I'm not writing this to encourage a what's-in-it-for-me kind of attitude. By all means, do charitable or pro bono work, be generous and not greedy, give compassionate discounts and even have affordable pricing throughout if you want to.
But all that's just not the same as walking into a setup.
It's understandable that standard fee and deadline schedules are not the best fit for all situations and that clients may feel averse to fees that don't make sense to them. No wonder they'll want to talk first, not always in perfectly polite and agreeable terms. Remember, businesspeople are more likely to be hard-hitting go-getters than your average Joe is and they didn't likely build their business on being gentle.
Speculation of various kinds, some of which doesn't look particularly pretty to outsiders, also is to some extent part of the job. Exploring the routes, looking for cheaper supply channels and new sales outlets. That's part of their nature. Merchants were always like that before Vasco da Gama set sail for India and before the Phoenicians built their first ships.
Like it or not, you're going to have to deal with some of that.
In making a proposal that falls short of industry-standard pricing or what we believe to be ethically justified rates and deadlines, they may be just tentatively exploring something they don't even mean to be a one-sided bargain, but they aren't taking the responsibility for making the deal profitable to you. They think that's your job. So you might as well do it, they won't mind.
Alternatively, they may even be aiming for a mutually beneficial relationship in the long term or transaction in the short term but lacking the information to realize what is and what is not profitable to you and by what margin. So inform them.
It's probably worth noting that some broader cultures and some individual people just can't not haggle. In their world, a balanced deal rarely leaved both parties feeling ecstastic about the bargain. Rather, both sides are content and taking comfort in knowing that they had their field day and did the best they could.
That's all quite normal when dealing with business-minded people, or even with people in general.
But, in the broad realm of outsourced translation, if you are being approached with one of those sweet agency deals that are extremely advantageous to them or the client while requiring a certain sacrifice on your side (usually in return simply for getting that job), more may be involved than simply making less per hour but getting more hours of guaranteed work.
Consider the following:
- Are they paying through the nose for everything and to everyone else but not you? If yes, for what reason are you, as the translator, singled out for the cost reduction? In what light does that reason put your situation now and in the future? What are they going to expect? Are they going to be reasonable?
- If, on the other hand, that cost-cutting is a more holistic approach — what and who else did they save on? Example include the original author or the guy who translated into the language you are translating from. Also the whole venture (e.g. the contract you're translating) may be a high-risk affair. In some cases the agency itself may be a high-risk operation (but don't jump to conclusions, almost every agency is cutting costs these days).
Either way, there's an increased risk of:
- unpaid overtime, typically connected with the poor quality of the text (if they skimped on the writer) or some problems with the file or with poor management (e.g. inefficient chain of command or information flow), this includes waste of time resulting from some of the items below
- wider scope or even type of services than just your own normal job — since it's already clear that normal rules aren't going to apply to this job
- underqualified or unqualified people editing or reviewing your work, disputing it, asking questions and demanding answers, expecting you to give an opinion on their proposals etc.
- QA process as an extension of price negotiation, with disproportionate reductions requested on shaky grounds (since translation is so subjective and no human work is perfect, it really isn't hard to trump up at least a token 10% claim)
- non-payment or late payment if they are already in trouble or acting suspiciously or both
- other professional or legal standards not being respected in what's essentially a half-professional project
- problems getting information, assistance, co-operation or respect where the work and pay relationship already shows that only one side of this transaction is being taken seriously
Risk means two factors: (i) the bad things that may happen (and how bad), and (ii) the probability that they will happen. Not all problems affect both factors equally or at all.
TL;DR: Offers that are too advantageous to the offering agency or direct client should make you cautios.
Actually, one more thing: Remember that you can always say no, make a counteroffer or request a better offer. If you think it's your professional obligation to provide however much the client wants to receive for however little the client wants to pay, then you've already been manipulated, and it's time to shake it off.