Charlie Bavington

French to English Freelance Translator - I.T. specialist

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

April 10th, 2012 | Categories: business

Following my previous post, I’ve had a couple of emails from people thinking of switching from self-employment to limited company status, so I thought I’d whizz over the info I harvested when making the decision, in case it proved useful, for translators specifically. Needless to say, I’m not a qualified accountant or lawyer, so don’t rely on what I say as the be all and end all. Everybody’s circumstances are different. I think my situation is probably fairly simple – I have income only from translation, I work from home (no travel/car for business, which does add complexity), my tax code is ‘normal’, and so on.

Given that “tax efficiency” is often a motivating factor behind the decision to change status, most of this post will deal with the financial comparison. This post originally had almost no figures – on reflection I actually believe it’s clearer to include them, so I now have. The thresholds and percentages are all for the just-ended 2011-2012 financial year.

Self-employment
As I’m sure any s/e people will know, the financial maths itself for basic self-employment is fairly straightforward.
The invoices sent out are your gross income (accrual basis these days, not cash).
From that you can deduct business expenses and allowances (more on allowances later).

The result is your “profit from self employment”, on which you then pay the following to HMRC:

a) personal income tax on earnings over your personal allowance (£7,475 being the standard allowance), at the basic rate of  20% on the first £35,000 and 40% over that, up to £100,000 (it does get complicated after that, with reductions in personal allowances and more tax bands, but I think we can disregard that for the purposes of this exercise, since unless you are proving a political point in a Boris or Ken way, if you’re on 100k and haven’t got a limited company already…).
b) Class 4 National Insurance on profit from self-employment (the same figure as above, so yes, this is effectively a second tax on the same money) at a rate of 9% on that profit between £7,225 and £42,475, and 2% on profit over that level (ad infinitum, AFAIK).

The observant will note that the figure where Class 4 NI contributions drop to 2% is the same as the upper threshold for basic rate income tax + the ‘standard’ personal allowance. So a quick and dirty tax+NI combined calculation could be that from your profit from self-employment, the first 7,400 or so is tax free, you pay 29% on the next 35k, and 42% after that.

Moving away from quick and dirty into the wholesome sphere of accurate number crunching for running a comparison, do not overlook the fixed rate class 2 NI which is another deduction from your earnings, but not a tax-deductible one. And was only £130 in 2011-12, but still…

Limited Company
Limited companies are a tad more complicated, because there are more variables, the main ones being how many directors and shareholders there are, and whether those directors draw a salary, and if so how much. However, the guidance for tax efficiency, disregarding other considerations, is that a director should draw a salary at a level whereby they pay a small amount of NI (for state pension entitlement purposes) but not enough to pay personal income tax.

Given that, the company’s gross income is your invoices, like before.
From the gross figure , you can deduct the business expenses, as before. However, you cannot deduct allowances for use of the home as an office to the same extent (I know some s/e don’t use this allowance fully or at all anyway, for fear of CGT liability later), so if doing a hypothetical comparison calculation, you need to add these allowances, if any, back in for the calculation. Furthermore, if you’re not already using an accountant as a self-emp’d person (I wasn’t), you will need to deduct a further business expense in accountant’s fees, which I think are inevitable in the first years of a limited company at least.
You will also need to deduct as a company expense, which you would not do under s/e status:

a) the salary paid to the director(s), likely to be = £7,475 (so the director’s personal income tax = nil)
b) and the (small) amount of employers’ Class 1 NI contributions being 13.8% on salary(ies) over £7,228.

That gives you a taxable profit for the company from which you then deduct company tax at 20% (small company rate).
After company tax has been deducted, you can pay up to the amount left (retained earnings) in dividends to the shareholder(s).

So, in terms of income for the shareholder/directors, if dividend payments are not high enough to push the individual receiving them into the higher personal income tax bracket (a simplification – there is a tax credit of 10%, and it is the notional grossed up figure on which this calculation is based, not the actual amount of dividend paid itself, which is taken actually be = 90% of the notional 100% figure), then you don’t pay personal income tax on them.

Summary

Certainly as things stood for y/e April 2012, then disregarding the minor differences in the thresholds and assuming no higher rate tax, as both company tax and basic rate income tax were at 20%, the saving made from operating as a limited company was very broadly equal to the 9% paid in Class 4 NI.
In summary: If self-employed, you’d take your profit from self-employment, and pay 20% income tax and 9% NI on the amount above £7,400-odd, as mentioned earlier.
If a company, you’d pay yourself a salary equal to your personal income tax allowance (£7,475), the company would pay 20% tax on its profits (after your salary is deducted as a cost to the company) and then pay dividends, essentially tax free, to you, up to £31,500 (=35k grossed up).
The 20% tax paid would be broadly the same, although paid by different entities; the difference is the 9% NI deducted for the self-employed.

Hence, even at relatively low income levels, assuming 9% of your earnings over £7,475  is not greater than any potential extra costs incurred (e.g. accountants, or lost allowances permitted under s/e), and assuming you are in a position to opt for reasonably tax optimised arrangements in terms of salary levels and shareholdings, it can still make real sense to change status.

You can find websites that will do these calculations for you, but one drawback I found was that they do assume the start point “net profit” figure is the same if you’re self-employed as it is as a limited company. Which it may not be, and in my case certainly is not – see comments about allowances earlier.

The other point to note is that the cash flow is almost certainly going to be different. As a self-employed person, I was used to just transferring money from the business account to my personal account as and when the fancy struck. While in theory a company can pay dividends as often as it likes, a) the directors have to pass a resolution and issue formal document vouchers, and b) ideally, there has to be a P&L drawn up showing that the company has sufficient cash reserves to pay a dividend. You can bypass this with directors loans accounts and suchlike, topped up by dividend payments subsequently, but in terms of keeping your head down and your nose clean, it doesn’t seem (judging from comments in accounting forums) that using such a facility regularly is a good idea.

Any questions? :-)

April 2nd, 2012 | Categories: business

I have recently taken the plunge, as it were, and decided to convert from self-employment to a limited company, operating as of yesterday, in fact.

Let me share with you my experiences as a customer of Britain’s much vaunted financial services sector.

First, finding an accountant. The ICAEW website has a handy Business Advice Service scheme, for finding accountants. The first one I called, needless to say, failed to return my call. The second one took 300 quid off me to set up a company, which in fairness he actually did (rather pleasingly incorporated on my birthday, in fact!), then went off to Israel on holiday, two weeks before the end of the financial year in these miserable islands (perhaps this period is actually the calm before the year-end storm, I am utterly ignorant of accountants’ workflow, but it does seem a strange time to absent oneself from the perspective of the general public’s perception). I’m still not sure which of us is supposed to be e.g. sorting out directors’ shareholdings, but hey ho, minor details perhaps.

After all, I still haven’t got a bloody bank account to pay those directors either a salary or a dividend from, so no biggie, eh? “But surely, Charlie B, you’re an organised sort of chap,” I hear you cry, “why so tardy with the banking arrangements?” I’ll tell you.

On Monday 26th (one week ago), I ambled casually into my local branch of HSBC (where I have held a trading account since 2005), to see about opening a separate bank account for the new company. I say ambled casually – I had my passport and the memorandum of association and accountant’s letter, since I guessed there could be admin hoops to jump through, despite my having had a personal current account with HSBC since 1983 and the intended account name really being just the same as all my other HSBC account names with three extra letters, to wit l, t, and d – and I guess most casual amblers don’t carry that kind of heavy duty documentation around with them.

So I strolled up to the counter and said I would like to open a Business Direct account. See, I’d done my homework, knew what I wanted. The cashier looked a bit nonplussed. She flapped for help, and help came, in the form of the laughably-titled Customer Services Officer. Amiable enough fellow; told me I needed to phone an anonymous call centre to make an appointment to see someone. An appointment to take place in an office not 10 feet behind where he was standing. At the very least, it might have been decent of him to offer to make the appointment for me. Y’know, customer service and that kind of thing?

But no, yours truly had to do it himself. So I did, and could only make an appointment for this morning (2 April), a week later, 10 a.m., to see one Glenn M., the business advisor (or somesuch). I showed up, ten minutes early. Sadly, he did not show up at all. Another personable customer schmoozer (Elaine) oiled over to see me. She admitted she failed to understand how or why this appointment could have been made since Glenn was not due in today.

I explained, briefly, the situation. Self-employed and a trading account in that branch of HSBC since 2005 (personal account almost 30 years), need a separate account (Business Direct) for the limited company, no borrowing needed…. Maybe she could just open that for me? Astonishingly, no, she couldn’t. No-one in HSBC Barnet today has the necessary system permissions to access business accounts. So much for the banks helping oil the wheels of business, eh?

Now, you might think that I should try to contact HSBC to see what they have to say. I thought that too. Logged on to my personal online banking area, tried to send an abridged version of the above. The message I got?

“We are unable to deal with your request because you have entered an invalid character. Invalid characters are invalid character(s) ‘…’. Please try again. (S07) ”

Invalid characters are invalid characters. Genius.

Customer Service at HSBC? Draw your own conclusions.

Edit to add, for the benefit of those wondering why I went into the branch at all, that if you try to open one of these things online, you get this message:
“We cannot accept applications from existing customers online at this time.” They then say to contact a branch or call the call centre, and we know where that leads.

Further edit to remove the full names of the participants. It is not, after all, their fault HSBC’s procedures are so shambolic. I’ll keep the first names in for the purposes of the narrative.

March 23rd, 2012 | Categories: agencies, business

Quite a distracting week for those following the MoJ / ALS saga (I’m just going to assume you know what that is!). It changes the shape of this post, initially drafted several days ago.

I first heard about the matter when I was asked (in Aug 2011) to help draft a petition which finally emerged along with several others around October. (Sadly much cut, since there is a maximum length imposed, and my first effort reached half way to Downing Street.)
I then discovered a forum thread on proz (I know, bear with me) that includes loads of good background to the early days, then later more links than you can shake a stick at to tales of courtroom chaos (in truth, this is the best long-running thread I’ve seen about it, my own contributions notwithstanding).

If you’re on LinkedIn, you might be able to see another thread, on IAPTI’s group, by the indefatigable Au Humarán. (I say might, ‘cos I have doubts about my skills in posting links to LinkedIn – the URLs that site generates are weird and stretch into the next postal district – a peculiar approach for a site of that name…)

More recently, an excellent (and somewhat overlooked) review of how things stand was posted on Naked Translations last week.

Now, while I was (am) all in favour of interpreters’ refusal to work for ALS and highlighting the consequences of the framework agreement while everyone was playing with a straight bat, things are now starting to get a bit murky for my taste.

First there was a claim from ALS it had bought data from the IoL (as it then was) (claim is 2 mins into the video). Then claims it had nicked it. Then the CIoL chipped in to explain the situation, but leaving questions answered, in my view; for instance, they say the information has been “freely available” but does that mean ALS were allowed to store it under the licence they had at the time – if indeed they actually did – or just view it?

It seems some of the “information” being released is more akin to propaganda, since the first claim was clearly couched in terms to make the CIoL appear in cahoots with ALS (still, they haven’t exactly helped their cause by maintaining a solid silence on the whole thing since November, until they piped up to counter Crispin Blunt’s claims about interpreters’ earnings), and the second to smear ALS, as if they needed smearing.

Further evidence? I heard (read tweets) that the CIoL was encouraging DPSI candidates to sign up with ALS in a letter. I asked to see it. I was pointed to a Facebook (aarrgh!) page, where the letter is currently top of the pile. And yet, in fairness to the CIoL, all it does is explain the situation in an entirely neutral tone to those hoping to join the fray. We are verging into the realm of plain, old-fashioned lies.

Meanwhile, there has been much sniping about Gavin Wheldon’s business practices and standards, none of which he has ever attempted to hide or deny, as evidenced by the quotes freely available on his wikipedia page. Water off a duck’s back, I shouldn’t wonder. The mystery is why on earth the MoJ thought he was a fit person as an outsourcing partner. Oh, and talking of ducks, there is the distraction of the rabbit passing ALS’ selection tests. A point initially excellently made, but I would contend now taken too far, with a Twitter account to join the less-than-hilarious Wheldon spoof account (I’m not following either one, but they get retweeted ad infinitum).

Neither does the government itself seem to have much clue what is going on. One would think, would one not, that a measure brought in to save costs would measure those costs, just to make sure? (Although anyone who reads Private Eye would know that might be the triumph of hope over experience.) But it was initially reported, in the linguistlounge.ORG, set up to log ALS’ failings, that records are not being kept. Ah, but wait…. Our old chum Crispin “interpreters earn 6-figure salaries” Blunt says that they are, but no-one can see them.

So while I’ll probably stop posting about this shambolic balls-up now, as it descends into mud-slinging and misinformation (to which I have unwittingly been party once or twice), I do still object in principle to the whole idea. In the unlikely event I were asked to draft another petition, I would do so. As I said on that proz thread, my objection is basically that our glorious free-market and local-private-sector-solution supporting government has kicked a free market of local private sector service providers into touch and instituted a state-sponsored competition-stifling private-sector quasi-monopoly in its place. And monopolies are always bad news for someone. Private-sector monopolies all the more so.

And while I appreciate that some will take the view that any kind of pressure that can be brought to bear should be used, I’m starting to think that the campaign is taking some unpleasant and unnecessary turns. I’ve always thought that the fact that our learned friends are also feeling the adverse effects will ultimately prove to be the decisive factor, and I still believe that to be true. While the ALS contract does have a 3-month no-fault termination clause, I’m not sure that setting up a sideshow to cast aspersions on Wheldon, ALS testing procedures, or even the CIoL (much as their behaviour mystifies even me) is the way to get the government to invoke it. The best way is surely by demonstrating a comprehensive failure to perform (the subject of a different termination clause, in fact) and while it seems the actual measurement of performance may be in some doubt, I think the legal profession are the best placed to take the necessary steps with the MoJ for that to happen.

Meanwhile, despite the undoubted misfortune of those at the seriously sharp end of this debacle, I wholeheartedly continue to support the decision of those choosing not to work for ALS which, after all, can only help achieve the desired result as outlined above.

Comments Off on … And Justice For All
February 8th, 2012 | Categories: business

This post is about a pleasant enough video that was probably at the peak of its popularity a couple of years ago. It’s called the Vendor Client Relationship, featuring with a man in a restaurant, another man in a DVD shop, and lastly a woman at a hairdresser’s, all attempting to make unusual demands on the staff.

It’s here. I was pointed at it again a few days ago, responded by saying it was irrelevant tosh, and said I would expand on my blog. This is the expansion.

The first point to make is that the scenarios shown can be broadly categorised as retail, i.e. B2C, situations.

As such, they are clearly generally beyond the limits of acceptable customer behaviour, at least in the West. I firmly believe that the DVD store clerk and the hairdresser would, in real life, simply send the so-called customer packing which would make for a shorter, if more realistic, video; the restaurant scenario is slightly different since the requests are being made after the meal has been eaten, which is clearly a different and difficult situation.

But let us then re-examine these scenarios as if they were B2B transactions and see if they are quite so outrageous then. After all, freelancer translators are businesses (like the retail outlets in the video) dealing with business clients (but not consumers).
(Procedural note: the video jumps between 3 different scenarios in rotation. I deal with each scenario as a whole, one after the other.)

Restaurant guy
– “We didn’t budget for this”: I imagine it could happen in a restaurant that the final cost when the bill comes is more than expected, and is challenged. Should it happen to a freelance translator? Not if the price and scope are agreed in writing beforehand, and at every stage subsequently if the situation changes. If you don’t do this, then spend more time reviewing your procedures (and perhaps your terms and conditions), and less time on YouTube.

I admit I don’t really see any specific parallels with the next two restaurant scenes, the taco stand vs filet (it’s all “cow”) debate, and the “stuff we could remove” section. Is it an analogy with clients trying to get price reductions for alleged quality issues?

– “show us how you made it so we can do it on our own inhouse”: I can only assume translators are drawing a parallel here with being asked for TMs or unclean versions. The difference being, of course, that those are easy to re-create anyway; it is probably less easy to reverse engineer the dish of the day (it certainly would be for me!).

What all the restaurant scenes do all have in common is some attempt to impose changes after the event, either to the price paid or to the deliverables. I have to acknowledge that anecdotal evidence (the highfalutin term for reading it all over the place on forums and suchlike) suggests it happens to freelancers, and the advice given is always stick to your guns and/or take appropriate action for breach of contract (usually debt collection). This is an option not so readily available in retail (hence presumably the appearance of the muscle at the end) but the overall scenario shown in the video has no close parallel with any situation a translator is likely to find themselves in, except for the underlying issue of attempts to reduce or avoid the final bill.. But in our B2B dealings, there would definitely be either an actual or an implied contract and appropriate steps would surely be the solution. (There is also an implied contract in a restaurant, but enforceability is the tricky bit, whereas legal recourse to enforce our contracts is, at least in theory, available to any of us.)

To sum up, then, if you extrapolate and generalise about the underlying issue (changes after the event) expressed, then yes, the restaurant scenario can in general apply to freelance translators, although the individual scenes very much less so.

DVD store guy
– “I’ve only got 7 dollars set aside for this”, and the following scenes, including the legendary “this is not a challenge it’s an opportunity” line: OK, so retail customers tend not attempt to haggle or otherwise change the T&C in retail transactions in the West. But they certainly do in other countries; indeed in some places I understand it is practically expected. It is also possible to haggle in certain other B2C situations even in the west. I personally know people who have negotiated individual terms for satellite TV, mobile phone and ISP contracts, usually by threatening to take their custom elsewhere. So even taken as a B2C transaction, it’s not THAT outrageous.

– “make it up on the next one”:- once again, the guy is just negotiating, although his tactic has changed to promises of future rewards. Sure, we’ve all heard similar promises – some people believe them and go for it; I believe clients are entitled to ask. More pertinently, I’m worried that the video makers have run out ideas; this is essentially the same ploy as the hairdresser lady tries about making up the shortfall when she next has colour (if her husband likes it).

And as a B2B transaction in general, I see absolutely nothing wrong with the principle of price negotiation, even if the client’s counter-offer is less than half the opening proposal. It seems likely that it is the most price-sensitive clients who will make this kind of request, those who see translation providers as interchangeable (like DVDs). And we know that such clients are best avoided, assuming, that is, that the service you provide is not wholly interchangeable with anyone else’s.

As regards the argument that translators should be comparing their attitude to negotiation with professions such as accountants and lawyers, that would be a fair point if such professions universally kicked the door shut in the face of anyone attempting to negotiate. I checked with a couple of self-employed accountants of my acquaintance before posting, and they said it did happen and while they didn’t like it and usually stuck more or less to their original price, they accepted the client’s right to ask.

In essence then, my overall objection to translators waxing lyrical about this scenario is that there is nothing wrong with people trying to negotiate if they feel the circumstances warrant it. As long as it’s before delivery is made, naturally. One can hypothesise that there may be more willingness to attempt negotiations if substitute goods or services are readily available; so as ever, the key is to make yourself less easy to replace.

Hairdresser lady
“I’d like highlights but can only pay for a trim”: As an opening gambit, I can’t really see any parallel with translation. “I’d like you to translate all 5 pages but I can only pay for the first page”? Would that be an equivalent? By rights, in this video, the hairdresser would spin the lady round and show her the door. For us, well, it’s an interesting approach, a kind of negotiation, to which I claim to be open, but surely one that would get short shrift. Nonetheless, discussion appears to continue…

“I’ll pay for the highlights next time….throw them in… test… see if my husband likes it”. Interesting combination of tactics, really, but my guess is that all those freelancers clicking “thumbup” or “like” until their fingers bleed have heard the word “test” and little else. As I’ve said before, tests that are effectively performance do not equate to genuine tests. You can call them “test”, and the lady here does, but it doesn’t make them tests. It’s an actual job and we’re merely once again dealing with negotiation for that job. In view of which, in fact her tactic appears to be “yes, we know it’s a €200 job but we’re offering €50. If we like your work and come back to you for more, we’ll pay you the other €150.” (It’s actually a bit worse than that, because she says she’ll pay if she comes back for colour, i.e. something specific, not just any repeat business). As I keep saying, people are quite free to try to negotiate any kind of deal they like. And I reserve the right not to be sympathetic to people who agree to deals of this kind.

“cover your hard costs” : haggling over margins now. The hairdresser seems to be winning the negotiation without saying a word – this video IS indeed inspirational, perhaps I have misjudged it.

In conclusion then, most of the video seems to mirror an unhappy tendency for some freelancers to transpose perfectly normal B2B dealings into some aspect of their lives as consumers, and then pass judgement on those dealings as if they were the same situation. The sort of people who post in forums about how ridiculous it would be if they went into the bakery and announced how much they would pay for their bread, or told the supermarket they would pay them in 30 or 60 days’ time. And indeed they are right, because that is not how consumer transactions typically operate. Transpose them back into business-to-business dealings, and they are, broadly speaking, acceptable. As are two of the three scenarios shown in the video, and the third one (the restaurant) is not acceptable either in business or in consumer transactions, so there seems no point to be made.

January 10th, 2012 | Categories: business, My articles

The following is a summary to a long article here, from June 2009, when there seemed to be a fair amount of gloom around. It seemed to be inspired at least in part by a drip, drip, drip of news about salary freezes and cuts in the wider economy (e.g. Doncaster Council just yesterday; I’m sure it’s similar in many countries) being used as justification for agencies requesting/imposing rate reductions. In truth all sorts of other reasons are wheeled out (see also Lionbridge in Nov 2010). Did I say reasons? I probably mean excuses.

It is interesting to note how often it seems to be accepted that charging less is somehow the natural corollary to economic recession (I read an article in Translation Directory only today that took it as a given). I can only guess it is because people associate boom times with charging more, so it is seen as the other side of the same coin. I hope to show here (or in the article, really) this ain’t necessarily so for freelance translators (FWIW, although I haven’t analysed the idea properly, I suspect the same factors mean that translation rates do not automatically rise during good years for the economy, either.)

To get the obvious out the way first, it should be pointed out that freelancers are not paid for their labour in the way an employee is, but remunerated for providing a service to a business. So matters are evidently a little more complex.

The complex aspect is the whole supply/demand/prices relationship. So does it make logical sense, in terms of economics, to cut our rates?

Demand and prices.

What drives demand (i.e. end-client demand) for translation? Business activity (mainly at least – and if not directly, then arguably indirectly). If there is less business activity, then to some degree there will be less translation. Furthermore, in many (not all) cases, translation is not an optional extra – if an organisation is doing whatever it may be, it needs translations. If it doesn’t do it, it doesn’t need translations. In other words. while translation may be essential to many projects and situations, it is not typically the reason for a particular project’s existence, and furthermore, is usually a very minor component of total project costs, and unlikely to be of a proportion to influence a decision to proceed or not proceed with a given project (there are exceptions).

In general terms, therefore, my conclusion is that a general drop in “market rates” will not stimulate demand for translation volume per se.

Which is therefore a factor against individuals contributing to such a general drop by deciding on an individual drop (the market being the sum of its parts).

Supply and prices

Not affected by prices as it should be. There is undoubtedly already an excess of supply (i.e. hours of translators’ time) in the non-specialist market, as demonstrated by a) the overall level of rates in non-specialist work which is generally perceived to be barely acceptable to provide a living and b) the way that agencies are the party that set those rates (see longer explanation here, blog discussion here). By pure economic theory, suppliers should be leaving the market, but non-economic factors mean they are not – 50% not main bread-winners, and “half a loaf better than no bread” and “bird in the hand…” type attitudes, which do nothing to act against downward pressure.

Conclusion: general rates affect overall supply little if at all.

Agencies

Affect the market because for them, unlike for end-clients, the cost of freelance translators is a substantial proportion of their total costs as a business. In truth, if they suffer price pressure from end-clients, or are looking to maintain their turnover, they could adopt the above argument against dropping rates to their end-clients. In practice, too many are competing just on price, and as usual, the only long-term advice about competing on price alone is “don’t”.

For individual freelancers

Bluntly, all other things being equal, freelancers working for lower rates merely reduce their income, or work harder for the same income. What they do not do, typically, is stimulate demand, making for an increase in volume and thus more income (albeit also by working harder). I say typically, because there are specific circumstances where dropping a rate for a particular client could potentially work to increase income, but the freelancer would need to be fairly sure of his or her position before doing so.

So while raising rates can be a tactic to choke back demand for your services, this relates to demand for your services that is known to exist. Dropping rates in order to increase demand for your services will not spontaneously increase your volume; you have to know for a fact that there is latent volume waiting to come your way.

Finally….

There are no hard and fast rules. We all have to put food on the table, and it would be foolish to suggest that no-one, ever, should agree to a rate cut. As I say towards the end of the full article, while I don’t believe anything I have written is wrong per se, it could be incomplete, and I may have overlooked a crucial aspect.

If so, I would be delighted to read your comments. Truly. While I confess I sometimes find the (my) work less than stimulating, I do enjoy trying to work out how the economics of this business work, and how freelancers can use that knowledge to their advantage.

November 16th, 2011 | Categories: agencies, business

A new, yet also old, outrage has come to my attention of late.

It’s new, inasmuch as the penny only really dropped yesterday that the delightful, relatively newly-created private-sector quasi-monopoly on court-related interpreting in the form of Applied Language Solutions’ love-in with our own glorious Ministry of Justice (sic) includes a further affront to my beliefs and sensibilities (apart from my disgust at state-sponsored private monopolies, that is, and the atrocious rates, which can effectively be sub-minimum wage under the wrong circumstances). It’s old, inasmuch as I’ve got some emails gathering cyberdust in the bottom of my inbox on a not dissimilar stunt being pulled by perennial faves Lionbridge.

What both of these fine firms appear to be rolling out is, in essence, a variant on paying to work. About this time last year, Lionbridge started a pilot where grateful freelancers could pay as little as €10 per month for access to projects in its Translation Workspace. ALS, meanwhile, are charging 100 quid a pop for an assessment without which, as I understand it, no work will be allocated. This will be an assessment for interpreters most of whom have already passed one to be on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. So, basically a fee charged to allow access to work, dressed up to look like a selection process. Cunning.

Now, I appreciate that there are arguments that the Liox/ALS situation is not quite the same, but for the sake of interest, I would point out that it is, broadly speaking, illegal in the UK to charge a fee for finding people work when a fee is also charged to the end client (see Regulations 25 and 26 of the guidance on the conduct of employment agencies and businesses 2003). The rule even applies where the person seeking work is incorporated as a limited company, in other words, arrangements which are nominally B2B are covered by the same rules.

I confess that my initial reaction was to draw a parallel with slotting fees (when supermarkets charge producers a fee for stocking their stuff on their shelves), but on reflection, I think slotting fees are closer to one of the exceptions allowed by the legislation, when an intermediary can charge a fee for inclusion in a publication or directory from which the client makes the choice. Not unlike Proz or Translators Café or indeed the CIoL Find-a-Linguist service. It now seems to me that the kind of practices these two upstanding members of the translation industry are attempting to establish are, in fact, payment to find work for freelancers disguised as fees for services.

I daresay it’s all entirely legal under the letter of the law; after all, we would expect two such august organisations to have thoroughly checked the legality of any schemes they operate, would we not? That said, the regulations are intended to cover “contracts for services” and while watertight definitions are surprisingly hard to find (HMRC explicitly say they don’t have one for tax purposes; meanwhile translation is definitely defined as a service for VAT purposes in VAT notice 741), the information I have found implies strongly that “contracts for service” apply to the arrangements by which the self-employed are contracted to perform a service.

No doubt Liox and ALS would argue that the fee is not a matter of charging freelancers for finding projects for them, but is to cover the costs of the additional “services” provided to freelancers (who I suspect could manage just as well without them). There may well be such costs, but even if these fees are entirely legitimate, one could argue that the companies have chosen to implement such services presumably for the ultimate benefit of a) themselves and b) their own clients, so it seems a bit rich to make the suppliers bear the cost. Usual story of who has the balance of power, I guess, especially at the grubby, price-sensitive, bulk end of the market.

Whether or not there is a technical loophole here, I certainly have doubts that these fees are in keeping with the spirit of the law. We should be grateful, I suppose, that even if these two honourable and forward-thinking companies continue with this business model, the fragmented nature of the industry means there is, at the moment, plenty of work available elsewhere that we do not have to pay to gain access to.

September 23rd, 2011 | Categories: agencies, business, My articles

(This was originally an article I posted in my Articles section in April 2009. I recently got involved in another discussion about tests and I haven’t posted since my holiday – yes, thanks, it was splendid – so here it is, tweaked just a tad.)

Ah, indeed, tests, and the payment or otherwise thereof. An old issue, scarcely a week goes by without some translator somewhere passing comment thereupon. Translators being the largely discontented bunch they appear to be, the comment is rarely along the lines of “How topping! I was asked to do a free test and you can imagine the pleasure I took in agreeing to this perfectly reasonable request.”

Actually, it seems to me to be a fairly straightforward issue, regardless of its age. An issue comprising two key points, namely a) why do tests and b) should they be paid for? Plus a third, subsidiary point which irritates yours truly beyond all reasonable measure, so we’ll come to that last.

So, a) “why do tests?”

I confess, I think “why do tests” is probably a little simplistic – it should be “what need drives clients to ask for tests and do tests meet that need?” – but I was looking for a short sub-heading.

Three reasons justifying requests for tests

The obvious first point is that clients ask for tests in order to test (naturally enough) that translators can deliver what they say can deliver. If you claim to be a legal translator, that you can translate a paragraph or two from a contract. If you claim engineering knowledge, that you can translate the description of a cable stay for a bridge, say. And so on. Unfortunately, the translation business is full of people with a misplaced confidence in their abilities, or who deliberately mislead clients, and anything in between. Your exams and credentials may be perceived as not having examined the specific subject area to the depth that a client may need. Or maybe the information about you in the public domain doesn’t really indicate much one way or the other. So they ask for a quick couple of paragraphs to prove capability to deliver.

The second point is that clients may ask for a test to check translators can follow simple instructions. I have limited outsourcing experience, and even I can tell you that some translators will get the document, and just jump into translating that document, before they have read the accompanying email all the way down to the inevitable “Regards….” bit. So asking people to start at the third paragraph (say), can just be used to test how much attention the translator pays.

Third, they may ask for test to see if you are actually able to meet technical or ancillary requirements. Can you handle XML? Provide a TM in TMX format for the client? Giving the translator a handful of HTML pages and receiving a nice Word document back, even if translated perfectly, may not be what is required.

Counter-arguments – valid

A common counter-argument to that first point is that samples demonstrate the same thing. True to an extent, and more so for a specialist. As a counter-counter-argument, I would say that I would expect a sample made available to be as near to perfect as a translation ever gets, and all it demonstrates is the ability to hone that particular text to the nth degree. It does not necessarily demonstrate the ability to deliver the specific type of text the client requires. And it in no way demonstrates the important additional ability to follow instructions. And neither do credentials, certificates, diplomas, membership of professional organisations, or indeed paid membership of popular translation websites. Some of these can indeed be easily forged, faked or presented in a misleading way, and also be a bit of a bugger to check, particularly from another country.

A more reasonable but conversely less universally-applicable counter-argument is that if you are being asked for a test, you probably don’t know the potential client from Adam, and the potential client also does not know you from any other character from the religious text of your choice. So we should be careful. It is certainly safer to acquire new clients by personal recommendation and referral, and the same is partly true of agencies using new translators. I have also heard the viewpoint that a client who is testing several people (not that we usually know how many are being tested at once) is likely to view each of them as interchangeable or disposable, initially at least, until they prove otherwise. Once again, a spot of (demonstrable) specialisation is your friend.

Counter-arguments – invalid

“I have done several tests and have never subsequently received any work. So tests are pointless.” Or you might be incompetent, or out of your depth in the tests you have done. In any event, if you genuinely believe that your personal experience represents a universal truth, there is something amiss with your logic ciruits.

An inconclusive conclusion

In a nutshell, then, if the work is likely to just be general blurb requiring no particular specialist skill or knowledge, then I would agree that testing seems a little excessive when the client ought to be able to meet that need with little effort. The more obscure, specialised and technical the work, the more reasonable it seems to me to check, with a test, unless the translator has a relevant sample or samples or has been recommended. And yet, tests do typically tend to be fairly straightforward, as if testing for adequacy rather than specialisation. But there are vast numbers of self-proclaimed translators out there who struggle even to be adequate. And let us not forget, self-proclamation is all it takes (in most countries, anyway). So for many clients, unfortunately, even adequacy is a step in a welcome direction. They can’t believe a word half of us say, and so they feel the need to test us.

And b) “should tests be paid?”

Exploitation…?

If you do a free test, does that mean that client gains the impression you have nothing better to do? Some say it does. It is hard to construct a convincing counter-argument to assumptions that other people might hypothetically make. But that risk can be minimised. Do not immediately jump to it. Take a few days, perhaps (unless there is a deadline, of course). Email it at 10 p.m. or midnight. Give the impression (whether true or not) that you had to squeeze it into a busy schedule – although obviously make sure it is well done. Or ask for payment, of course. Ultimately, though, when there is no duress or compulsion or threat of sanction, when the whole process is entirely optional in every conceivable way, I have trouble accepting that anyone is being “exploited”.

… or marketing?

Some argue that a free test is merely marketing (a sprat to catch a mackerel, perhaps). The time spent is merely time spent on marketing. Not only that, it is marketing time spent on a potential client with at least a passing interest in the service you offer. Otherwise why test that service?

Yes, that could be slightly idealistic or even naïve of me. My own experience indeed mirrors the common observation that the more hoops a potential client wants you to jump through, the less likely you are to ever get actual paid work out of them. So if the test comes combined with a questionnaire and application form and bank details form and non-disclosure agreement and a request for a copy of your grandparents’ birth certificates, you can probably just hit the Delete button and move merrily on (without in any way wishing to fall into the trap of equating my experience with universal truth, of course).

Personally, on balance, I can see more merits to the “free tests = marketing” point of view than drawbacks.

Working for nothing

Some say that they just don’t want to do “work” for nothing. Fair enough. I have put “work” in quotes because it can mean many things to many people, yet it is so often the word used by those rejecting the idea of free testing. It is clearly “work” in the sense of taking time and effort for the testee, even if viewed as a marketing task. Whether it is “work” for the tester, in the sense of being of saleable value to them, is debatable. Ideally perhaps it should not be – a test should have a standard (of) translation for the testee to aim for, so the tester can pass/fail testees on a consistent basis, which would imply consistent, if not the self-same, text being used on all testees. But if they are testing you for a particular project…

It must be said that a paid test does tend to demonstrate good faith by the client, if the test is paid promptly. That said, any such relationship is still a new one, and just because they paid your 3 groats for a test within a fortnight, it does not mean they will ever pay your 300 guineas for the entire user guide you subsequently translated.

And a paid test also demonstrates that the potential client recognises that your time is worth something, which is a point in favour of paid tests, without in my view managing to conclusively demonstrate the opposite.

Fraud! Scam!

Others appear not to trust most potential clients as far as they can throw them, and seem to assume that every single person who asks for a free test is somehow going to cobble together a paid-for deliverable for a third party from a disparate collection of 300-word tests. And they are not going to get caught out like that, oh no. Fine. I’ve never actually seen a scintilla of concrete proof that this has ever been done, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. Even if we accept that it has happened, that does not mean that the purpose of all tests is this kind of deception. This whole idea that free tests are used in this way seems largely spread by those convinced that Beelzebub himself is pulling the strings behind every agency in the known universe. It’s a kind of reverse engineering – “hmmm, I don’t like the idea of free tests, what nefarious purposes can I devise to justify this dislike…. I know, cobbling together an entire document from free tests”.

Whereas I would contend it is more logical to put yourself in the position of an individual determined not to pay for work, and think how best that would be achieved. I would further suggest that simply refusing to pay (optional extra: challenge the quality) and using geography to lessen the chances of any comeback is the simplest route. Those wiser than me have calculated it would probably cost about as much in time for the tester to coordinate such a stunt as it would cost in money to get the job done properly. That said, it could certainly not be ruled out if the tests are longer. A 3,000 word translation, say, pieced together from “tests” of 600-700 words provided by 4 or 5 people would probably be feasible, and much more feasible than attempting to achieve the same result from 9 or 10 different people providing 300 words. Moral: Tests ought to be short.

Some argue that if a free test comes with a deadline, then that is proof of some fiendishly cunning plan to construct a patchwork translation for free. Not impossible. But note that a deadline could be imposed on a test simply to determine the ability to follow instructions (as mentioned above) or because there is a deadline for the project being tested for, hence a translator needs to be booked from date D and so the tests need to be evaluated by date D minus 5 and so all the tests need to be delivered by D minus 10, say. It definitely helps to know the purported purpose of the test, so if the stated aim is to confirm suitability for being added to an agency’s database for projects as yet unspecified, a deadline would appear unnecessary.

On the subject of length, I would tend to agree that a free test should take about an hour of one’s time (otherwise it could indeed give the impression you have nothing better to do). I guess a paid test can be any length at all. Indeed, one could reasonably suggest that those agencies which make a habit of giving short texts as their first job to a new translator are blurring the distinction between tests and paid work. But while there may not be much consensus on the subject of testing in general, there does seem to be consensus that a test, if tests are permitted to exist, should be no more than 300 words, plus or minus 50.

Another inconclusive conculsion

So, a whole set of pros and cons and conflicting logic. Tests should, logically, test specialist knowledge, but in reality usually don’t, and specialists usually get new clients by word of mouth and recommendation – no testing required. Tests do not logically need to test adequacy, since even a basic qualification should guarantee that… but there are no barriers to entry to this profession. Upshot – some people do tests, and some don’t, and adopting either position, be it permanently or case-by-case, is perfectly valid and logical.

That is, of course, merely my opinion. It would be remisss of me not to point out that while the Chartered Institute of Linguists in the UK has no such restriction at this time (and neither does the ITI), the Code of Conduct for the ATA in the USA in fact says members will not require translators or interpreters to do unpaid work for the prospect of a paid assignment.
(Sept 2011 update: since this was first written in April 2009, that link no longer leads where it once did, and the page it now leads to makes no such explicit demand, although one could argue it is still implied.)

However…

c) The irritating (beyond all reasonable measure) subsidiary point.

Certain translators seem to be constantly comparing the translation industry to plumbers and builders and lawyers and architects and doctors and taxi-drivers in an attempt to justify their position. When it comes to tests, they will reel off a litany of professions, make the bald statement that “they don’t do free tests/work” and then wrap up with “and neither do I”. Or perhaps the would-be opinion-former will endeavour to create an amusing scenario whereby they ask a builder to build some stump of a wall as a test, or a plumber to install one tap as a test, or an architect to sketch out a shed before awarding a contract for a tower block, or a taxi driver to convey the translator a few hundred yards as a test prior to booking a trip to an airport, before asking the reader to compare such a scenario with being asked to do a free translation test and then share hollow laughter with the author of the said opinion.

Now, analogies and comparisons that do not work well really do tend to irritate me more than a thistle-lined jock-strap.

So, perhaps we could stop comparing ourselves to professions with strict entry requirements, such as the law and medicine, where there are equally strict sanctions for charlatans and chicanery and a qualification is generally likely to be both genuine and proof of reasonable competence (or adequacy).

Perhaps we could stop comparing ourselves to professions where testing is indeed highly impractical.

Perhaps we could stop comparing ourselves to professions where asking for a test genuinely is tantamount to (part-)performance of the actual job required, demonstrably and self-evidently so.

And perhaps we could stop pretending that, as consumers or as businesses, if there were hypothetically a way to test builders, plumbers, lawyers, mechanics, and other providers of goods and services we use, we wouldn’t do so. Of course we would. We would test everything, if we could (wouldn’t we? Or am I projecting?). But we can’t. Which is why some critical professions are strictly regulated, and why we have trading standards authorities (and consumer magazines/websites such as “Which?” in the UK or “Que Choisir” in France) for the others. Oh, and contract law… but don’t get me started on translators and contracts here.

And let us not forget, in our enthusiasm to paint translators as the only profession in the world where some practitioners do “free work”, that lawyers (oh yes, them again) often offer free consultation, the actors do auditions, that graphic designers submit designs for competition without payment, that advertising agencies submit ideas ditto, that some software publishers offer a trial period or an evaluation version, car dealers will offer test drives for entire weekends, and so on.

Not all such “free work” takes the form of free testing as such, granted. But I genuinely believe one reason translators are asked to do tests is because it is a service which readily lends itself to the concept of testing. If other services did the same, they too would be tested, and some in fact are.

Now if you, personally, do not wish to “work” for nothing, that is absolutely your prerogative. It is an entirely reasonable stance to adopt.

But there are plenty of sound and economically-rational reasons for doing tests, even free ones, so perhaps those who have opted not to go down that path could treat those who have with a modicum of respect. Argue the case from a perspective related to the business of translation or even language service provision more broadly, and please keep the incessant and irrelevant drivel comparing translation to other occupations out of the discussion.

July 3rd, 2011 | Categories: business

Review here meaning the process of checking someone’s translation. Were I Samuel Johnson, I might be minded to define a reviewer as “an ideally, but regrettably not always, harmless drudge, that busies himself in comparing with the original, and detailing the shortcomings of others”.

We can also assume that Muphry’s Law will at some point apply in this post.

On to the meat (or lentils) of the issue. I was very recently engaged in a lively discussion about how to charge for reviewing. The basic question usually seems to revolve around charging per word versus charging her hour, but from the flurry of exchanges, it seems that there are perhaps three pairs of factors at play in attitudes to pricing, to wit:
a) charging per word or per hour
b) whether you see the translation before quoting, and
c) whether your relationship with the client allows you to determine the final price on delivery, or whether you are bound by your original estimate.

In terms of a), consensus seems to be that i) a ballpark rate is in the approximate region of 1/3 the rate you’d charge to translate it, and that ii) general texts that are not a complete dog’s dinner should take about one hour per 1,000 words. (Let us assume that either calculation method gives the same total earnings for the job, which it should, after all.)

It strikes me that if you are going to apply a word rate, you probably need to see the source and target text first to decide what your translation rate would have been, unless perhaps you always apply the same rate to everything for that client (but even then you could vary the fraction applied). If you apply ii), you’d need to see the translation, to apply a dog’s dinner test, and see if one hour per 1,000 words is feasible, and adjust the quote accordingly. Put another way, if you see the job before you are asked to quote on it, I contend it matters not a jot whether you quote per word or per hour.

Or at least, it matters not in terms directly related to the specific job itself. The view was expressed that, in general, charging per hour is a mistake in that you are penalised as you get faster and more efficient (since you would charge less today for than you did a year ago, say, for the self-same job), but I feel that the response to that is not necessarily to dismiss hourly charging, but how you apply it. For instance, charge more per hour as you get more efficient or, if the client is resistant to rate rises but was happy enough with the overall total per job in the past, charge as if you were your old, inefficient self.

I was pointed in the direction of the opinion of one Ed Gandia, who has apparently written a book on freelancing (he’s a copywriter, though). Our Ed – and I’m sure he is not alone – has three objections to hourly rates: 1. clients like word rates because they know how much to pay and don’t worry about you “padding” your hours, 2. if you tell them an hourly rate, they will no doubt compare it with their own rate that they earn, and you might not want that, and 3. “when I told clients I work by the hour, some would actually talk faster to me on the phone”.

In terms of reviewing specifically, I would say that 1. can be overcome by seeing the translation to be reviewed before agreeing the price (the implication of the “padding” objection being that the client can more or less tell you what they are expecting to pay when they send the job) 2. I actually don’t care who knows my hourly rate and I’m not sure what the concrete objection is, but plenty of other professions appear to have no such qualms, and 3. surely has to be the response of the price-obsessed client, and we don’t really want to be working too much with people whose only concern is price, to the extent they will talk faster to save 50 cents.

I see points b) and c) as connected, particularly as regards not seeing the job first (i.e. before the quote is given and accepted). If you see the job first and the quote is therefore reasonably viewed as binding, I say use whatever calculation method you like. But if you don’t see the job first, the key issue is then how is the final price determined? Are you permitted to give a non-binding estimate with the final price announced to the client on delivery? Or is your original estimate the price you have to charge?

Personally, having been caught out previously by the combination of not seeing the job first and having to stick with my original estimate, I just don’t do that any more. While I would never dream of telling others how to run their business, I cannot recommend it (unless perhaps you know exactly what quality of translation is coming on the basis of previous experience with that specific translator, or you have utmost confidence in the quality of translators used by your client – as you might if they are not some price-driven document shifter, and actually like to provide a service to end-clients).

So, if you don’t see the job first, you really do need to be in a position where you can announce the final price on delivery. Naturally, as was pointed out in the discussion, this works best if you can sometimes bring yourself to charge less than you originally estimated (however, I have done this myself as a spotty youth (metaphorically) and then got knocked back when I decided to see if this flexibility worked both ways – hence no more sight-unseen jobs for yours t. for the foreseeable f.).

Equally naturally, if only for legibility and ease of understanding (and maths), this price-on-delivery method works more clearly in terms of hourly rate rather than word rate. If you agree to review 5,000 words taking 5 hours at 30.00 per hour, but it only takes 4.5 hours, you can charge 135.00 instead of 150.00 and you look like the good guy. If you had said that you would review the same document for 0.03 (=150.00) and you decide that’s probably over-stating what it should cost (!), you’ll charge them 5,000 x 0.027 instead and look like an anally-retentive weirdo. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you are thinking in terms of words not hours, you are pretty unlikely to bother to recalculate your rate downwards like that, and clients would therefore lose out. I’ll go further and say you’re also unlikely to perform the calculation in the opposite direction if the work takes a bit longer, and you lose out. I’m edging in favour of hourly rates in cases where the final price is determined on delivery.

So, here comes a dashed handy summary on pricing review work, in the form of two Y/N questions:

1. Do you see the job (source & target) before quoting?:
Y (therefore assumption your quote is binding) = charge on whatever basis you and the client both find acceptable
N = go to question 2

2. Is the quote binding?
Y = binding quote on a job unseen = run away, run away…
N = hourly basis for charging seems easier to understand and fairer to both sides.

To summarise another way: hourly rates work well under all circumstances; per word rates work OK if the quote is binding (since the total is the key figure anyway), but my advice would be only give binding quotes if you’ve seen the job before quoting.

June 28th, 2011 | Categories: business, My articles

(This was originally an article I posted in my Articles section in Feb 2009. That has now been linked to from elsewhere, so I’m replicating it here in case anyone wants to comment.)

And so the question du jour is…

Should beginners work at low(er) rates?

Charging extremely low rates is a fairly common beginners’ mistake. It may seem to be fair enough on the face of it, but a bit later I will explain why it is logically flawed.

Before then, two other points about low rates-per-word in general that are worth bearing in mind in this context.

1) Some clients, especially those who pay towards the low end anyway, are resistant to subsequent increases. If you find this to be the case, then to increase your rates generally, you have to find new clients and charge them your new higher rate while dropping the old clients.

2) I appreciate that some markets are saturated, but I don’t see how anyone in Western Europe could regularly charge less than 50 quid per thousand words (roughly 0.06 EUR per word in Feb. 2009) on an ongoing basis unless they work at the speed of light. A thousand words is typically about 4 hours work, once you include all the admin and re-reading and frigging about with glossaries and suchlike. So £50 per thousand could be thought of as a hundred quid a day, or thereabouts.

But earning twenty quid for 4 hours (1,000 words), as implied by the low-end offers one sees from time to time? You’d be better off with a McJob, wouldn’t you? The news in early 2009 said KFC were going to recruit 3,000 new staff this year (relevant at the time this was first written, but the staff turnover in fast food means jobs are always available).
Your hair will smell of chicken, but at least you’ll get free chips :)

Having once made a forum posting along those lines, I once received a reply to the effect that:

“Many people make comments like that, but what if you actually prefer translating to working in fast-food and are struggling to get work?”

To which I reply – So, what if you do?

We all have to ultimately earn an optimum living by taking into account factors such as aptitude, supply, demand, comparative advantage, opportunity cost and probably some other stuff besides; that is just what I can think of at the moment.

Preference, if it appears on the list at all, plays a very small part, in truth. Otherwise surely the world would be full of actors, artists, sportsmen and women, and entertainers of all kinds and no bugger would ever actually ‘do’ anything.

If you decide to earn a sub-optimum living by doing what you prefer – fine. But if you are struggling to get work then like anyone else you either need to change your search strategy or change your line of work.

Having expressed that view publicly too, I received a (public) reply along these lines:

“Working at low rates is a necessary evil whilst starting out. Any respectable company would hastily cut a reasonable initial offer of £25000 per year to £18000 on seeing the candidate had not so much experience, why should the translation industry be any different?”

I’m afraid this is where the logic flaw I referred to earlier arises.

Yes, companies employ the inexperienced on lower rates (i.e. wages/salaries). However, the product or service the company itself markets is typically of uniform quality, no matter which employee was responsible for producing it. And the price of a given product from that company is standard no matter who produced it. In order to maintain margins, if the price is standard, then the cost needs to be standard too, including that portion of the cost that is the labour cost.

Depending on the industry, an inexperienced employee will either take longer to produce something of proper quality, which means their hourly rate will need to be lower, or their work will need to be checked by an experienced employee, which is an additional labour cost. Maybe even both. The same applies to piece work.

A self-employed translator is a slightly different kettle of fish. Ultimately, you do your own QA (for the most part, where agency work is concerned), and either your stuff is good enough to sell, or it ain’t.

If you are a beginner, it might take you a day to produce a decent 1,000 word translation – fine. Your earnings (per hour or day) might be less than an experienced person (short-term, that is, bearing in mind my earlier remarks), but it doesn’t mean that the client is entitled to get 1,000 words dirt cheap.

Alternatively, you could do the work in the usual time (i.e. the time it would take a more experienced person to complete) and then get someone to review it – and pay them, of course. Out of your rate. Again, your earnings might be less, but the client pays the same as if he had got an experienced translator to do the work.

Those are the situations which equate novice self-employed translators to starting salaries in other professions.
Not just charging a lower rate per word. Charge the same; potentially earn less while you find your feet.

(FWIW, I think the same applies to those who are ‘beginners’ in the sense of attempting to break into a new segment, no matter how much translating experience one may have in other areas.)

May 18th, 2011 | Categories: translation issues

I’m a bit concerned that too many of these posts seem to be having a pop at something, so time to post something a bit more positive, since I’m not actually a full-time misanthropic curmudgeon.

What follows is not exactly the most original of issues, but one that crops up regularly enough. It can hardly have escaped anyone’s attention (well, not anyone likely to be reading this, anyway) that many languages, for reasons that undoubtedly seemed splendid at the time, avail themselves of a grammatical feature known as gender. This feature, in the case of French (your favourite language probably has similar examples) means that for example all victims and persons are referred to as female (la victime, la personne), and that, f’rinstance, a generic customer or user, say, is male (le client, l’utilisateur), regardless of the actual circumstances vis-a-vis possession of the Y-chromosome or otherwise in the event the customer or user is a human being.

And so it is that your humble interlocutor oft-times finds himself translating documents about customers (’tis the way of the world of commerce) or perhaps users of an IT system, written in the third person singular and sprinkled liberally with the relevant pronouns – il, lui or indeed son/sa/ses – and hence, assuming we are talking about people rather than bodies corporate, running into the minor irritation of how to translate these pesky little blighters, the main issue being, of course, that in contemporary English we quite rightly cannot assume that these people are always male, which rules out using the dictionary translation of “he”, etc., and neither can we use the other dictionary translation of “it”, etc. to refer to people.

It’s only a minor irritation, in many ways, and one not without tried-and-tested solutions. Take a fairly banal phrase such as “l’utilisateur doit changer son mot de passe, et ensuite il doit…“. There are, in my experience, three common or garden solutions:

a) my most frequently-used solution (although a thorough statistical analysis is unlikely to be forthcoming, so take my word for it), is probably to pluralise, enabling the English gender-free third person plural to be adopted, thus: “users must change their password, and then they must…”, although this is not without problems – should it be passwords, or does that mean all users have more than one? Left as it is, does it imply one password is shared by several people? Nonetheless, native English documents often adopt the plural in instructions and similar texts (try googling phrases such as “customers should ensure” versus “the customer should ensure”), so it’s a viable option.

b) the rather stilted, but otherwise hard-to-criticise, “the user must change his or her password, and then he or she must…”. Probably OK scattered infrequently in a text, but how often do we see “his or her”, “he or she” and so on in texts written in native English, as it were? But I cannot lie, I have used it.

c) the informal “the user must change their password, and then they must…”. I’m very much a fan of using the third person plural to double up as the third person singular of unknown sex, and have dropped it into several less formal translations, but it may induce apoplexy in the more conservative reader. And possibly loss of future business, and we wouldn’t want that.

Moving away from common or garden solutions, I’ve been known to use two others:

d) “the user’s password must be changed, and then the user must…” – last resort, really, and I’d wager you’d be unlikely to need to, er, resort to it for this sample phrase. It loses the notion of who does the changing, which is sub-optimal to put it mildly, but in a context where it’s obvious the user is the one battering away at the keyboard, you might get away with it. That said, in this case, one could argue that the structure actually implies someone other than the user changes the password.

e) eschew the fiendish pronouns completely. Only really works for seriously turgid old school legal stuff, where pronouns were pretty much banished from contracts, but imagining for an improbable moment our example phrase was a contract stipulation, you’d end up with “the user must change the user’s password, and then the user must…”.

For completeness (he said optimistically, sure that other solutions must be lurking in the linguistic undergrowth), one option I’ve never used would be to use “he”, etc. in the text (or indeed “she”, etc.) and stick a sentence at the start along the lines of “all references to he, etc. should be taken to include she, etc.”. Another I’m not keen on is to default to “she” instead, which avoids the pitfall we’re trying to avoid by not translating “il” as “he” by default, but replaces it with some others, admittedly perhaps less deep.

All of which is fine and dandy, and unlikely to be news to anyone who has been translating for more than about a day. But it got me thinking about how general (i.e. not translator) English speakers themselves usually deal with the issue. In general texts, I suspect we pluralise a lot. But I turned to thinking about contracts and agreements and similarly formal documents.

In these, I don’t see the plural as an option, for obvious reasons – where one party is entering an agreement with one other party, usually specified at the outset, and like as not with a deft “hereinafter (referred to as) the customer” (singular) for good measure, you can’t go slinging plurals around too often, it’s illogical and I daresay a decent lawyer would make mincemeat of careless usage if need be.

I had also initially thought that i) I rarely (not never, admittedly) see the phrase “he or she” these days, and ii) that use of the third person plural was still too controversial to be used in anything legally binding, say, when bugger me if I didn’t see both in one document. Take a bow, the drafters of the London Olympic ticketing T&C, unflinching in their use of “he or she” and then “their” as the corresponding possessive. Not only that, but they have also pluralised, in precisely the way I thought unlikely in the paragraph above. I suspect this kind of solution happens a lot, the whole thing reads formally, but naturally, despite several solutions being used where French, for example, could stick simply to “le client” and il, lui, son/sa/ses. But when I’m not hard at work, I sometimes don’t notice things that it would actually be useful to register upstairs.

At which point I decided to compare two roughly equivalent documents, not dissimilar to the type of stuff I translate fairly often, and demonstrating the issue perfectly. I hauled out the T&C for my Société Générale bank account in France, and the T&C for my HSBC account in the UK. To cut immediately to the chase for once, I find that HSBC uses the second person to refer the account holder, and Soc Gen sticks to the third person. (In fairness, I know this is not a universal distinction – I know of at least one French insurance company that uses the second person in its policies to address the policyholder directly, as it were.)

This was something of a Eureka moment for me. In essence, then, it seems we have a sixth solution for those situations where the third person referred to in a text may naturally be taken to actually be the reader, along the lines of:
f) “As the user, you must change your password, then you must…”
Not the most elegant solution, perhaps, for that particular example, but I wanted to show it could be done, alongside the other options.

As luck would have it, while drafting this post, I had two examples where I was able to use this new, to me, approach. The first was in a brochure, which, while written using the third person, was clearly attempting to appeal to the reader to become a client, hence the third party roles mentioned were ripe for conversion to the second person, which apart from being a neat solution linguistically, surely has the benefit of engaging the reader more?

Hence “le [noun] gère librement son [noun], il peut également…” became “as the [noun], you manage your [noun] as you see fit, and you can also…”.
(Apols for the redaction, but the full phrase makes the end client obvious, and apart from potential confidentiality issues, the bulk of the English translation on the website has nothing to do with me and I’d hate anyone to think it did!)

The second example was an amendment to a contract of employment, full of le salarié doit this and l’employé s’engage à that, plus the accompanying pronouns. Given that the employee was a) the intended reader and b) named at the start of the amendment, it was the work of an instant to add a quick “hereinafter referred to as “you”” and then the work of quite a few more instants to whack in “you are to” and “you undertake to” and so forth, but the overall effect did the trick, I feel.

“Well,” you may be thinking, “I’ve just read 1,500 words for nothing,” in which case I apologise. But while I doubt very much I’m the first person to have thought of it, I don’t recall ever seeing this idea suggested anywhere else before (not that I claim to have completed the internetz, or anything), so I thought I’d shove it out there and see if anyone has any thoughts…