Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Rush Fees Are Legitimate

Essentially, there are two legitimate reasons for charging someone a price, just as there are two major types of pricing:

  1. cost to provide, or harm or inconvenience sustained on the part of that someone (similar to cost plus pricing)
  2. benefit created for that someone (value-based pricing, which does not necessarily involve manipulation of supply and demand)
For a more detailed picture see congestion pricing and relationship-based pricing.

Your costs are not only the bills you pay and the prices of equipment and software you use but also all expenditure, loss, detriment, inconvenience etc. suffered on behalf of your client, as well as opportunity costs, which means anything that you sacrifice in order to satisfy your client's needs or desires.

They include:

  • lack of remaining capacity for other work, sometimes also on the day after (because you will be too tired to work — a small surcharge doesn't make it even)
  • consequences of unavailability to your other current or prospective clients (new relationships not formed, existing relationships strained, substitute translators taking over)
  • increased fatigue, exhaustion, loss of sleep, which, apart from being unpleasant, you just can't afford to repeat too frequently for fear of more serious complications
  • loss of family time or time alone or private opportunities, including many things that don't even have a price tag on them (what's the price of not putting your child to sleep)
  • sheer inconvenience of dropping everything and upsetting your plans

Your client's benefits include:

  • ability — or increased ability or capacity — to reap the benefits of short-term opportunities by responding timely to them (e.g. time-limited bargains, RFPs/tenders with tight deadlines, certain types of commercial transactions)
  • stronger image and better PR because of acting first or responding in time, decisively and proactively
  • competitive advantage over those who can't or won't
  • ability to avoid negative consequences (including long-term) of all kinds (not just purely financial but also image and goodwill) of failing to meet deadlines and schedules or respond to opportunities
  • sheer convenience of jumping the queue

As you probably realize, your client's benefits mostly relate to commercial transactions and investments of which the goal is profit, not charity.

Transactions involve transaction costs: the costs of searching, negotiating and enforcing, all of which can require translation assistance. Translation is also part of investments, or an investment in itself, hence translation cost is investment cost, which means the necessary cost paid now for a greater profit in the future (which will not be shared with you).

Bottom line: translation fees are the result of your client's profit-making operation.

You can't have a French website without translating it into French any more than you could have apple jam without planting apple trees — or paying someone else to plant them for you. You can't just spend your last savings on an expensive car, you need to be able to afford fuel and insurance. You can't just buy machines, you need people to operate them. You can't just buy a building for a one-off price, there's upkeep to pay forever after.

Having to pay for translation — or faster translation than would normally be available — is not any more unfair than having to pay the cost of seedlings for plants, fuel for cars, phone bills, electricity costs, salaries of employees and everything else, including any applicable urgency surcharges.

The expected profit from your client's business transactions is not a holy birthright or human right that you should drop everything to help secure. It's an investment that depends on initial costs, a normal commercial profit, not a humanitarian cause.

A for-profit business enterprise looks quite silly expecting return without investment.

It also looks silly expecting you to be a partner in investment costs without making you a partner in investment returns.

By the way, have you noticed that nowhere here did you and I consider supply and demand, only costs and benefits?

Not that there would be anything wrong in using supply and demand to avoid being underpaid (railroaded into 'best rates') by manipulation of supply and demand to begin with!

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Two Different Ways of Working With a Proofreader (and Pitfalls and Scams)

There are essentially two types of translator-proofreader relationships (other than role switching between double-hatting equals, i.e. two similarly qualified translators serving each other's second pair of eyes):

  1. The proofreader, as the more experienced party, is also the reviewer, reviser and overall sort of supervisor responsible for the final quality of translation. (Proofreader ultimately responsible.)
  2. The proofreader, as the less active party, with less exposure, is merely the translator's assistant, where the translator makes the final decisions. (Translator ultimately responsible.)

There are advantages and disadvantages to both models.

In #1 (dominant proofreader) the choice of proofreader/editor/reviser(/reviewer/supervisor) doubtless seems prudent, but coupled with the choice of rookier adepts of the profession to handle the core, substantive translation, it inevitably calls for the following question:

Why was the more qualified person not selected to do the translation in the first place?

And that question is spot on. Final quality was apparently looked on from the rear side, so to say. In other words, the decision-maker's focus was on assuring the best possible proofreading, which was commendable, of course, but it happened here at the expense of core translation, which was less commendable. Having the more highly qualified translator start from a clean slate would most probably have led to better results.

Agencies and clients may be tempted to adopt this model in order to achieve cheaply the same final quality of translation — they would think — as if the more expensive senior professional did it from scratch. Except they likely won't get it. The extent to which someone else's translation can be salvaged without being violated is limited. Revamping even a passable translation to make it excellent often takes more time that translating excellently from scratch. At half the price, naturally. Which is convenient to agencies but not to translators, of course.

Even if that exalted expert proofreader (or 'proofreader', as the job carries a lot more to it than its modest name would imply) actually did pursue his own quality standard, he would still need to make a lot of subjective changes that wouldn't go down well. He would be challenged for 'reversing' the translator without a good cause, charged with being whimsical and unable to justify his opinions and back them with evidence, or with being unfair to the translator whose work is being proofread, or with altering the vision of the translator whose name is put on the translation, who basically 'owns' it and thus his choices should command a certain measure of respect even if they aren't optimal.

On the other hand, in #2 (dominant translator) the proofreader's role is more reserved, more restricted, he stays in the background rather and acts as a typical QA link in the chain. Doing it that way should theoretically make sure that the translator's vision is not interfered with, his decisions aren't unfairly challenged and changed etc. However, if the translator's role is seen as more essential, then it's somewhat probable that a rookie will be chosen for the proofreader's billet. And that will mean a lot of silly questions for the translator to answer, a lot of errors flagged that aren't really errors but false positives — because the proofreader knows less than the translator does, he has to ask more questions and is more likely to be wrong.

Furthermore, where the proofreader (or editor or reviser) has less credibility than the translator, the translator is both free and somewhat tempted to just reject all changes off-handedly without justifying himself in detail. And that defeats the purpose of proofreading.

It's an 'either or' kind of situation: Either the translator ends up answering a lot of ignorant questions and even ignorant allegations of error in his work, or the proofreading ends up being more of a superficial pretence than reality, a rubber stamp to meet ISO requirements.

Neither model can be simply judged to be better or worse than the other, but what really leads to serious mess is when parts of the two models get mixed up, aggravating the problems that are already found in each basic model. For example:

  1. Junior translators selected to be 'proofreaders' and editing, revising and reversing people who have more knowledge, experience and possibly talent than they do. That is — unsurprisingly — outright harmful to translation quality if they have the final say. On the other hand, at a risk of repeating myself, if they don't have the final say and their authority and credibility is low, then they'll end up being more of nuisance and smokescreen than anything to do with what proofreading and revising really is supposed to achieve.
  2. More highly qualified translators who are relegated to a mostly passive and marginal proofreader role (in the dominant translator model) can't do much for quality — even if the quality is bad and badly in need of fixing. To still think that such proofreaders can somehow guarantee the same quality standard as if they were translating that same text from scratch would be a gross misunderstanding and an unfair situation to be in. And if they do retranslate entire passages (will they be paid properly for it or will they have to do it free of charge out of their sense of duty?), then someone else — a less qualified person? — will have to do the proofreading if the principle of two pairs of eyes is to be preserved.

You can't magically have the cake and eat it too by paying 50% or 33% of a great translator's normal rates to have him fix a 0.02 translator's work. You will NOT receive 100% of the quality for 80% of the price.

The cost of the kind of 'proofreading' that is in reality more of a rescue operation traditionally is a lot higher than the going rate of a simple cursory QA check that corresponds to 'proofreading' in the typical understanding of the word in English-speaking countries.

If you try to pay less, you expose yourself to the same risks as everybody else who tries to purchase goods or services for less than they are worth. Naturally, it gets worse when you try to buy at or especially below the vendor's cost-to-provide.

Obviously, even having the good translator's work proofread by an assistant with some language skills is preferable to not having it checked at all, by anyone. If you run an old-fashioned translation company with in-house translators, having a seasoned professional proofread, correct and educate the rookies is more than viable, it simply is the standard way of business. Those rookies later graduate and enter into supervisory roles themselves.

But quit thinking that you can somehow, magically, get top translator quality without paying for it.

Rather, think thoroughly and honestly about legitimate ways to optimize your costs without counting on a miracle to happen. For example work with fully professionally qualified full-time proofreaders who are not simply double-hatting translators but for whom proofreading and editing really is their calling. Pay a fixed salary rather than freelance rates. Use rookies for simple texts that they can handle with some supervision from a senior professional equipped with the final say and make it clear who is responsible for what. Or match senior, expert translators with 'assistants' to help spot the occasional missing comma, ambiguity or slip of style. But above all plan with the assumption of having to pay the full price of the quality level you want to achieve, whichever level of quality that is. Don't cut corners, it won't work.

Bottom line: you can't (i) achieve top translator quality by assigning a top translator to do the proofreading and a less qualified, cheaper translator to do the translation, and (ii) you can't really bring the quality of a good translator's work to a higher level by pairing him up with a less experienced or skilled proofreader.

For translators: scam risk by certain agencies and clients:

To hire a more qualified translator to do the proofreading with the expectation of e.g. receiving 100% of the quality for 60% of the price is nothing new or merely theoretical. It's not even unreasonable from a purely economical point of view, a purely economical sort of rationality.

Since agencies and PMs don't sell their own time but rather earn their commission on thousands of such sales, the effect of scale makes all those two-cent savings here or there add up to much more substantial numbers that seem worth pursuing (even if they aren't really, compared to adopting a more sustainable and less corner-cutting business model).

Thus, in the broad market of today it is probably reasonable to be cautious with proof jobs and carefully check all the relevant factors before accepting such a job. Try to make it as clear as possible what standard of final quality your are supposed to achieve (or especially guarantee) within what budget. This includes finding out (i) whether you will be paid extra for extra work, as well as (ii) whether you will be required to do extra work for no extra pay if such a need should arise (which would mean the agency outsourcing the risk to you, which is a known and scientifically researched and optmized method of risk management for companies).

Next, agencies can exploit less experienced — and cheaper — translators by having them sign quality guarantees and indemnity clauses (hold harmless etc.), so that those translators can ultimately be required to pay a more expensive translator's bill when their own quality, surprise!, is not found sufficient. Often at the agency's 'sole discretion', as some of those churlish people dare actually write in their standard contracts. 

The above essentially means hiring a 20-cent translator at a 6-cent translator's expense. A beautiful business plan, isn't it?

It is the bigger, meaner cousin of dodging payment by hiring an inexperienced rookie whose work can later be challenged easily and penalties imposed to avoid payment.

Another trap for you lies in not knowing that you are supposed to achieve a particular standard with no editor, proofreader or reviser being hired as should be the case in a real, professional publishing process or in normal professional translation. As a result, you can be expected to pay the proofreader or editor's bill out of your own pocket.

Alternatively, you can just be told that there's no proofreader or editor, so you need to handle it all on your own — with no extra pay. And that too is a scam, essentially, though not of the same gravity. It's not actually fraud, it's just a tricky sort of extortion — if it even is that — or simply a bad deal.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Customer Empathy

Many of you may know me — if you do — as someone who is not a great fan of introducing customer service notions to professions, including ours, or 'client-centricity' in translation. This is because I don't view translation as a normal, typical service industry, especially not one that's predicated on just making the customer feel good as opposed to rendering good service. This places me at odds with many agencies and even translators to whom pleasing the customer is core activity and translation is only secondary, i.e. a means of achieving the goal of pleasing the client.

However, today I would like to focus — rather than on any of the client service jazz — on the plain human emotional suffering clients can experience in their dealings with a company or a professional service provider.

It pains to be excluded or cut out of the loop
As you well remember from childhood and from school and perhaps from turbulence of teen age and college life, exclusion is one of the most powerful tools of torment one can use on another human being. The history of criminal justice is history of using that tool in various iterations throughout millennia.

... Especially when you have been a long-time supporter of your business
Relationships are by definiton mutual. A long-term client has not been getting his translations from you free of charge, of course, but the money you've been getting from him was not tax, damages or payment back of a loan — it has always been payment for a service that was bought. A long-term client, in a certain sense, is a sponsor or patron. Yes, you are in charge of how you run your translation practice. No, that doesn't cut it.  Because relationships are mutual, and it stings when only one party makes decisions that affect both parties.

People don't like change
Especially when they've been long-term supporters of your business and their opinion is not sought before a game-changing decision. You can't just redefine your service or your way of providing it and expect your clients to be happy with any and every such decision no matter what it is. They have an emotional interest in how you run your practice (or your business, if that's what you'd call it).

Misguided visionaries are a pain to deal with
Perhaps you know the type: perhaps they've been right once or twice or on a couple of things, but they have their own idea of running their business, even if it means running it into a tree. They won't listen to anyone else — even when everyone else but them sees where exactly they're headed. Nobody will be telling them... until it's too late to hear any advice from anyone. You don't want to be that trainwrecked business.

... As are those who are superheroes in their own eyes
Be lucky that you are not chased away from the court they hold for those lucky mortals who are admitted into their exactled presence. You'd better not speak without being spoken to, unless your message is one of praise, in which case some liberties can be taken at the discretion of the object of your praise. But try saying something critical... You know those people, and you don't want to be one of them to your own clients.

Especially if they begin to 'manage' it
Just like you don't want to be a 'resource' to your clients, your clients don't want to be managed like a resource by you. They don't want to be a dehumanized figure in your calculation sheets when you start managing relationships like they are a piece of maths. If you don't want to connect with people, that's fine. But once you do connect with them, it has to be real. When it's being 'managed', it's not real, it's being gamed. You can delete negative feedback and you can ban people from posting comments on your own website or blog, but you can't change reality by pretending it doesn't exist. If that reality looks bad to look at it, then it's time to change the way you treat your clients rather than trying to control the way they speak about you.

Clients don't necessarily want to be your 'fans'
It's fashionable in modern marketing to 'turn clients into rabid fans' or whatever your respective marketing guru is calling it. Guess what. The standard, normal person, a human being just like you or me or anyone else.

In the words of a real expert, David Ogilvy, the father of modern advertising:

The customer is not a moron. She's your wife
(D. Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1964, p. 96)
According to Wiki he made that remark 'in response to typical advertising practices of the early 1950s, which featured loud and hectoring voices and blatantly exaggerated print.' You'd think something would have changed since then...

Your client doesn't want to be 'rabid', nor even necessarily your fan — that it need to deserve but even then can't just claim as your birthright. It is something that's totally at the discretion of your client. So don't presume. Don't treat clients like fans or admirers, especially when you know that the quality you offer isn't perfect.

Self-enthusiastic PR does not make you really be all that
Anybody can write that crap. It doesn't become real just because it gets published on your website or some other place you control. Some people will buy into it inevitably, but the bubble will burst if you exhaust your initial loan of confidence.

It gets worse when you start to believe it, at which point things get really serious and — I dare say — at that point you begin to need professional help.

Not everybody who is critical of your direction is your enemy
For starters, they probably wouldn't be wasting their time talking to you if they didn't care for you. If they wanted to really just take it out on you, chances are a smear campaign would be taking place instead. As long as they talk and talk to you, they probably still want to communicate and give you a chance to regain their trust.

Not even if they sound angry
Perhaps they have a valid reason to. Consider that for a while — don't presume they're wrong and you're right just because they are they and you are you . Don't hide behind platitudes like 'constructive criticism' or 'civil atmosphere' — just like with any 'managed' image, any remotely smart person will see what you really are doing. Once again: the customer is not a moron, she's your wife. With your wife, you wouldn't be trying that.

This post was inspired by a certain company whose name starts with the letter P.

About Complaints

The first thing you want to when you see a complaint is:

calm down and keep cool.

Really. That's like the single most important thing. This is not to say you should be oblivious to the gravity of a serious situation, if there is one, but fretting out will never help you. You don't need to prove anything by acting agitated — nor can you, really.

So try not to be too agitated when you read, think and reply.

If anxiety mounts up too high and it's impossible for you to stay calm without knowing what's there, take a look, get the gist of it, still take a walk outside before replying.

Next, there are complaints, and there are complaints. And then there are complaints.

Ordinary 'complaints' are less real than a real, formal complaint.

Simply sending you a revised version of your work is not a complaint. Nor is asking questions and voicing doubts. Or even pointing errors out, or even commenting on their gravity and number. It hardly is a complaint if it doesn't make some sort of statement to the effect of being disappointed and wanting money back (or some other form of redress).

Clients who do want money back — which does not always necessary require a full formal complaint but sometimes happens in informal negotiations — come in two sorts: the one is legal-minded, the other is business-minded.

The legal-minded sort of complaining client seeks a legal sort of remedy, whether justified or not. He relies on a legal sort of right that results from poor performance. It may be based on simple fairness, but it's about right and wrong, moral or ethical codes and so on.

The business-minded sort is essentially revisiting your price negotiations, whether in good or not so good faith. Fairness may be called upon but not really articles and paragraphs. In any case, it's more about business than about moral or ethical principles.

Once you distinguish between the two, it may be a good idea to learn to use a different approach with each type.

The amount of rebate sought by either sort is quite subjective. It can go either way, really, although with time you will notice some patterns. For example the more business type may be after substantial discounts based on lack of subjective satisfaction (as a legalist you'd frown at that sort of thing or even be incensed at it) but not really want to take your money other than not paying you. By contrast, the more legal type could be less whimsical and flimsy about the grounds but actually go after you for damages.

Thus, in practice, although the lawyering sort would need (to at least trump up) a shade of a credible ground to claim any substantial discount, whereas the negotiating sort could claim a 50% discount based off of sheer lack of satisfaction, but the business sort could still let you off the hook after reducing or denying your pay, without coming up with a long list of damages and losses general, special, direct, indirect, circumstantial, incidental, exemplary and totally imaginary.

Either of the two sorts can use two different styles: collaborative or adversarial.

This pretty much means what it says; the labels are self-explanatory.

Be aware, though, that just because someone talks softly doesn't mean he isn't carrying a big stick. On the other hand, just because he's talking tough and throwing his weight around doesn't mean he wants to blast your kneecaps. This is, essentially, the meaning of style. Whether they want to really collaborate with your or be your adversary is quite a different thing.

The adversarial style is likely to resort to unseemly things such as yelling, insults, exaggerated demands with enough padding to go down a notch or five in a settlement, possibly some vague, frivolous or outright fake claims, like grapeshot of which some will hopefully stick. Don't assume it's for real, but don't assume it isn't. Only time will show. So be prepared but don't fret out and don't let them see you're scared (if you are).

Bottom line: stay calm. Even if the situation really is quite serious, you don't need to freak out to prove that you understand the gravity of it. A level head will keep you out of trouble.

The next essential thing to always bear in mind is that:

just because they say it doesn't mean it's true.

Granted, you already know this on an intellectual level, but to really believe it is a whole different matter.

Not only in theory, but in practice that specific client who's complaining about your work specifically, who is complaining right here and now, may very be 'tangibly', provably wrong. So find out.

No matter what you may have been told by Stockholm-syndrome-afflicted translation teachers, speakers, writers, bloggers and all the other assorted gentry, your client's word is not the law.

Your client's word is not the law of the land and especially not the law of grammar and style. Nor can your client be both a party and judge. In short, your client is not the last arbiter. The court is, and not the first court that enters a ruling in your case, either.

So don't associate your client's claims with too much finality. Rather, what the client says is tentative. And it certainly is likely to be warped, one-sided, partly self-serving, partly misinformed (who's the professional at your job?).

Next, and in connection with what we've only just covered:

any huge demands are likely to be phony or desperate or psychotic or just intimidating and softening you up before real talks or any combination thereof.

One million dollar in damages, really? You get the point.

If it's something that the client's QA found, relax and breathe, the damages-generating event most likely hasn't happened and cannot any more.

Unless some sort of one-time opportunity was well-documentedly lost due to your fault, or an absolutely final, non-restorable deadline was not met, with some disastrous consequences, you are most likely not liable for anything more than a reasonable reduction — if they even have a cause for one. It's down to defective performance now (if it really was defective), and you're normally entitled to a go at fixing it before money can be claimed from you.

Aggressive negotiators are likely to try and charge you for the reviser's bill, except to really be able to do that they'd need to have consulted you first, to prove that you were unavailable or would not have been able to fix the problems that they found, and, obviously, that those problems were real. Not to mention that they can't just go and pick the most expensive old fox of a translator to finish a job they assigned to a green rookie to save some bucks.

it probably isn't going to get worse than non-payment if they don't have a surefire case, anyway

Granted, they can declare all sorts of demands, since it costs them nothing to try, but actually going after you with a lawsuit, especially in a foreign country, especially on a different continent, is a whole different thing altogether.

And most people will not sue you for the kind of cash that won't cover the lawyers' bills. Unless perhaps it's personal (so don't make it), but probably not even then. Or unless they have unlimited resources and something to prove — some corporate lawyers do fall into this category.

As for non-payment, it isn't too easy to oppose a valid invoice without solid, concrete proof of bad performance. Even if you don't sue them (for example because the money is too little to bother or because they're in a different country and legal system), which you'd stand a good chance of winning but likely need to incur heavy costs out of your pocket (ironically, most of those could be translation fees), insisting on non-paying a persistent translator is a reputation risk many people would not take without believing in the justice of their cause.


it's not the end of the world if they found some real issues.

Let's not take things out of proportions. Culpably introducing a fateful error in a medical translation or safety manual and causing someone's injury or death is one thing, failing to spot a type or typing in the wrong word in a normal business text or press material or something people read for pleasure likely isn't worth a discount at all, other than perhaps a token couple percent as a show of your goodwill, at your discretion. Which, actually, I would often advise that you grant liberally in order to be fair to your clients and preserve your relationships with them.


don't admit to errors you didn't make.

Whoever thinks client service requires owning up to mistakes and wrongs you know you didn't do needs to... well, never mind, that person is simply dead wrong.

As for real errors, I'd say don't get defensive, rather own up and make up, but I need to make the disclaimer that admitting your liability means admitting your liability so you can't sue me.

If You're Overworked, Up Your Rates! (to Up Your Game)

One of the complaints we sometimes hear — and sometimes envy — on freelancers' social media is too much work and having to decline. Th...