Perspectives: Risk-taking in the translation industry

Recently, I had an interesting and memorable conversation with one of our new foreign clients, a medium-size translation company based in the United Kingdom. It was going to be the first translation assignment from them, and we were discussing payment terms. When I requested full or at least partial advance payment because the mutual trust between our companies was yet to be established, they said they had more to lose if we delivered a substandard-quality translation or did not meet our deadline. They failed to acknowledge the equally high risk we were taking when working for a new client.

This incident brought up serious issues for consideration — namely to what extent taking risks is necessary for companies active on the international translation marketplace. Here are the most prevalent issues to consider and mitigate with risk management:

 getting paid by your client

 working with new freelancers (receiving translations by the deadline and
 receiving quality translations)

 confidentiality being maintained by your linguists and subcontractors

 your computer and other electrical equipment functioning properly

 accepting projects without checking on translator availability first

Client payment

Getting paid for the work you perform would seem logical and self-evident. However, in the age of international scammers and crooks of all sorts (who are after your money without exception), you can never be sure who you are dealing with when you work for someone for the first time. For this reason, taking preventive measures is essential.

In the case of translation agency clients, payment lists such as the Blue Board of are valuable tools. There, subscribers can find ratings and read comments other service providers have made concerning the given client. On sites like this, members of the international translation community share highly useful pieces of information with one another, enabling informed decisions about who to work for and who to avoid working for.

However, in the case of direct clients who aren’t translation companies, conducting similar research is usually either very difficult and time-consuming or outright impossible. As a consequence, when working for first-time direct clients, you need to decide the level of risk you are going to take. There is a scale at the top of which is working without advance payment and you trust the client to honor your agreement and pay after delivery of the translation. At the bottom of the scale, you request full advance payment and take no gamble at all. Between the two extremes is the option of asking for partial payment in advance. If the client complies, their intention to pay is clear and the work can be accepted without extra risk being taken. It is rare that the final payment is not made after delivery.

When working for first-time direct clients, it is essential not to accept a check as a form of payment as they are the tool of operation of a certain type of scammer. Some scammers issue a check for an amount that is higher than what would be due, and request reimbursement from the translation service provider for the apparent overpayment. However, the check is forged and by the time you realize this, you have already fallen into their trap and paid them money. Instead, you should insist on either a wire transfer or an online payment service such as PayPal or Moneybookers. These cannot be manipulated and are reliable manners of payment.

The above precautions are usually only necessary when working for somebody for the first time. Once their payment intentions are clear, and the first project has been completed satisfactorily, advance payment is no longer necessary and work can be safely accepted from the given client. The only exception is when the first project is much smaller than the second one, in which case partial or full advance payment might be justified again.

There are fortunately several betraying signs of a client who doesn’t intend to pay for your translation services. One of these is the wording, style and general voice of the email messages in which they negotiate the details of their project with you. The lack of a respectful style is definitely cause for concern, just like extreme brevity of communication and the use of words incongruent with polite business parlance. On the whole, it is a question of personal choice and equanimity of mind to what extent you gamble when working for a new and unknown client. The more experience one has dealing with strangers, the easier it is to catch them before they get a chance to wreak havoc on you and your business.

First-time freelancers

The second type of risk-taking, which we have discussed a bit in previous articles, is working with an unknown freelancer. Embarrassment can result both from inadvertently assigning work to a scammer and from assigning work to a substandard-quality linguist. Despite all your efforts to filter out scammers that pretend to be professional linguists, you are bound to be duped once in a while. They submit a résumé to you stolen from a professional translator, promise a high-quality translation delivered by the deadline and perform the translation using a machine. Some of them try to edit the machine output a little and some don’t even bother. Usually they do not speak the source language at all. Once they have delivered the machine translation and you realize what is taking place, you start scampering for a replacement translator. The risk of a late delivery to your client, however, can be minimized by applying a safety cushion in regard to the deadline. There should be several days between your own deadline and the deadline you set for a first-time linguist, so that there is enough time to do a second round using a real linguist.

In the case of translators who produce human but substandard-quality translations, the safety cushion can be used to have their output edited and proofread by one of your well-established linguists as opposed to having the entire material retranslated.

Another way to minimize this kind of risk is to assign a small task to new linguists first, and if they do a good job, you can advance toward bigger projects. But this is unfortunately not always possible.

Other concerns

The third type of risk has to do with confidentiality. It is vital to have each new freelancer sign a detailed confidentiality agreement (also referred to as nondisclosure agreement, abbreviated as NDA) before you forward source material to them. The NDA needs to clearly specify the extent to which care is to be taken by the freelancer in respect of data protection and exposure of the source and target texts to third parties. Moreover, in the NDA, it should be specified that the freelancer has no right to work for your clients directly for a certain number of years even if your working relationship with the given linguist ends in the meantime. If a detailed NDA is signed by your freelancers/vendors, the amount of risk involved is significantly smaller.

Another major source of possible trouble during the production process is equipment. Encourage your service providers to set up their working environment in a safe manner, including the installing and regular updating of antivirus software and the use of an uninterruptible power supply. Ask them to regularly save the translation on an external hard drive or pen drive while working on your project, so that a computer breakdown or malfunction cannot affect the project in a major way. The readier your resources are to cooperate and the more security measures they take to prevent data loss, the lower the risk of your project being mishandled and you being unable to meet your deadline.

Lastly, the gamble of accepting a project (especially a multilingual one) without checking on translator availability first is possibly the most irresponsible thing a translation company can do. Even if all your linguists were barking up your tree for jobs just a day or two ago, their availability might have changed in the meantime due to the eternal ebb and flow of the translation industry, and it is rather risky not to inquire about translator availability before accepting a project, especially one with a rush or normal deadline. Projects with a generous expected turnaround are less of a gamble but such projects are unfortunately few and far between.

As it is hopefully obvious from the above-listed plethora of possible risks lurking in the international waters of the translation industry, you need to be constantly on the alert and prepared for all eventualities if you are to guarantee quality deliveries, the meeting of your deadlines, getting paid by your clients and assigning work to individuals who are genuine professionals. Taking precautions and applying the various preventive measures, however, will eliminate the bulk of the possible kinds of danger, and your projects will be in much safer hands.