hat, $35 to translate that? I heard there are computer programs that can do the same thing," a potential customer complained to me once. It wasn't the first time someone had said something along those lines. "My colleague was very pleased with your work," another person told me, "but I found someone who could do it much cheaper." While many customers don't seem to know much about the translation process, a surprising number of them do seem to have pretty firm ideas about who can translate and how much it should cost.
I'll never forget the Friday night when a customer e-mailed me a bunch of documents at 10 p.m. with instructions to have everything translated by Monday morning. He had not asked me if I was available to translate that weekend, if I was proficient in the field the documents covered, or even how much it would cost. I wrote him back within the hour (yes, I was actually working then anyway!) to tell him that because his assignment was a weekend rush job it would cost more than usual, and he sent me an angry response in the middle of the night. "I suspect that you and I have vastly different ideas about working together," he wrote. "There is no way I am paying that amount."
In May, at the annual conference for the Swedish Association of Professional Translators, translator David Rumsey gave a lecture about the United States translation market. Something he mentioned was that one reason why the American market is large but underdeveloped is because there are pervasive myths there about what exactly translation involves. Mr. Rumsey mentioned that many Americans believe that translation is simply "typing in a foreign language," and others think anyone can do it (say, the secretary whose grandpa came from Puerto Rico, or the Chinese chef at a restaurant), and still others have heard that there's translation software that's just as good as, or possibly better than, actual people. Mr. Rumsey may consider these false beliefs American, but the fact is that they are not unique to the United States. Many translators I've spoken to, whether from Sweden, England, the United States, or elsewhere, have shared tales about customers who claimed they'd go find "some student" or "ask the foreign neighbor for help" rather than pay a professional translator to do the job properly.
The more customers know about what translation means, the more they understand why they ought to pay for high-quality work.
If so many translators have stories like these, the question then becomes how to educate customers about what translation really is and why it is worthwhile to pay for professional services. To start off, translators can include detailed information about their background, their work methods, and their opinions about translation in any marketing material they use, including their websites. This sounds obvious, but there are people who think that their job title means enough on its own, or that since translation is necessary and important, it can sell itself. While some customers may simply skim over whatever you write and instead just request an estimate, many are curious and will read the text. If you have been to law school and specialize in legal texts, for example, or if you have translated a dozen novels, or if you have attended programs in translation, or if you worked as an engineer for 15 years before becoming a translator of technical manuals, announce those facts and describe what they mean for you as a translator; potential clients will be impressed and will know that you clearly are qualified for the job and will expect to be paid accordingly. You can also write about why translation is important and how your services will help the customers. If you translate grades for students who want to apply to study abroad, point out that you are certified, or if you work primarily for corporate clients, tell them that if they expect to sell products to customers in other countries, it is essential that the language on their website or in their users' manuals is correct. Give examples of poor mistranslations that they should want to avoid, and remind them that without good translation, their customers won't trust in the quality of their products or services. By the way, take that advice yourself, too, and make sure your own website is flawless; if necessary, hire a copy editor to review any foreign-language pages you have written.
Another step we translators can take is to turn down any assignments that are outside our fields of expertise. It is tempting to want to accept all jobs and to want to convince customers that we are excellent all-around translators, but honestly telling people that you work only on medical documents and never on poems, or that you are comfortable with genealogy but not with contracts, makes them more aware that each translation is a specific text with its own requirements and that special skills and knowledge are needed. Just as a heart surgeon wouldn't think of treating a patient's allergies and a professor of Victorian literature wouldn't dare teach a physics course, neither should translators attempt work on subjects that are far out of their own fields. That doesn't mean, of course, that translators can't learn about new areas and add new specializations, but it is not professional to endeavor to do that in just a couple of days, and if you don't do a good job, you will not only have lost a customer, but also anyone he would have recommended you to. If you turn down an assignment, try to recommend a qualified colleague for it. Both your colleague and your customer will appreciate it; the former may reciprocate by referring customers to you for jobs in your field, and the latter will remember the extra service you provided and may return to you with other assignments in the future.
Something I try to do whenever I receive a shocked response to an estimate is to write a polite e-mail in which I explain what is involved in translation and how I arrived at the price. If a lot of research is required in order to find specific technical words or if the assignment requires you to work nights or over a weekend, tell the customer. If you are expected to complete a large job in a short period of time or if you will have to go to a university library to use reference books that are only found there, explain that. Don't be shy about saying how many hours you anticipate a translation to take you or about describing what the work will demand of you; most people don't understand what goes into a translation and they may, as Mr. Rumsey said, view it as merely "typing in a foreign language." I have more than once told customers how long their documents would take me to translate, how much tax I would pay, what amount would be left over, and how much that equaled per hour of work. Some people were definitely surprised at the minimum wage the fee they offered me turned out to be, and they understood that the prices I named weren't just randomly chosen but that they had been carefully considered. Others were interested to learn that a translator didn't just sit down at a computer and look up words in a dictionary for a few minutes and then the assignment was finished. It is unfortunately easy to take a service for granted when you don't know what it really involves.
In his lecture, Mr. Rumsey offered some other ideas. He suggested that translators should provide information about different languages and cultures, which would presumably help those who believe that the world is monolingual, and reduce the risks for customers. By reducing the risks, he meant that translators and translation agencies should be prepared to provide free consulting and editing, have third-party reviewers, and other language-related services. I personally am not sure that offering cheaper prices or free translations is the best method, as people are often reluctant to start paying for something they initially received for free or at a reduced cost, and people don't always value what they don't pay for. But I know that some translators like to attract customers with low prices and then convince them to remain customers, even as the prices are increased, by doing good work.
The more customers know about what translation means and what qualifies a translator to take on a given assignment, the more they understand why they ought to pay for high-quality work. It's true that some people will always want to take the cheap route, regardless of what that means for their documents, but others will realize that doing something right usually means paying for it. So make the choice easy for your customers by giving them as much information as you can about your background and experience, about what translation entails, and about your pricing system. A customer who really cares about his documents and who has been educated about translation is less likely to waste your time by arguing that his friend or a computer program could do the job just as well and for half the cost. An educated customer is more likely to choose you and your services, and to gladly pay for a job well done.