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Ethics, a case for opinions from other pros
Thread poster: Walter Lockhart Ries
Walter Lockhart Ries  Identity Verified
Spanish to English
+ ...
Sep 3, 2003

I want to present a case to hear what other translators would have done in a similar situation.

Three months before day 1, an agency that has given me a lot of work over the years, including my first years as a translator, asked me if I would reserve 4 days to do a special project, the background of which I was familiar with through interpreting for the end client, starting on such and such a day three months hence. Let’s call that starting day day 1. The project would entail about 50 pages. I accepted and noted the days in my agenda.

When day x arrived, I heard nothing from the agency. Mid-morning on day 2, I phoned the agency and asked about the project (which I will call project A). The owner was away and the secretary told me that they had received nothing from the end client. I asked her to contact the owner and ask what I should do. Another agency was offering me work that I could not accept if I could not begin before day 5. I suggested that this situation was like calling a taxi and, when the taxi arrives, asking the driver to wait without starting the meter until you are ready, without specifying the time that you will take to get ready. Shortly, the secretary called and told me that the owner had said that she could do nothing about the situation, that I had to wait.

I contacted the other agency and declined the project that they were offering me.

Mid-morning on day 3, I received the first instalment of project A and started translating. On day 4, I was offered a large project (project B) by a new agency (new for me). The deadline was very comfortable. I calculated that I had about 5 days to spare. I accepted.

The same day (day 4), the project A agency offered me three days of conference interpreting starting on day 6. I accepted.

Meanwhile, new instalments of project A started arriving. Still no special problem because I could afford to start project B up to 5 days late without compromising my ability to finish on time.

I went to the conference and, fortunately, it finished one day early. I rushed back and found that project A had grown from the estimated 50 pages to about 75. I told that agency that I would not be able to do all of it. The owner told me that she could not share the project out to another translator because the end client had asked that the project be done specifically by me. This was day 9 (four days after my original commitment to project A had terminated).

I worked on project A and postponed commencing project B. Still more instalments of project A came in. I contacted the agency again and insisted that I could not continue working on project A. The owner said she would have another translator do any remaining instalments if I did the ones that had just arrived and would revise the other translator’s work. I accepted.

I finished project A on day 11 and started work on project B. On day 12, the project A agency sent me several pages of project A done by another translator to revise. I did them and continued working on project B, which, by then, was going to require me to translate more than twice as many words per day as my normal daily output to finish on time.

On day 13, the project A agency sent me the whole project (85 pages) for a final revision, since the end client had put all the instalments together (like a jigsaw puzzle) in the correct order and made a few, very few, small changes.

What should I have done at that point?


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Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:50
English to Tamil
+ ...
Three months advance booking is always asking for trouble Sep 3, 2003

Agreed that the agency A meant well. Still, when asked to allot certain fixed dates well into future, it is always a better policy to hedge your position. Ask for some retainership fee. Client will not accept. Then tell him that he has to take his chances at the appropriate time. Tell him, other things being equal, you will prefer him to any other new client and so on. Otherwise you will be having a lot of heartburn and tension. Such clients want you to commit something in advance without any additional cost to themselves. But when it comes to a commitment on their part, they are delightfully vague. This will not do. In your place I would have accepted the work from the second agency in the absence of any word from the first one on the appointed date. In your case it appears that they have taken you for granted. Never allow yourself to be in such a position. You seem to be well in demand and you should command respect from the clients.

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xxxMarc P  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
German to English
+ ...
Opinion Sep 3, 2003

Walter Lockhart Ries wrote:
What should I have done at that point?


At that point, I'm afraid, it's too late to do very much!

Customers often warn me that a job is coming. They seldom if ever ask me to "reserve" time for it. Where agencies are concerned, in particular, everyone knows that texts often arrive later than originally envisaged, through no fault of the agency's. I plan on the basis of a "gentlemen's agreement" in these cases; the customer could fail to provide the text according to plan, and by the same token I could refuse it. Either of use would be within our rights, in my view, and whilst others might want to discuss the legality of verbal agreements, I consider breaking them more as a violation of the healthy co-operation that is so essential between translator and customer. Ultimately, translator and customer must be honest with each other about their respective situations, i.e. must inform each other as soon as any circumstances arise which jeopardize the original agreement.

an agency (...) asked me if I would reserve 4 days to do a special project


If you attach importance to this being a firm order, you should request a PO at that point, indicating dates of receipt and delivery of the texts. If the agency isn't prepared to give you a PO, they obviously haven't formally "booked" your time.

The reality is that an agency won't usually be able to give such a commitment. An honest agency will say so, and keep you informed. ("Our customer has promised"... "it's 90% certain"... etc.) Some dishonest agencies tell their freelance suppliers to keep capacity clear at the slightest whiff of an order. If they can find enough victims, they don't have the fixed overheads of staff translators! My advice: don't bother trying to get firm commitments. Instead, just stop working for them. The best way of dealing with sharks is not to feed them.

When day x arrived, I heard nothing from the agency. Mid-morning on day 2, I phoned the agency


If you considered your time to have been "booked", this is too late to be calling.

The owner was away and the secretary told me that they had received nothing from the end client. I asked her to contact the owner and ask what I should do.


Waste of time. You are in danger of becoming an unpaid project manager! How you handle it at this point depends on your relationship with the agency, of course, but you should make it clear that by now, you expect to receive a PO by a certain deadline, or you will no longer be available. At the same time, you should re-negotiate the final deadline.

I suggested that this situation was like calling a taxi and, when the taxi arrives, asking the driver to wait without starting the meter until you are ready


This argument is logical, but won't work. It may be that an agency is honest but simply so badly managed that no one remembers to tell you that the job has been delayed. In that case, you should have their full sympathy as soon as you call, and you won't need to use such arguments! On the other hand, a dishonest agency will not be interested in fairness.

As for the rest of your message, it is all about you doing your best to schedule your work based upon unreliable commitments. It happens to us all sooner or later. I tend to err on the conservative side when accepting work, not just because it might appear later than promised, or because a more valued customer might also call, but also because it might turn out to be more time-consuming than anticipated. I always have a backlog of administration to catch up on anyway, so I never have any dead time.

Scheduling takes a certain amount of practice, but there's no need to make it harder than necessary. Expect businesslike behaviour from customers from the outset, and if you don't get it, look elsewhere.

Marc


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Anne Lee  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:20
Member (2003)
Dutch to English
+ ...
What it is to be popular... Sep 3, 2003

Hi Walter. The agency that gave you Project A was clearly overstepping the mark, relying on your loyalty and flexibility to make up for their lack of efficiency.
You gave agency A plenty of leaway already, but by day 13 you desperately needed to get on with Project B to preserve your own sanity AND your reputation, which is obviously excellent.
When you accepted that you would revise another translators' work, there should have been some limits specified on how much time you were able to dedicate, but the understanding was that you were working on another project and hence not free to spend more time on Project A. Although Project A was initially your project, by day 13 it should have been firmly someone else's responsibility. Revising 85 pages that had 'incurred a few minor changes' should not be underestimated. It is not something that can be combined with delivering twice your daily output on Project B. I sympathise with the feeling of trying to keep all our customers happy all of the time without turning projects away or letting good customers down, but our time is not an infinite resource.


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Catherine Bolton  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Member (2002)
Italian to English
+ ...
promises, promises Sep 3, 2003

Poor you!
My own rule of thumb is that if it ain't in my computer to be translated, it ain't a solid job. If we could bank all the potential jobs we are offered, we translators would be a wealthy lot indeed.

About a month ago, I received a call (on a Thursday, as I recall) from an agency with which I have a good rapport, asking me to do a short job to be turned in on Tuesday morning. I agreed. Thursday evening, no file. Friday morning, again no file. Friday evening, I get a call telling me they had just sent the file and were expecting it on Tuesday morning. So I told them that my agreement for a Tuesday deadline was for receipt of the file on Thursday. Since delivery of the file to me had shifted by nearly two days, so would my delivery of the file back to them.
In another case involving a much larger job (a book), the bulk was delivered to me two weeks before the contractual deadline. So I asked them to amend the contract in writing. Again, my delivery of the book depends on their delivery of the text to me.

In your case, the agreement was for X pages for a certain date. Not only did you receive the file late, but you also received a job that was 50% longer than stipulated. This means the terms change.
Unfortunately, what's done is done, and I agree with my colleagues that you should have addressed the problem back on Day 1.


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xxxT_Herrmann  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
German to English
+ ...
after all, we all do business. Sep 3, 2003

Sometimes agencies providing you with good and steady work kind of forget that you're nothing else than they are themselves, a business entity. Presumed you are established (and judging by your schedule you definitely are) the old saying really gets it to the point: "TIME IS CASH"

See, if you were selling cars, and I bought a lot of cars from you, I could see a point in asking you for a rebate, what I could not ask though, is that you do not sell to another customer to attend to my convenience based on a maybe-sell.

I think by making yourself available at the agreed upon time, you have fulfilled your obligation in respects to good business ethics and practice. By turning down another offer, not even knowing what would happen with Project A, you went a step further, and paid tribute to the fact that this agency is one of the better clients.

Anything more I don't think is justified. I just don't think it is justified to ask of someone to loose money on such a basis.

If you're in constructions and you order a service, and your site is not ready when your contractor arrives, you pay. It's that simple.

After all, whatever your reasons are to be a translator, love of linguistics, rewarding occupation, whatever, first and foremost it is your source of income, and income is not something you dispose over light-heartedly. If they are a good agency with some consideration for their revenue creating resource, namely the translator, then they will have to understand if this resource is indisposed.

Long story short meaning, you went above and beyond the call of duty, and shouldn't feel that there were any discrepancies on your side.


Hope this helped somewhat and better luck next time
T_


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Walter Lockhart Ries  Identity Verified
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Of course, you're right. Sep 3, 2003

cbolton wrote:


Unfortunately, what's done is done, and I agree with my colleagues that you should have addressed the problem back on Day 1.


Of course, you're absolutely right; and that's what I would have done for any other client. With this client, however, the relationship has always been more than just business, due largely to the agency's patience with and confidence in me when I was just starting in the profession over 10 years ago, not to mention a lot of good advice and recommendations to other agencies.

[Edited at 2003-09-03 10:52]


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Catherine Bolton  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Member (2002)
Italian to English
+ ...
It only speaks well of YOUR ethics Sep 3, 2003

Walter Lockhart Ries wrote:

Of course, you're absolutely right; and that's what I would have done for any other client. With this client, however, the relationship has always been more than just business, due largely to the agency's patience with and confidence in me when I was just starting in the profession over 10 years ago, not to mention a lot of good advice and recommendations to other agencies.



Sounds like you're in an even tougher spot! I've been there as well, as you feel a sense of loyalty to these folks. But again, your first loyalty is to yourself, and the agency certainly had no qualms about keeping you tied up!
I didn't mean to sound tough in saying that the problem should have been addressed immediately, particularly in a delicate case like this. But I DO think that you have to look at the "big picture", as they say, and draw a lesson from it. The agency is simply not as fair to you as you are to the agency, so I'd expand.
And cultivate Agency 2!


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Anne Lee  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 02:20
Member (2003)
Dutch to English
+ ...
What happened next? Sep 3, 2003

Will you share with us what you did on day 13? I trust your relationship with the agency survived.

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Walter Lockhart Ries  Identity Verified
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
I beg to wait until Fri. for answering this. Sep 3, 2003

Anne Lee wrote:

Will you share with us what you did on day 13? I trust your relationship with the agency survived.


I am leaving now on a trip. Be back tomorrow night late. I'll answer on Fri. morning. Besides, more opinions may come in before I 'fess up to what I did.
Thanks to all who have responded. I'll be back early Fri. morning.


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Lisbeth Benavides  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:20
English to Spanish
+ ...
psychological manipulation is a common tactic! Sep 3, 2003

I would not have liked to be in your shoes Walter! I have been in similar situations before so I know the feeling well, but I am (gradually) learning to assert my rights as a service provider too (not easy!...) I have learned that if you let a customer get too pushy, then this will usually be the dynamic between you and your client for the rest of your business relationship. The secret, I think, lies in establishing the rules of the game from the outset - without of course, sounding arrogant or disrespectful- just clear and firm. Its an art most of us translators have to learn to master in order to achieve a balance between mantaining old/attracting new clients while keeping our sanity and stress levels within reasonable, tolerable levels!

Something similar (although not as complicated) happened to me last week. A law firm I work for on a regular basis called me Friday 7.00 pm. They needed a 26 page translation done for Monday 8.00 am. They said they would be sending the doc. in 10 minutes. I left my office at 8:20 pm after receiving nothing. Saturday 10.00 am I finally received the doc. with instructions only to do half the doc. until advised because changes were still being made to the original document. They would be sending the second half in a 'couple of hours.' To cut a long story short, the couple of hours lasted 4 days!!!! In the meantime, after not having received the second part on Monday, I sent a message to my client saying that I understood that they had not completed their work yet, but I had undertaken to do this work to deliver on Monday a.m. and of course I would be happy to complete the job for them whenever they sent the remaining part to me, but my availability would depend on my workload at that particular time, since I couldn't go on waiting indefinitely. Tuesday evening (9.00 pm) I received the rest. One has to be firm, realistic and with no disrespect let them know that you also have other clients, and a life!!


Sometimes I feel that the translating business is like being a doctor eternally on call, and this is exactly the crux of the matter: we have to learn where to draw the line between 'strictly business' and the 'ethical' or moral sense of responsibility (or even 'vocation' on occasions! I have learned to be wary of those who expect you to comply with impossible deadlines, and argue that 'we don't want anybody else but you do do this work, because we trust you ....! Isn't that what mental health workers call psychological manipulation???

My two cents FYE!
Lis


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Narasimhan Raghavan  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:50
English to Tamil
+ ...
Exactly my sentiments Sep 4, 2003

Clients expect you to be precise in all your commitments but are delightfully vague about theirs. A prospective client was negotiating with me and told me that he had thousands of pages and wanted me to quote low for the five pages he was having at the moment. I challenged him to show those thousands of pages at first, give at least 100 pages as a firm order before talking of discounts. He hemmed and hawed and said that the documents are expected within a week. I told him that I will collect everything along these 5 pages after a week. Fact is he had just those 5 pages. He was understandably annoyed at what he called my "unreasonable(!) attitude. As his requirement for the 5 pages was very urgent he paid me my normal price. My advice: be polite but also firm. Your body language should reinforce you. When in doubt, never let the other party know it. The other party too is doing the same thing.

Lisbeth Benavides wrote:

I would not have liked to be in your shoes Walter! I have been in similar situations before so I know the feeling well, but I am (gradually) learning to assert my rights as a service provider too (not easy!...) I have learned that if you let a customer get too pushy, then this will usually be the dynamic between you and your client for the rest of your business relationship. The secret, I think, lies in establishing the rules of the game from the outset - without of course, sounding arrogant or disrespectful- just clear and firm. Its an art most of us translators have to learn to master in order to achieve a balance between mantaining old/attracting new clients while keeping our sanity and stress levels within reasonable, tolerable levels!

Something similar (although not as complicated) happened to me last week. A law firm I work for on a regular basis called me Friday 7.00 pm. They needed a 26 page translation done for Monday 8.00 am. They said they would be sending the doc. in 10 minutes. I left my office at 8:20 pm after receiving nothing. Saturday 10.00 am I finally received the doc. with instructions only to do half the doc. until advised because changes were still being made to the original document. They would be sending the second half in a 'couple of hours.' To cut a long story short, the couple of hours lasted 4 days!!!! In the meantime, after not having received the second part on Monday, I sent a message to my client saying that I understood that they had not completed their work yet, but I had undertaken to do this work to deliver on Monday a.m. and of course I would be happy to complete the job for them whenever they sent the remaining part to me, but my availability would depend on my workload at that particular time, since I couldn't go on waiting indefinitely. Tuesday evening (9.00 pm) I received the rest. One has to be firm, realistic and with no disrespect let them know that you also have other clients, and a life!!


Sometimes I feel that the translating business is like being a doctor eternally on call, and this is exactly the crux of the matter: we have to learn where to draw the line between 'strictly business' and the 'ethical' or moral sense of responsibility (or even 'vocation' on occasions! I have learned to be wary of those who expect you to comply with impossible deadlines, and argue that 'we don't want anybody else but you do do this work, because we trust you ....! Isn't that what mental health workers call psychological manipulation???

My two cents FYE!
Lis


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Parrot  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 03:20
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Walter, this is such a familiar story Sep 4, 2003

... that I'm not surprised to find myself in your shoes today. A client who was leaving for the States sent me all the speeches he was going to be making on his tour (late, of course), and just as I thought he had finished (and settled down to a bigger chunk of work), surprise, surprise, he's still here, and so are all the contracts he's proposing to bring along, all urgent...

What to do, when you're regarded as practically a member of his "extended (professional) family"? Grin and bear it


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 04:20
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Everybody tries to shrink schedules Sep 5, 2003

Usually on such jobs one notices later, that the job was not so urgent after all. When Agency A delivered late, Walter had the right to let them wait too and take on other projects first.
For the future I'd advice to get a friend or a couple ready to take on excess work. Outsourcing! There are often those crazy days, when work comes in from all directions and sometimes weeks without anything new. I outsource all the time, especially during the holiday seasons.


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Walter Lockhart Ries  Identity Verified
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
That brings up another ethical question. Sep 5, 2003

Heinrich Pesch wrote:

For the future I'd advice to get a friend or a couple ready to take on excess work. Outsourcing! There are often those crazy days, when work comes in from all directions and sometimes weeks without anything new. I outsource all the time, especially during the holiday seasons.


Heinrich, I was under the impression that outsourcing was not ethical unless authorized by the client. I don't know where I got that impression. Is it correct?

[Edited at 2003-09-05 10:51]


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