Monday, 22 September 2014

Rush Fees

Rush fees — or, more formally: urgency surcharges — are what you charge extra for an assignment that has a short deadline compared to the amount of work involved or requires overtime or work outside normal business hours.

Before we move on, the subject has, of course, already been discussed on translator message boards and by translation bloggers and is nothing new. For example, I would like to call your attention to the following articles and discussions (just three):

Also before we move on, do notice how people said — several years ago — that if we didn't insist on rush rates, they would disappear. And look what's happening now. It's not hard to notice that rush fees are growingly less popular than they used to be. In other words, they are disappearing.

There is no universal definition of rush fees and how much should be charged and in what situations. Those are largely subjective, personal matters — and it may well be the preference of certain translators not to charge such additional fees, for a number of reasons. Let's focus on the forest rather than the trees.

For starters, I want to address some arguments against.

The principal argument against rush fees is that few people or companies are charging them any more and it's hard to swim against the tide, and clients don't like it.

Well, yes, but the other side of the coin is that — contrary to what some may naively believe — the wave of no rush fees will not pushing forward once it encounters your limits.

Rather, the opposite will happen and is already happening right now all around us: more and more of 5000 words due tomorrow morning, 7500 or 10,000 a day, what's next?

And it doesn't stop at fees. Clients and agencies will also likely, eventually, expect you to accept normal liability for your work in such cases (in some cases including indemnity), including the usual 'highest quality' (because their blind penny-pinching clients won't accept any less than that) and all sorts of tiny QA issues and not just the sort of serious mistranslations that shouldn't appear even in a rush job nobody had the time to check.

The other huge argument invoked against rush fees is empathy. And that is a false argument in a vast number of circumstances. Unless you'r working for public hospitals and orphanages.

That sort of empathy is mostly a compunction against taking some sort of 'unfair advantage' of a client's tough situation.

Let's set the record straight by asking some questions:

  •  How difficult, exactly, is that situation?
  • What did the client do to bring it about or avoid it?
  • And what is required of you in result, and on what account? 


  • Are you effectively supposed to make a charitable donation to someone else's large and affluent business?

If you incline that way, chances are you're allowing yourself to be manipulated and exploited.

  • And what will your client be doing during that time, anyway — locking the office and going home at 5 p.m.? sleeping? having some family time?
  • Would it really put an economic strain on your client to compensate you adequately for your increased hardship which you take on your shoulders in order to relieve his hardship?
Because we aren't discussing only why the client needs the translation so quickly. The subject of discussion is why the client needs it so quickly and without paying for expedited service. In short, the question is:

  • Why does the client need or expect free expedited service?

These days you could also ask:

  • Is it really an unforeseen complication or...
  • is it rather a fixed item in your client's business model?
If the latter, what exactly sort of empathy should require you to become the sponsor of that model?

In summary, that sort of argument invoking your empathy is like asking you to empathize with people who can't or won't empathize with you. In some cases people who will institutionally exploit you if given the chance.

Again, let me stress this point somewhat forcefully because these days some linguists are notably lacking in reading comprehension as evidenced by the sort of comments, responses and questions you see on Facebook or message boards:

I'm not talking about a bona fide unpredicted accident happening to a person of limited means.

We all run into such situations from time to time. How frequent are they, though, compared to:

  • lack of preparation, planning and budgeting; or
  • lack of empathy for the person who eventually gets do that voluminous job, between Friday evening and Monday morning; or
  • just the fact that the particular client, in his mind, deserves to be served 'at once,sir!' (without having to pay extra for it); or
  • the fact that the job is being passed down and up the line of five different intermediaries, each of whom consumes a chunk of the time and fee?
Since I've already mentioned premium — both a premium investment of your time and effort together with a premium detriment to your health, family affairs, planning etc., and the premium service feature (expedited service) or premium benefit (getting things faster, getting a problem solved) call for premium pay and perfectly justify an expectation of it.

Just like the salaried worker who gets his overtime pay, sometimes regulated by statute, you are entitled to be paid more for the increased sacrifices you make. As a business owner, don't you deserve to be paid for the opportunities you're sacrificing (you're likely going to be half dead tomorrow)?

Empathy, here, speaks for you, not against you.

Besides, it's important to realize that while you may enjoy mingling with business types, up to and including CEO level in some cases, or politicians, artists and so on, receiving a faster-than-normal turnaround is not the birthright of a privileged class. Actually, many people belonging to a real privileged class will know better than to expect to be served by an army of underpaid peasants because they have received a demanding upbringing with a serious code of ethical values drilled into them.

It is not a privilege conferred with a business degree or company registration certificate or otherwise enjoyed by 'business customers', either — a serious business person understands that partnerships and favours are two-sided. No serious company is built on constantly asking for favours. Or constantly providing them to others, for no pay, at the expense of your time.

If you're still undecided as to whether you should apply rush fees to urgent assignments, I'll tell you how you can apply them in such a way as to make them go down more smoothly:
  • If the client questions the practice of rush fees, refer to independent authorities, both within the translation world (for maximum relevance) and without (to show that translation practice isn't idiosyncratic). Use the best authority available. Depending on the situation you may find it proper to add one or two more authorities for corroboration.
  • Be prepared to provide real reasons, though. You should have something better to say than, 'uh, because Association X said so,' or, 'we've always been doing that.'
  • Communicate your rush fees in advance: A forewarned client will find it easier to accept a 100% surcharge than someone who is surprised.
  • Similarly, an item from an official fee structure (follow the link to the PDF rate sheet) — a 'written policy' equal for everybody, as it were — will carry more authority than an improvised assessment. It should disarm or weaken any accusations of attempting an opportunistic ad-hoc act of overcharging (precisely because it's obviously not ad hoc).
  • Be brief to cut the grief. Make it a clean cut and not a festering wound. Like a good break-up. You can still smile and be corteous (naturally, you should). Don't leave openings for discussion. You must be closing the discussion, not inviting it.
  • Avoid hesitation. A client won't easily accept a proposal that even you don't seem to believe in. If you don't feel confident improvising, plan ahead and practice with a friend. (I'm serious, it's the same as practicing situational conversations before language exams.)
  • Be mindful, however, that most clients — especially business clients — are already well acquainted with the notion of overtime pay and expedited service fee, so don't feel obliged to take them seriously when they are playing stupid and pretending it's the first time they hear such outlandish nonsense. (You should show surprise at that point, ask them how that's possible etc., and if you get them twitching — you'll know why.)
  • Be prepared not only to be confident in your presentation of the issue but also to put your foot down despite a lack of consensus. Of course they will try to negotiate. Don't be surprised by that. Once you've provided the rationale for your fees, however, the onus is on your client to show what's wrong with them, why they don't or shouldn't apply in his case, or why he should receive special treatment.
  • Provide comparison for reference. Say how much it would cost with a longer deadline even if your client isn't interested in the standard deadline. You don't have to be elaborate, it will suffice to show the standard fee and apply the surcharge on top of it.
  • If appropriate, indicate how much it would have cost if they had waited longer. Since they want to make some savings, show them they have already made some. You can also reaffirm that your fees in general and rush fees in particular are reasonable and not as high as in some other places — if that's true, of course. You can mention any other fact that makes your pricing look attractive.
  • Give them choice and discuss alternatives. Any initial proposal from your client is just that, and subject to a counteroffer by you, which may very well be more attractive to your client even though it came from you. Give the client even several options to choose from, and the client will be more likely to choose something and stick with it than if you dictated only one possible arrangement. You can also point your client gently towards an alternative so that the client thinks it was his own idea.
  • Discuss the benefit of proper planning, ahead bookings and permanent reservations if relevant to your client's situation, so that your client can optimize expenses if he cares to make the effort it entails. This gives you more credibility when you ask for the surcharges.
  • However, if you don't mind rush work as long as it pays rush fees, make sure your client knows this rather than getting the wrong impression that you dislike rush jobs in general and would prefer to avoid them. (In which case the client might take his rush jobs, with or without rush fees, to a different translator as an intended favour to you.)
  • Make sure your fees don't look like penalties. Avoid phrasing such as: 'I need to levy an urgency surcharge,' unless perhaps on some sort of court or government business or unless you really are penalizing someone's chaotic ways to drive a lesson home. Otherwise restyle your rush fees (cognitive restructuring) as a neutral or positive expedited service option. (Do so without making your normal service look slow or deprioritized. Hire a copywriter if you can't find the right words.)
  • Devise a compassionate discount if relevant — that way you can show your client that you aren't indifferent to his predicament, even though you won't be making that predicament your own for no additional pay.
  • You can still develop a flexible plan for those clients to whose situation a compassionate discount is not relevant but whose need for rush service without rush fees is not as disagreeable as in most other cases — still, keep in mind that those guys should first of all be booking time slots in your calendar in advance. If they can't be bothered, it's their problem and not yours.

Speaking of flexibility:

  • You don't need to take a pay cut just because there is a disagreement about your pay structure. One of the many possible pay structures, to be precise. Change the structure, keep the fee. For example you can convince the client to make some ahead bookings or buy a service plan or just say that your base rate is higher when it is a flat rate with no increase on account of urgency.
  • Similarly, if a client is not comfortable with the extent of your particular rush fees, that doesn't mean the client disagrees with the concept of rush fees in general. Don't make it an all-or-nothing situation. See if a balance can be struck, especially by taking the base rate up a little and getting the client to give you a warning when something big is coming.

Again, look at what exactly is making your client uncomfortable and the reason why. Then try to address it or work around it.

Some clients just need you to sit down with them and explain your fee structure or the fairness of it. Others need reassurance that they aren't being overcharged, especially in an opportunistic ad-hoc improvised way. Still others need more predictability and budgeting certainty in general — or less amplitude and a flatter structure overall.

Remember that you can make it a give and take. And if you give a lot, you can ask at least some. For example if you waive rush fees, you can induce your client to give you forewarning and keep you informed about the status of potential projects to the point that there is effectively less and possibly very little rush. That's much like a booking in effect.

Or you can try and make sure that you get a decent amount of work from that client which is not rush jobs but normal jobs with a normal deadline. That way the absence of rush fees is a favour for a key client, not a semi-freebie for someone who hires other translators for non-rush work.

Don't give up too easily. Some people will reject one rationale but accept another. For example they may disagree with the notion of paying extra for more volume or faster turnaround, especially when there is a legitimate need for it, but perhaps wouldn't ask you to work 20 hours straight or lose your night's sleep if they knew that was involved and might be inclined to compensate it adequately.

Others, on the other hand, perhaps don't care about what they see as essentially 'your problem' (overtime, night work etc.) in a B2B situation, but they may understand paying for what is their benefit (e.g. getting things faster, getting a problem out of their way) or even a feature of the service they receive (e.g. expedited service).

It should be easier for you to accept a less than ideal description of your bonus pay than for them to pay you a bonus they don't believe in.

Don't presume. Ask and find out. Adapt. Don't give up all just because you can't keep all. You won't look very professional or very serious if you withdraw easily and totally from something that was like 50% of your original quotation.

And remember that being flexible or even compassionate doesn't necessarily mean being the sponsor of someone richer than you.

If you do have a charitable bone in your body, there are plenty of charities in need of translation assistance.

Last but not least, remember that if we don't charge rush fees, then many more jobs will become rush jobs than is really necessary. If we don't even as much as comment on the rush, then chances are practically all jobs will become rush jobs.

Bonus material: rush fees among graphic designers:

And copywriters:

And in the dairy goat industry:

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Ten Things Translators Are Doing Wrong

  1. Pictures. Few things have the potential to do as much good or ill to a professional's professional image as, well, images. Remember the meaning of 'code' in 'dress code' — it matters how people see you. If you prefer to keep it laid back, that's fine, too, but you can still put a real photographer behind a real camera. It will cost many times more than a simple ID picture, but it may well be one of the best investments you will ever have made. Make your picture representative of where you are or where you realistically want to be.
  2. TMI. This may be different if you translate for fellow freelancers or creatives, but lawyers and bankers who work 120 hours a week days won't be thrilled to hear about pyjamas and slippers and bath robes. Members of the general public who toil away in offices and at construction sites won't either. This connects with your image just like your picture: You won't be taken seriously if you can't make yourself look serious.
  3. Entry-level language-related imagery. We don't deal at the entry level, either. Ideally, all translators should be native or near-native in both the source and the target language.
  4. Broad references to all languages. We don't do 20 foreign languages, in most case we stick to one, two or three. We don't specialize in translation project management and traffic direction, either. In short, we are translators and not tiny translation agencies.
  5. Teaching paraphernalia. We don't teach. This is not a language school where a business exec can get from Elementary to Intermediate. This is real life.
  6. Your wish is my command. No kidding, This a direct quotation from a real translator's headline. May it stop already. This is not a concierge industry.
  7. Tech focus. Let's put things in perspective: it's your talent, study and experience that have shaped you into however good or bad translator you are, not your CAT tool. You don't want to emphasize your CAT tools any more than you want your clients to focus on them.
  8. 'You', 'me' etc. There is a trend for more personal touch in business-to-business copy, but let's keep some perspective: we aren't making Facebook friends, we're working.
  9. Errors and poor writing. As embarrassing as this is to note, translators' websites abound with errors and poor writing, which is one of the reasons it's so hard for the entire profession to be treated seriously and build a high profile.
  10. Piecemeal rates. There isn't much one can do on the agency front in this regard, but direct clients are often puzzled and sometimes put off by how typical translation pricing works, and they would be happy to pay per-project fees, recognizing that our work is more than the sum total of the words we type. 

Don't Outsource, Raise Your Fees

(The inspiration for writing this came from seeing a snapshot from Gary Smith's IAPTI presentation at Rose Newell's Twitter, but I've dealt with the subject before on this blog.)

In a limited, narrow perspective, it may seem to you that in taking jobs from clients and handing them out to your colleagues in exchange for a cut (e.g. 20%) you're helping them fill their calendars and make a living. And that's not quite wrong, actually.

On the other hand, for all the freelancing ups and downs, there is still a natural path of progress. Your job title may never change, but you gain experience levels just like your old WoW character. You move up. Others fill the place you left.

When you outsource, you don't move up, and others don't fill your place. You're stuck where you are, and others are stuck as your invisible henchmen instead of advancing their own careers.

Either do it right — and start a translation company (in which you can still translate if you want to) — or move up and free up your previous place for others.

It won't necessarily be your designated pals who get the free spot if you just simply raise your rates, but in the broader perspective the market will come to realize that the most wanted translators are an asset to compete for and reward fittingly.

The increased price and publicity will take care of the selection process on both sides: yours and the clients'. Yes, some prospects will no longer be able to afford your services. However, they can still choose from among your many colleagues who may very well be up to the task, not even necessarily being worse translators than you are but perhaps less successful economically.

With the emergence of a visible, easily distinguishable echelon of the most wanted translators, clients who have the resources but can't or don't want to gamble or experiment would know where to go and wouldn't need to burn their fingers cycling through one million seemingly identical but randomly qualified translators or rely on intermediaries to fish in a flat pool of all skill levels mixed up.

Nor will translation buyers continue to believe that for a measly six or twelve or twenty cents per word they deserve world-class quality generated by the unique combination of rare personal talent, many years of dedicated study, rich and varied or close and focused long-term experience and — in some cases — overall brilliance.

If you want to make more money, start an official agency and command fees in the proper agency range. Or change a separate management fee above the counter. Or take normal editing jobs that may well pay better than a 10% cut for editing your sidekicks. Or, well, just raise your rates already and either make more in the same time or make the same in less time.

If you want to help your sidekicks, you'll help them more by introducing them as your designated successors to the clients you leave behind than by signing their work at 50-80% of your old fees. They will be making more and building their own name.

Even the client will benefit from being directly in touch now with the person who's de facto been doing that client's jobs for a while.

Related articles:
Freelance Outsourcing: Make it (Semi-)Official or Don't Do It (longer treatment of the same subject)
Don't Flatten the Quality Scale (we should quit pretending that only the best is ever adequate in terms of translation quality — this includes handing clients down to less established but still adequate colleagues according to what a client is ready to pay)

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