Let’s say you receive a letter from your client: “We need to translate only five words, but our budget is already exhausted this month. We will be grateful if you can do this for free.” You want to make your client happy and agree without any hesitation. But it turns out that there are three glossaries, eight screenshots, and strict requirements regarding the number of characters that come with these five words. Most linguists would ask for a minimum fee for this kind of work. So, making your client happy got you to a negative budget and dissatisfied linguists whom you asked to reduce their usual rate.
I have been working as a project coordinator for three years. My first project was to translate two words into 32 languages, which we did for free. Everything went perfect that time, but I realized that linguists will not always be so responsive, and a small number of words does not guarantee that it won’t take half a day to complete the task. Today, when a client asks me to translate something for free, I know exactly how to reply.
Please keep in mind that within this article I discuss how to deliver quality translation for free for your regular clients. Test translations and new clients are always a separate story.
The only case when you have to complete a client’s request for free is when errors in your work were found and you need to correct them. It doesn’t matter that a month has passed since you delivered this project. If you agree that there are mistakes, you apologize and correct everything for free, pushing whatever else you have going on to the side.
On one occasion, a client sent us a small update to our existing translation that we delivered a couple of months ago. When I started thinking if I should ask for payment for this task I noticed an error we missed when delivering this project last time. We implemented the correction the client asked for and fixed our previous error for free.
In my team, our main client checks almost all requests that we perform. Reviewers on their side read our texts and list all errors in a special form. We always implement any corrections that are in this form for free.
In all other cases, you do not have to work for free. You always have the right to say “no”. Of course, you can agree with the client’s request or even propose to complete a translation for free. But such a decision must always be balanced, and your wish to please the client should never play the major role in it.
When a client asks me to do something for free or sends me a very small request, my first instinct is to reply: “Of course, we will be happy to do it!”. Such requests usually seem simple and I know we’ll get the customer loyalty in return. Doesn’t that sound like a winner? But then I remember where this could take me and my team and begin to analyze the request.
I prepared a checklist that helps me make the decision that I will not regret later. If more than half of these statements are true for the current request, you can agree to make it for free.
|Simple request: can be done for free
|Complex request: needs payment
|Translate three words
|Translate three words based on five references. They need to be in consistency with the final fi les of the project that you translated four years ago
|Translate five words into a standard language pair
|Translate five words from Esperanto into the language of the Atlantis people
|Translate two words into three languages
|Translate two words into three languages, and into another 10 languages from the list in the attachment
Remember that unexpected things can always happen. On one occasion, a linguist agreed to perform a request of mine for free. The translation seemed to be easy and nothing foreshadowed any trouble. Having assigned the project I went to a meeting with peace of mind. When I returned, I discovered that nothing went according to plan. First, the linguist had problems downloading the file. When they did manage to download it, it did not open. Finally, the linguist realized that they needed more context to deliver a quality translation and had to perform extensive research. As a result, much more time than estimated was spent on this “easy” translation. Of course, I thought it would be right to pay the linguist for the work.
Imagine that you weigh all the pros and cons and render a verdict—it’s worth it to give the client a freebie. You wrote them back about your decision and felt happy with yourself. From then on, this could be your little free headache for a long time.
Translation memory is always the first place where you can find the translation you need. Everything that you have accumulated on similar projects could be useful. We keep some TMs from LSPs we worked with. For direct client we maintain the TMs on our side.
If you found a suitable translation in a TM, ask a native linguist to confirm that it’s the best one possible. You have already done a part of work for them, and they can simply reply with a quick email. We do not ask for linguists’ help only in one case—if the current translation context fully coincides with a previous similar project. In any case, the PM never comes up with something on a whim and translates anything themselves.
Check the list of current projects and try to find the one which would match your request by customer, subject and language pair.
If the project is still at the translation stage, simply send an additional file to the linguist and add the right amount of words to the PO. The project budget will not suffer much from this. You would pay much more if you sent a separate request to the linguist and issued a minimum fee PO for it.
In case the files have already been bundled up into relevant folders and the option above won’t work, you can also come up with a suitable solution. For example, I ask linguists to translate the necessary phrase at the LSO stage, which is paid by the hour. Most likely, the linguist will have enough paid time for both the main task and the small additional request. If it is not enough—we will pay extra time without any questions.
This can work only if the linguist is someone you work with on a regular basis.
Write directly and be honest. I can ask for such help only from those linguists with whom we have long and trusting relationships. In this case, I write everything as it is: “Dear John, we received a small request for translation—just three words. Unfortunately, we do not have any budget for this project. I would be grateful if you could help me at no cost.”
Do not forget that the linguist also has the right to say “no”. I always end such requests with the phrase: “Please inform me if you believe this request should be paid.” When you show that you respect the linguist’s time and give them an opportunity to decline, there is more chance that they would agree to help you.
If you write “my request will not take you more than a couple of minutes,” it should be so. Prepare the request email so that the translator does not have to spend extra time opening programs and reference files. Write directly in the email: what needs to be translated, consistently with what other prior translations, and what term should be used. Write briefly and clearly so that the linguist can open the email, read the instructions and reply immediately without additional clicks.
They are not obligated to do anything for free—they are just doing you a favor. For you, asking them to do something for free is an exception, not a usual way to save money.
Once a linguist lectured me for a free translation request: “When there are many free work requests in a row, it does not feel fair.” As it turned out, a couple of days before my request he had already helped my colleague at no cost. This is a good example of how the wish to save money can badly affect your relationship with your linguists.
Free work always carries risks. Any linguist, no matter how good they are, may not be as diligent when they work for free, as they are with paid requests. If this happens, you won’t have a leg to stand on blaming them, but the client will be equally dissatisfied with errors, regardless of whether the order was paid or not.
The wish to earn client loyalty is a great wish indeed. But a free order is not always the best tool to make your clients happy.
If you assess the situation and clearly see that this time you cannot perform the work for free, do not be afraid to refuse. But remember that your “no” should be reasoned and understandable.
Clients do not always understand how much work can be involved in translating a couple of words. It’s your job to explain how many experts would be involved, how the quality would be checked, what difficulties you may face in this request, etc. Show that your “no” is explained by your wish to guarantee the utmost quality for your client. I’m sure you would rather earn the respect of the client by explaining your refusal to work for free, than by jeopardizing your relationship with your linguists and spending much of your own time on free work.