“Hi, I have a document for translation, can you help me?”
We freelance translators all know at least one client who keeps checking our availability that way. I had one such customer. They would send me that very sentence every single time. And every single time I would reply with the same answers before accepting or refusing their translation projects. And I’m glad I did, as some were definitely not meant for me.
Fortunately, not all clients are that vague in their communications. But that doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. As professional translators, it is very much our job to clear ambiguities. Here is a quick checklist you can use as a reference.
1. Never accept an assignment before seeing the actual file(s)
Some clients are very protective about the information they share. They will tell you a lot about the kind of text they want to send you, yet strictly refuse to show a source file. The problem is that, all too often, they will omit (knowingly or not) important details, or give a misleading description of the content. At a minimum level, try to see an extract of the source file(s), and explicitly state you will only give your final confirmation once you have access to the whole package.
2. Make sure you can handle the format
First of all, you will want to make sure you can a. open the file and b. edit it. Is it a file format you are comfortable with? If not, check if you can have a different version. Else, adjust your rates if the extra work involved is significant.
If you are using a CAT tool, try to create a project with the source files AND export pseudo-translated target documents. Sometimes, our favorite tools seem to perfectly handle what we’re feeding them with, until they need to generate the final file… Yes, my dear “Object reference not set to an instance of an object”, I’m talking about you and your little friends. And naturally, these issues tend to occur when deadlines are looming.
If you find out about such problems early on, your client may be able to send you another version that will work, or find some technical workaround. Better safe than sorry.
3. Only accept if you are 100% confident about the deadline
Don’t accept a project if you’re not certain you can comfortably make it by the deadline.
Life is full of surprises, good and nasty ones. So many things can happen during a project. You may get the flu, your hard drive could decide to suddenly give up on you, or an exciting prospect may appear out of nowhere with an urgent but highly interesting and/or lucrative project.
Say you can translate up to 3k words a day. That’s on an ordinary day, spread over the different projects you’re currently translating. But how can you be sure tomorrow is going to be just another day?
I try to only accept projects for which I would have at least twice the actual time needed to perform the translation.
People tend to focus on rate negotiations and forget about deadlines. Often rather than not, you will be able to get a bit of extra time simply by asking. It costs nothing to try. Aim at the most generous deadlines possible. You will have an extra cushion for unexpected events, and more room to accept other projects in parallel.
4. Ensure you’re comfortable with the whole content
Obvious, right? On paper yes, but this one can get a little tricky. Reading a complete manual before accepting to translate it might be a little excessive, but so would be only checking the front page. There are things that are not necessarily obvious at a glance. Occasionally, a document will look straightforward… until you realize it was written by a non-native speaker or that there are 10 pages of legal notices hidden at the middle.
As a general rule, scan through every source document, carefully read a paragraph here and there, and make sure nothing falls out of your expertise. Again, as a professional, it is your duty to make sure you are in control.
5. More on formats: is design/DTP work expected from you? Are you sure?
Clients will probably tell you clearly what file format they want for your translations in, but they can be quite ambiguous about what they want you to do with the layout.
“It doesn’t have to look perfect, as long as the layout remains roughly the same” – sounds familiar?
The problem here is that your client may mean one of two things, and you need to be absolutely sure of what is expected from you:
- The final document will be created from scratch by a designer/DTP specialist, and they really just want to know what goes where
- They don’t mind doing small adjustments in-house, but they’re expecting your file to be almost ready for production and easy to edit. It can be a huge issue if you are working on files processed with OCR software. You will typically have the right layout, but the resulting file will be horrendously hard to edit and polish visually. Your client might get upset when they realize they need to find and pay someone else to finish the job, so clarify this point as early as you can.
6. Expectations should be perfectly clear
Let me conclude with a general reminder and a few extra ideas. One of the keys of good communication with your clients is to spot and clear any ambiguities before the project starts. It would be difficult to give an exhaustive list here, but here are a few examples:
– Imagine someone is asking you for “translation + proofreading” services. Do they mean they want you to proofread your own translations (in my case, this is a given), or are they expecting you to also ask a 3rd party to check your texts? Depending on the answer, the pricing and deadline will be very different.
- Character limitations. Whenever possible, try to get a hard limit, rather than “roughly the same length as source text”. If that’s not a possibility, clearly state you will try to keep length under a certain limit. And that they will need to pay extra if they later come back to you with a million requests to shorten your translation.
- If you’re localizing websites and are asked to produce a copy “optimized for SEO [sic]”. Are there any specific keywords they want you to target? Do they want you to take care of the keyword research? Again, adapt your rates if necessary.
7. When unsure, follow your intuition
Do you have a bad feeling about a project? It happens from time to time. There’s no deal-breaker you could single out, but a combination of small things: the deadline is a little tight, the format is not the simplest one, and the client seems to have very specific demands… If you feel somewhat uncomfortable with job description, it is properly wise to politely decline it.