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Need insight on dealing with unhappy client (long post)
Thread poster: Stephen Martin

Stephen Martin  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:30
French to English
Aug 29, 2003

I’ve been self-employed as a French to English translator for two years and for the first time I’m running into a problem that some of you may have faced in the past.

In May I was contacted by a new prospect (a consulting firm) to do proofing work as well as some translation. After contacting their end client, they claimed that my original rate was too high and I agreed to lower it slightly – on an exceptional basis – for the first job. They thanked me but then didn’t get back to me.

In mid-July, literally 5 minutes before hopping on a 10-hour flight to my vacation destination with my wife (also a translator, but English to French) and daughter (not yet a translator), I got an e-mail from the prospect to order a proofreading job, as well as a translation job from En to Fr. As the translation was a bit long and we were on vacation, I called a colleague who does the other language pair and she accepted the job on a sub-contract basis.

When we got the work from our translator colleague three weeks later, my wife proofread it, only to notice quite a few problems with the translations (style, grammar and simply wrong translations due to poor understanding of some sentences in the English source document). We immediately informed the translator in writing that certain parts of her work were not up to par (upon rereading she fully agreed) and that it would take us much longer than originally planned to go through everything and get the translation right. As a result, we had to work day and night to get the document up to par for my client. We negotiated a few extra days for delivery (no problem on my client’s end), finalized the document and delivered it.

After my vacation was over, I called my client to follow up, only to find out that they were “disappointed” with the translation we had delivered (at that point they had only read 36 pages of the 110), claiming that it was not “perfect” and citing one mistranslation that my wife had overlooked while proofreading. I sent the client a formal letter of apology and asked them to send me the final version after their proofreading and / or some other examples of problems they found with the document so that we could improve our service in the future. They have yet to respond, and I have yet to send them an invoice for the price stipulated in the Purchase Order.

My proofreader and I fully assume responsibility for sending in a document that had a mistranslation – it’s a blow to us after putting in so much extra work. We have high quality standards and have never faced any such problems in dealing with extremely demanding clients (primarily consulting firms) for the past couple of years.

My question for you experienced translators out there is this: how should I deal with (1) my colleague who did what even she admits was sub-par work on the job and (2) the end client, who I have a strange feeling is going to get back to me saying either “we want a discount” or “we refuse to pay anything for this “/@% !!!” ?

I greatly appreciate any insight you may have on handling this type of situation.


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Amy Duncan  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:30
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Dealing with unhappy client... Aug 29, 2003

Just curious...did your colleage explain why she had done a sub-standard job? If she didn't have a really good excuse, I certainly wouldn't call on her for help again, if I were you!

It sounds to me as if the final product you sent to the client was fine, so I'm not sure why you're expecting him/her to refuse to pay or to ask for a discount. I would definitely make contact again, confidently, perhaps apologizing again for all the trouble, and requesting payment.

I have run into a really picky client only once, and since I felt my translation was fine, I stuck to my guns. Fortunately, I was working for a translation company and not directly for the client, and so my boss basically told the client that the work was good and that they would have to accept it!)


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Tina Vonhof  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:30
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Suggestion Aug 29, 2003

My suggestion would be:
1) offer the client a discount, and
2) pay your subcontractor a lower rate (since she agreed that her translation was not up to par).

That way, you may not come out very well financially but hopefully you will save your reputation.

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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:30
Italian to English
Two points ... Aug 29, 2003

Hi there 1015,

A couple of quick comments.

First of all, I wouldn't get over-excited about a first-time customer that offers you a big job just before you go on holiday. It's more than likely that their usual translators are already on the beach and they're looking for a stand-in.

The job might lead to repeat business but the odds are against it.

Still, this doesn't mean that you have to give them a second-rate translation. If your subcontractor delivers uneditable work, and agrees that it is bad, the logical thing to do is discount from his/her fee the time it took you to correct the translation, at your usual hourly rate.

I do quite a lot of team jobs and sometimes translators that I know are good turn in bad work. There are many possible reasons for this (illness, personal problems, etc etc) but I really don't want to know what they are.

If the translators have given me good work in the past, I want to work with them again.

The bad translation is simply a contingency that we can deal with together.

All the best,


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invguy  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:30
English to Bulgarian
My suggestion Aug 29, 2003

1) First off, make sure you do your best to correct the translation so that it would satisfy the client. While they are reviewing the copy you sent them, you might go through the file/s you have, and see if you can find other mistakes that have been overlooked. The job can be considered done & over only when the client receives the best translation you can provide.

2) Don't hurry to offer a discount. If the client gets a good translation in the end, an apology would do. If *they* insist on a discount, I'd eventually agree, but only within reasonable limits, and clearly pointing out that the discount is not related to the quality of the translation (which should be OK in its final version), but rather meant to compensate for the discomfort/delay that has been caused. Else, the translation has a price, and it is the price you named in your contract. Period.

3) Pay less to your subconractor. After all, you and your wife threw in a lot of work to correct what she sumbitted (which you, by default, were not supposed to do), so you are entitled to receive part of the money, and this is only fair. Of course, the part of the fee left for you probably would not completely compensate the time you wasted, not to speak about the stress - but this would be the loss you would bear due to your wrong choice of a subcontractor (or lack of intermediate control on her work, or taking the job at all, etc.)

I sincerely hope that ultimately the client will remain satisfied and would not 'heat up' the situation further on. Good luck!

My $0.02

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Maureen Holm, J.D., LL.M.
United States
Local time: 07:30
German to English
+ ...
first-time client is key Aug 30, 2003

I had a first-time client (agency) who said black for white, so I revised the German to match the English rather than vice versa, only to discover that the German client (principal) had done the English translation themselves (pretty shaky) and that I was to have revised the English. Of course, it was also a rush.
The agency conceded the less-than-clear instructed, but then faulted me for correcting only once a typo that appeared twice in the original German(!) I smelled a no-pay wiggle, and wrote firmly that they'd better not be thinking of not paying me. I sent a bill, with a discount. They rejected the bill and insisted on paying me the whole thing.
This client was lucky to get you pre-vacation and you were lucky to get your subcontractor colleague to step in. Since the colleague was reasonable throughout--and may be willing to help you out again (and you can be sure s/he will be extremely careful next time)--your allegiance lies there. You work out something fair with the colleague first and only then with the client.. I wouldn't worry about what else might have been found or about asking the client to send you their 'perfect' text. Someone so inclined can always find something and should not be overly encouraged if you suspect at all that they might overreach. Besides, if they had your skills, they wouldn't have needed you in the first place.
I'd say go over the text, come up with an approximate success quotient, i.e. 90%, and send them a bill with a 10% discount. Unless the product was truly shoddy--and it clearly wasn't with three translators working on it--anything more than 20% is just punitive.
I also recently took a job which turned out to be a share with another translator I didn't know was even involved until the client complained to the agency and sent a a complete mark-up which was little more than an attempt to prove to his bosses that he owned a bankruptcy dictionary. (I'd translated the entire Code at one point in my translator travels.) I saw my unknown colleague's work was a little inartful in spots, but told the agency that I stood by my work--and by my colleague's. My unknown colleague did likewise and the client put away his red markers and paid up.
Good luck!

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