The Difficult Lives of Translation Clients

  • By Miriam Hurley
  • February 18, 2014
  • 0 Comment

I’ve been trying to find a decent plumber for weeks now. The plumbers, in high demand, are holding all the cards. My toilet is broken; I don’t know how to fix it. All I’ve got going for me is a little cash with which I will reluctantly part to stop my toilet from leaking.

Translators like to complain about clients. Clients who are demanding, who are too fussy, or not fussy enough because they don’t appreciate the art of what we do. Clients who want it cheap, want it fast, don’t care if it’s lousy. Sometimes I join the chorus of kvetch (clients who send me a new version of the source document the moment I’ve finished the translation of the earlier version; argh).

But, at the end of the day, we, the translators, are the stronger party in the relationship, particularly in language combinations where demand is on our side, like Italian>English. We have something our clients very much need for the success of their undertakings, just as I very much need a functioning toilet for the success of my household hygiene. They are usually poor judges of the quality of what they are buying, poor translator shoppers, and ill-equipped to navigate the complex translation marketplace.  Consequently, they are often sold a bill of goods. I’ve written advice on how to choose a freelance translator, but many clients don’t even know they need advice.

Many clients that are for-profit businesses suffer from being penny-wise/dollar-dumb. They pay a little bit less and get reputation-tarnishing junk. For example, the difference in price between a quality professional translation and a poor one for the web site of a hotel might equal the rate for a room for a night. Individual clients, such as book authors (Italian publishers seem to have done away with their translation budgets and put the onus on the author), may have the problem of understanding well the importance of a good translation and how much it can boost the success of their work, but not have several thousand dollars lying around. Some of my clients have turned to innovative ways to finance the translation, like Kickstarter or pre-orders. Then there are many would-be clients who are underserved by the marketplace: those who need “good-enough” translations at affordable prices for emails, blog comments, in-house texts, etc.

In my laborious attempts to get my leaky toilet fixed, I have at least one advantage over translation clients; I can tell if the toilet works or not. Naive translation clients might think they’ve got their problem solved and put online or print a silly translation, thereby wasting time and money and losing face. Poor clients!

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