Five Things You Should Never Say to Your Translator (and Five Polite Replies)

Finding the right translator can be tough, I get that. But it’s no different from finding the right doctor, dentist, lawyer, or any other professional service provider. Yet, when approaching a translator, clients will often say things they probably would never say to any other professional. This is the top five on my list of things no translator wants to hear, and the gist of my most polite replies.

don't say

I would translate it myself, but I simply don’t have the time.

I am sure you have excellent language skills and a great command of the target language; however, you are not a qualified translator and (every time I’ve heard this one) not a native speaker of the target language either. Doing it yourself can be a fun challenge on a personal level, but it can also mean business or professional suicide. A translator’s skills go far beyond command of the target language. Your translator helps you deal with cultural nuances and barriers. If you’ve picked your translator well, then he or she is probably also a field expert that can advise you on how to optimize your message and effectively communicate with your target audience. Do yourself a favor, hire a translator, even if you feel you could translate it yourself. Translation is a sound investment that will result in better business.

It doesn’t have to be perfect; I just need to get the gist of the text.

Respectable translators don’t have “quality levels.” We give each job 100% of our resources, capacity and dedication. When you pay us to translate something, it’s impossible for us to turn off our magic. Asking us to deliver “just the gist” is like asking your doctor to alleviate your headache, but not the rest of your flu symptoms. It simply cannot be done.

Why don’t you give bulk discounts?

Translation is not a commodity good. Translators cannot increase our profit margin by purchasing prime goods in bulk and increasing our daily output at lower costs. Translation is an intellectual service. More words mean more work. In addition, the longer the document, the more time your translator will allot to your text; therefore, the higher your translator’s opportunity cost for working for you. It is only fair to reflect that in our fees, the way it is reflected in all other specialty service fees. You wouldn’t ask your dentist for a bulk discount on fillings, would you? Or your lawyer for a bulk discount on multiple law suits?

Why are you asking me for royalties if I wrote the original content? And why should your name appear on my book?

You wrote the original content in the source language, but under most copyright laws (in most countries) translation constitutes derivative work. The derivative work is a separate, independent work. Therefore, authors of derivative work are entitled to the full protection of copyright, without prejudice to your rights as the original author. If the translated version sells well, chances are that had a little something to do with my translation. Therefore, it is only fair that I should be compensated appropriately and that my work be recognized accordingly.

Other translators quoted half your price, but I’d rather work with you if you’d just lower your fees.

Thank you for your interest in working with me. I know choosing a translator can be challenging and a bit overwhelming at times, and I’m glad that out of all the great professionals out there, you’ve taken an interest in me. However, specialized, high-quality service comes with a cost in any professional field. My fees are a reflection of my experience and background and the time and dedication I will devote to your document. You’ve already invested significant resources into your document because it’s important to your business. Getting it just as right in your target language merits the same level commitment, and that’s something my fees help guarantee.

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31 thoughts on “Five Things You Should Never Say to Your Translator (and Five Polite Replies)

  1. Eva Dawson says:

    Great article! I especially appreciate the fact that you suggest positive responses rather than just venting about irritating client comments. Bravo!

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  2. Sanièle Heinen says:

    I admire but can’t find the time to give such lengthy replies; to the ‘I’ll do it myself, my answer will be: sure let me know when you need repairs !

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  3. Brilliant, Paula.

    I think that the way a client approaches you says a lot about their general attitude and what to be expected from this business relationship. Yet, at first they are often quite clueless about what translation is and how to buy this service, and therefore ending up saying all the wrong things. Your replies are excellent, and for the very least offer a better opportunity to understand the client’s motives depending on how their reply.

    Also, your response is very unapologetic and concise, which is good (never take it to a personal level), and can only benefit you in the long term by establishing you that much more as a professional expert in your field.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, Shai!

    I learned a long time ago never to take anything work related personally. For the most part, clients mean well. They’re just looking out for their businesses and are sometimes a little misguided or uninformed. Most of my clients are not translators and, therefore, have no real way of knowing exactly what my job entails. So, I view “educating without condescending” as part of my service.

    Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. But either way I think it’s important not to stress it, try to reason with them, and focus on doing a good job.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What ho!
    When it comes to the discount question, which I’ve had a couple of times lately, I like to:
    a) mention the term “economies of scale”, because then they can look it up if so minded
    b) just say it takes pretty much the same time to translate one 20,000 word document as 4 x 5,000 word documents (arguable point for us, perhaps, but easy to grasp for a client and broadly true enough), and they are basically paying for my time ergo discounts make no sense.

    As for “getting the gist”, happens very rarely to me, but I have offered to do a summary (for an hourly rate) and that has been acceptable. I did have a client earlier this year say “it doesn’t have to be a work of literature” but in that particular case, The Bard himself would have struggled to make it so, hence the client got what he would have got anyway 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I like the essence of your article, but not necessarily agree with the second and third statements. If you have a technical letter from a client and you just need to know if it is an order, a complaint or a thank you letter, I do not necessarily need to be a specialist in the field to deliver the gist of the message and possibly allow you to react quickly to that letter. Also if you entrust a translator or a firm with a large contract or recurring projects, you are offering some job security, and that could warrant a bulk discount, especially if you are not in a rush and the translation can be performed while there is no other work available.

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    • Thanks for your comment! Different areas of translation and different types of clients may be more or less complex, but even if it’s “just a thank you letter” I want to be accurate; and if it’s a complaint letter I want to be particularly accurate because “just the gist” can get the complaint thrown out and dismissed. I don’t think any self-respecting translator is willing to take any chances when it comes to their work and simplicity of the task at hand is no excuse for sloppy work!

      About your second point, bulk discounts are just bad business in the long run for service contracts. Economy of scale principles (as Charlie pointed out in his comment above) are fine for widget factories, but the last time I checked, I was a specialty service provider. Perhaps the reason you’re willing to work for bulk discounts has something to do with the fact that you have periods “where there is no other work available”. Instead of bulk discounts, have you considered increasing/improving your clientele? I’m not trying to be condescending or anything, what I’m trying to say is that there is no need to let yourself be exploited when you can just get better clients. I don’t give bulk discounts, my prices are much higher than the market standard, and I haven’t had down time in years. You don’t need to cave to exploitation to make a good living off of translation.

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  7. Marouf Salameh says:

    Very good article .This is what really happen at the level of each project any translator would deal with , and seems to be a global Client attitude towards translators not only in the developed countries but also in our Middle eastern countries.

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  8. marzolian says:

    Mostly good advice, but I would hesitate before telling a customer they might be committing”professional suicide” by doing their own translation. First, some of my clients are quite capable in one or both languages. Second, some documents are not as important as others. Minor style errors such as word order won’t matter to some readers in some situations, as long as the basic facts and information are correct.

    For those clients, the real advantage of a translator is that the individual who would do the translation is worth much more to his or her company doing something else and not translating. I read an article that gave this example: say there is a lawyer who can type at 90 words per minute. It is often better for that lawyer to hire a secretary who types at only 50 wpm, because it will allow the lawyer to do legal work that the secretary cannot do, and for which the law firm can receive hundreds of dollars per hour.

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    • Thanks for your comment! This isn’t really intended as advice though. I was just sharing some of the things I don’t like to hear from clients and the overall gist of how I handle them. It’s not meant to be taken too literally.

      That being said, in the kind of work I do, however, a “do it yourself” translation from a non-native untrained speaker can very easily translate into professional suicide, but of course, that’s just my experience. Each translator has their own niche and their own experiences.

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