of professional ones with their company name, are to be considered phony and avoided as the plague. More often than not, their objective is to get translations from you without paying you a single penny, or to collect your data—rates and work methodology—as a method of scanning the competition and setting up their own methodology based on yours, as well as rates lower than yours. It can also be a means to steal the translator’s identity to scam naïve clients.

Regarding YOUR references

Do not ever give out references without requesting the proper and prior authorization from the person you wish to use as a reference. Giving out references without asking for the proper authorization breaches the legal and ethical tenets of information confidentiality, which is punishable by law.

Other things to keep in mind:

  1. Charge a retainer, or a 25-50% down payment for large projects. An alternative is to ask to be paid in stages as the project moves along.
  2. Do not hesitate to charge new clients in advance. They can always start paying based on payment terms once they have earned your trust as reliable clients.
  3. Beware of clients asking you to buy special software in order to get work from them. They could just be telemarketers or sales reps trying to sell you software nobody has ever heard of before.
  4. Avoid at all costs accepting work sight unseen. A lot of dishonest “agencies” use the “last minute, Friday at the end of the day” trick to unload “urgent” work on unsuspecting translators and then disappear without a trace and with no intention of submitting payment to you.
  5. Charge an additional 25-30% over your normal rate for weekend work.
  6. Don’t allow agencies or project managers to treat you as if you were beneath them. You are a translator, a professional, you are your own business, and should be treated with respect and dignity.

Always be professional and do your best to ensure repeat business by delivering on time or ahead of schedule.

Download your Working with Agencies and Direct Clients Checklist and streamline your translation application process!

Wishing you the very best,

Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC


Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Adriana Adarve

About the Author: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual.

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