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Tips for freelancers on how to work with translation companies

Not only do you, some of your friends, and your brother Alex consider yourselves to be translators, but so does just about anyone else who has ever studied a language. But getting a degree is just theory. When that theory comes into contact with how language is used, this can result in countless mistakes, misunderstandings, and conflicts. This article is about how to avoid such situations.

At different stages of life, we’ve all looked for opportunities to work remotely or have at least thought about it. The translation industry is a good field for this sort of work. You send your CV out to various companies, and some of them will probably get in touch with you and offer you some work. Officially, they expect you to have work experience, proficiency in your native language, and the inevitable “computer knowledge at the level of an experienced user”. You also need to be available for work during a given time frame.

Theoretically, it sounds easy: “Kiss the book, sign the oath, and you’re the king. Easy.” (Lionel Logue, King’s speech, 2010). You receive a text, translate it, send it back, and get paid.

In reality, what happens is more like the following: you get a text that you can hardly understand on an unfamiliar subject like “The Peculiarities of Growing Yams in the Highlands” (what made you add a line about agriculture to your CV?), you have to work in PO Edit (what do you mean you aren’t familiar with this tool?), you’ve got 24 hours (you did mention that you translate 2,000 words a day, didn’t you?), and the final text has to be checked in Xbench (wait, you’re not familiar with that tool either?).

You’re used to working only in Word, and running a spell check has always been enough to check the quality. You’re going to have to use the time you were planning to spend on the translation to learn how to use the two new programs. And now you desperately need a few more hours.

It’s coming down to the wire. You don’t answer phone calls or messages (there’s no time, only two pages to go!). Regardless, you still don’t have enough time. In the end, you check the text quickly and send it back. It’s morning by the time you get to bed, as you work straight through the night. You feel miserable.

Both parties are dissatisfied: the client thinks you lack the necessary knowledge and work at a snail’s pace, while you think they’re too hard to please.

Let’s take a closer look at this situation from both points of view.

In your CV, you informed the translation company, your future client, that you translate from Ukrainian into English (that’s true) and that you can translate approximately 2,000 words a day (partly true: the exact number depends on a lot of factors), that you use TradosMemoQ, “and many other CAT tools” (actually, you’ve only used Trados twice, but if you don’t mention five or six CAT tools, they’ll think you’re an amateur), and also that “agriculture” is one of your specializations (that’s a lie: you simply had to show how open-minded you were).

Thus, only about 25 percent of the information in your CV is truthful. Nevertheless, it got the attention of a translation company looking for a Ukrainian-English translator with knowledge of PO Edit and experience in the field of agriculture. From the company’s point of view, you met all of their requirements.

But the fact is that you could have from the very beginning:

  • given the client accurate and truthful information about your experience;
  • asked them for instructions concerning the new program and some time to learn it;
  • studied the requirements for the project;
  • asked for more time to complete the translation or turned down the job and told them the reasons for doing so.

Had you done this beforehand, the client could have found another translator while you probably would have been given another project that was more suitable for you. And everyone would have ended up happy.

Some of the key factors involved in the relationship between translators and translation companies are outlined below. Misunderstanding these factors can harm your relationship. They didn’t appear out of thin air: they are all conclusions drawn from analyses of numerous unpleasant situations.

Have a look at a good translator’s monitor: most likely, they’ll be using a dozen or so programs at the same time: a CAT tool, dictionaries, and glossaries, the source file in PDF or HTML format, a browser with a lot of open tabs, a text file with notes on the project they’re working on, a program for automated quality control, etc.

The number of programs used in the translation industry could make your head spin. It’s perfectly acceptable if you don’t know how to work with some of them. But it’s not acceptable to refuse to learn them. By learning them, you not only improve yourself, but you also earn a reputation as a qualified expert. But by sticking to the few programs you’re used to working with, you deprive yourself of an opportunity to develop and lose money.

Every project has countless nuances that are impossible to predict based on the instructions. You’ll most likely have to ask the project manager some questions. But they won’t always be able to answer right away. This isn’t because they want you to do a poor job or because the project manager is slow. There could be a lot of reasons for the lack of response: the project manager is juggling a lot of projects and can’t get back to you right away; it’s late; there was an unexpected computer crash; they forwarded your question to the client, who is in a different time zone, etc.

A translator has to be able to work independently. You can figure out most instructions and programs on your own. Solutions to the vast majority of problems have been available online for ages. You have to realize that the project needs to be submitted on time even if no one can provide support when you need it. If the project manager was unable to get back to you and your question affects the translation, simply add a note to your translation when you submit it.

The devil is in the details. Translation is an industry where carelessness can lead to serious problems. If you write “ON” instead of “OFF” in the instructions for a medical device, just imagine what your mistake might mean for patients.

Always reread your work before submitting it. No tool can replace common sense and experience.

Project work always requires time management. Strict deadlines, partial deliveries, quality control — all of this creates tension and makes you feel like you’re constantly in a hurry. That’s why you must assess your abilities properly.

If you realize you’re not going to meet the deadline, don’t panic or lose your composure. Inform the project manager right away. This will allow them to soften the blow: they can ask for an extension, give part of the job to another translator, etc. You won’t tarnish your reputation if you inform them in advance that you’re going to be late. However, you’ll ruin their impression of you if you inform them that you’re going to be late once the deadline has already arrived or, even worse if you don’t answer their messages or phone calls.

Murphy’s law states that: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. This isn’t a joke but rather an experience disguised as a joke.

For a translator to grow professionally, they must hear what others think of their work. If you don’t find out what happens to your work after you submit it, you’ll never become a good translator.

The job of the editor is not to criticize or grade the translator. Mistakes are an inevitable and, to a certain degree, even an essential part of the linguistic process. Information about what corrections were made and why will enable you — provided you use the information — to become a specialist on a particular subject relatively quickly. On the other hand, if you’ve already been told five times that, for example, you can’t put a space before a comma, but you insist on doing it a sixth time anyway, things are unlikely to work out with that company. They inform you about your mistakes so that you can keep them in mind and avoid repeating them.

First, you’ll probably think that they’re nitpicking and that you’re being unfairly criticized. The majority of arguments are the result of preferential corrections.

At serious companies, every job is evaluated as objectively as possible. If the company carries out quality control properly, the editor shouldn’t know whose work they’re checking. Moreover, even if the editor decides to “run wild,” they probably won’t be able to do so since the client usually has another editor check the translation once again.

Clients have strict requirements for translation companies. Therefore, translation companies also have strict requirements for their translators. A company wouldn’t accept poor work; however, it also wouldn’t make baseless accusations. All translations need to be complete, accurate, and free of serious mistakes caused by carelessness.

Relationships between translators and translation companies are always mediated. Communication usually takes place with project managers, the people who offer jobs and receive completed work. A translation company’s work schedule is often unpredictable: project managers can, at any time, receive urgent changes from clients, directions from their bosses, or questions from translators. They can’t answer everyone right away. So, don’t expect a quick reply to your question; it often takes time. Many clients are located in other time zones. If the client is in the United States, for example, then questions asked in the morning will be answered only later in the day. Or the client might not be available at all due to, for example, a national holiday in their country.

If you don’t receive an answer for a long time, it doesn’t mean that they have forgotten about you or that your question is not considered important. You’ll get a reply as soon as possible.

By the same token, you should try to understand exactly what it is you need and how urgent the issue is. This will help the project manager establish their priorities for the job and answer you promptly. Perhaps all you need to do is do a proper Google search. If the question is crucial, don’t be shy about reminding them that you’re waiting for a reply.

Distracting the project manager for any reason shows your inability to work with information and find solutions. It’s important to point out that the polar opposite, i.e., remaining silent until the very end, also doesn’t make you look good.

Another popular fallacy is thinking that if you haven’t been contacted for a long time, it means they’ve forgotten about you. This isn’t the case at all.

Sometimes, translators stop working with a company because they think they’ve been forgotten. In the beginning, jobs were coming in, they were getting follow-up assessments after their work was edited, and work kept coming. Then suddenly there was a break: no new projects and, most important, complete silence — they’re no longer contacting you at all. But this doesn’t mean the company has forgotten about you. It simply means that there’s been a lull at the company. This could happen for any number of reasons: work might be seasonal or related to where the company is located, or a series of translations the company was working on may have ended.

If you react harshly to objective comments on the part of editors, act rude, submit projects that haven’t been checked, and don’t respond to messages or calls from project managers when a project’s deadline has passed, then yes, the company might stop working with you without saying anything. In this case, however, you only have yourself to blame.

If that’s not the case with you, simply contact the project manager and inform them that you’ve got time and you’d like to translate something. You’ll get some work. If you’re not getting offers, that’s reason enough to send them a reminder. Perhaps it would be useful to learn a new program or specialization. If you’ve proved yourself to be a reliable partner, you’ll most likely get some work.

Translation companies have always valued their freelancers. If a company stops working with you without an obvious reason, don’t be shy about trying to find out what happened. In doing so, you’ll help maintain good working relations and you’ll avoid causing one another problems at the most inopportune time.

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