Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Translator-client relationships. Part 1: the translator.

In this post I would like to explore the issue of translator-client relationships, focusing on what translators can do to improve these relationships and hopefully become one of their client’s favourite providers, to which they will come back again and again.

1.       Be there
The translation industry is a fast-moving one and it’s important that you reply to project enquiries as soon as possible. Of course, clients should not expect you to be at your desk 24/7, or not to be able to pop out for a bit (after all, that’s one of the reasons why you chose to work for yourself), but sometimes a late response can lose you a project, so make sure you can access your e-mail from your phone if you plan to be away from the desk for a while, or even leave an autoreply message saying when you’ll be back. If a client appreciates your services, they will be willing to wait for a few hours provided the project is not too urgent and they know exactly when you’ll return. Also, as obvious as it sounds, please make sure to answer your phone calls, you wouldn’t believe the amount of translators that are unreachable when you try to ring them!

If you plan to go away on holidays for a few days, it’s best to warn your clients in advance, so they don’t get any surprises when they try to contact you for that all-important project.

2.      Be professional
If you want to be taken seriously, you have to portray a professional image at all times. Acknowledge the receipt of files and confirm you agree to the deadline, provide a quote promptly, keep the client informed on your progress if it’s a long project (but don’t bombard them with e-mails!) and, in the unlikely event that something comes up and you won’t be able to deliver on time, inform your client as soon as possible so they can make the necessary adjustments to their schedule and/or inform the end-client. Show that you care about the project and you take your work seriously and your client will be much more willing to work with you.

Professionalism is about behaviour but also about image. It is advisable to choose a logo, lettering or image that represents you and your services and use that across all your material: website, blog, invoices, business cards, etc. After all, freelance translation is a business and should be portrayed as such.

3.      Don’t try to be everything under the sun
It might be tempting to offer many subject areas and language combinations, as the pool of potential clients will undoubtedly be larger. But we all know that it’s simply not possible to know everything about every single subject matter, so a translator will immediately raise suspicions if they are willing to work in every field. Similarly, it’s very hard to keep up your languages to the level required to do translation work. Even if you only translate into your native language (which you should!), languages have to be practiced regularly not to lose fluency, you have to keep up with linguistic changes, cultural changes and even political changes. You need to know what’s going on in the country whose language you are translating from, so you can identify idioms, cultural references, jokes, etc.

So stick to what you know best and are passionate about and you will be able to produce much better-quality work. If you try to translate a piece you are not comfortable with, the quality will suffer, you’ll probably be caught out and could end up losing the client.

4.      Don’t sell yourself cheap
You should be able to attract clients for what you can do, rather than your prices. Emphasise your unique selling point (USP) and your skills and show that you believe in yourself. Whilst you don’t want to price yourself out of the market, avoid the temptation of lowering your rates as bait. First of all, because it doesn’t say anything positive about you. As I explained here, translators who charge very low rates are either new to the industry or not very good at all. And secondly, because by lowering your rates you are damaging the whole industry and yourself in the long-term. If everybody did the same, the average salary of a freelance translator would decrease rather than increase over the years. Not what you want to hear when you’re starting out, right?

5.       Accept criticism
They say that no news is good news, and in the translation world that is certainly true. Most of the time you won’t hear a thing if the client is happy with your work. However, if for whatever reason that is not the case, you will most likely get a complaint. My advice in this scenario would be to approach the situation with care. Analyse what the problem is and, if you don’t agree with the client’s feedback, explain your choices politely. It happens quite often that the changes are just stylistic or, even worse, sometimes the client does not speak your language but grabs a dictionary and notices the translation of X word is Y, and not Z, which is what you wrote.

But if it turns out that there are mistakes in your work, don’t try to blame anybody else or insist you’re right, just own up, apologise and say it won’t happen again (make sure it doesn’t!). Your client will appreciate your honesty and professional approach, and you will learn from your mistakes and hopefully become a better translator. We are all human and as such we can make mistakes, it’s how you react to them that’s important.

6.      Be helpful, proactive and a problem-solver
In translation, you will encounter many unforeseen problems, from software incompatibilities to terminology questions and problematic cultural references. Before you bombard your client with lots of queries, make sure to do some research by yourself on the Internet, ask some of your colleagues, etc. If you do have to send a query, be as clear as you can, always bearing in mind that the client may not speak your language or, in many cases, any languages at all other than their own!

This also applies to software incompatibilities. If you can’t open a file because of its format, something that happens much more often than we’d like, do your research and find a programme that will help you either open it or convert it into something you can work with. The client will appreciate your initiative and the time you have saved them worrying about this. Besides, if you want to come across as a truly professional translator, you should be pretty technology-savvy anyway, there is no justification for not being able to use properly the programmes you have to work with every day.

And in the case of cultural references, explain exactly what the problem is and suggest a solution. For instance, imagine you are translating a wedding services website and the text refers to picking a location for a civil wedding, like a beach, a garden, etc. Whilst it might sound beautiful, in many countries this is illegal, as civil weddings can only take place in town halls or registry offices. If you spot something like this, you should inform the client immediately and suggest an alternative; for instance, replacing this with content about possible wedding reception locations.

What is important to remember is that, in most cases, you should not contact your client with a problem, but with a solution.

7.      But if in doubt, ask!
That said, if after researching you still haven’t found a solution, do ask. It’s better to ask and provide an accurate translation than fearing bothering the client and, as a result, produce something that’s incorrect. The same applies to software issues: if you have tried everything humanely possible to make it work and you’re still having problems, contact the client before it causes a delay in the project.

Also, do not assume that the source text is always correct, so if something doesn’t seem right to you, chances are there is a problem and the client will be grateful you pointed it out.

8.      Deliver quality at all times
As a translator, this should be a given, but sometimes it is very tempting to accept more work than you can cope with, or to translate something in a subject area that you don’t master because you are a bit short of work. As appealing as it might seem at the time, steer clear of any situations that will impact negatively on the quality of your output, for the reasons stated in point 3. You are only as good as your last piece of work.

9.      Have attention to detail
Sometimes, some of the simplest things can improve greatly your relationship with your client. For instance, adding the language code at the end of the file shows that you know they will probably be working with other languages too and you’re helping them save time by identifying easily which file is which, and avoiding the pesky error message which appears when they try to open two files with the same name at the same time.

Similarly, inform them if you notice a mistake in the original in case they haven’t seen it, and of course don’t reproduce it in your language. Replicate any formatting in the source text in your translation, as you will save your client precious time and it shows that you are computer-literate. Follow instructions to the letter and, as obvious as it sounds, make sure to run a spell check and check for double spaces before delivering! Too many translators forget this fundamental step.

10.  Be a pleasure to deal with
Small touches like asking your client if they had a good weekend, knowing if they have kids or not, or wishing them a good holiday can go a long way and help you maintain lasting working relationships. Think of it this way: would you rather deal with a nice person who’s always got a smile on their face, or a grumpy one who’s always moaning and complaining? It’s the same for your clients, if you are a pleasure to deal with, they will want to continue communicating with you.


  1. I totally agree, with everything!! As a service provider, I always try to do those things, and I have seen that it works. Also, having a close relationship as you explained on points 9 and 10 will make the client remember you first, as you probably have had conversations about your personal life or how important you think those details are.

    Thanks for the checklist! It's one of those that we should have printed out and hang on the wall to remember every day. :)

  2. Thanks, Curri! Glad you like it!

    I have always found that if you offer excellent service and develop relationships with your clients, it's much easier to keep them, because they'll be happy to deal with you. But it seems you're doing the right thing already! :-)