Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name and Shame: Dealing with Problem Customers

I recently had an unpleasant experience with a customer. I rarely work with agencies, but not long ago I was contacted by an agency and invited to work on the Swedish and Danish parts of a large, multilingual project. Since I have trouble saying “no”, I agreed.

Before I started the work, I signed a contract. The agency had calculated the number of words and written how much I would get paid. The project itself was sent to me in an unusual program that makes it hard to count words, but I eyeballed the text and thought the amounts listed on the contract looked about right. So I signed.

Immediately, I noticed that a few sentences in the Swedish part were not Swedish, so I pointed this out several times to the project manager, who didn’t seem to understand or care. I translated the Swedish parts, ignored the rest, and everything seemed fine.

A week later, I got a new contract and was told to sign it. Suddenly, the price I was getting paid was close to one-half of what I had originally agreed to. I protested, explaining I had already signed a contract and agreed to a fee. Yes, I was told, but they had initially just estimated the number of words and now they had actually counted the words (not including the few ones that they only now figured out were not Swedish). So the original contract didn’t mean anything, as it had, they claimed, just been an estimate.

Of course at this point, I’d already submitted the translation, so it seemed that there was nothing I could do but agree to the new price (and, no, I didn’t feel like wasting my time counting all the words). But I strongly resented this tactic and felt that I was being cheated; I had followed my part of the contract, and now they were going back on what they had promised. What, then, was the point of having a contract?

This is one reason why I don’t like working with agencies, but even direct customers sometimes try to change fees after they have received the translated text. Some translators ask for payment (or partial payment) upfront, to avoid these kinds of situations, but often assignments are expected back quite quickly, which means the translator doesn’t have the time to wait for a check to clear or a transfer to show up in their bank account before starting the job.

It is a difficult to find an ideal solution to such situations; one thing we translators could do is to publicize the names of problem customers, both so our fellow translators don’t get burned as we have and also to shame these clients into treating their translators better.


Anonymous said...

I know how you feel and I would definitely call it cheating. However, publicizing names of such customers could lead to trouble, at least in some countries. There are some payment practices lists out there ( is one of the most popular, now commercial lists for translators; zahlungspraxis on Yahoo is mainly covering the German translation market; WPPF on Yahoo has a lot of entries for South America and the USA, and of course the BlueBloard on, or similar lists on other translation sites), and I think that these are very helpful in determining whether to work with an agency or not.

Unknown said...

Another source of information on payment practices is at; to access the "Blue Board" I believe you have to be a paying member. There is quite a lot of contribution by members so it is a useful reesource.

Next time you should at least try to assert your right to a fair price; if the first time around you felt confident about the rate you had agreed to, don't knuckle under if subsequently the agency has buyer's regret. Remember that your colleagues are depending on you to ensure that the market rate provides a living wage. Just MHO, mind you, but I try to live up to it.

ilaria said...

To me what your agency did doesn't really seem very legal. Both parties had signed a contract agreeing on word count and fees, so it doesn't make sense that one of the parties says "sorry I was wrong". It sounds like a breach of contract and maybe it would be worth re-reading the terms of the first contract you signed. In any case, I'm very sorry that you had such a bad "encounter" and I definitely agree with the previous comments. I also would add that enquiring about reliability seems to have become an integral part of the job, nowadays. It's happening in publishing too, though not as overtly as with agencies.

Freelancer said...

I've done loads of legal translations (contracts mostly), and I'm used to reading CAREFULLY anything I'm supposed to sign. If I have any qualms about the contract provisions, I don't sign - and warn the other party (agency or whatever) of the "problem" clauses. If they do not want to modify them, I don't take the job.
It's that simple.
In this case you should re-read the original contract - I doubt that it has a written provision which says that the client may renegotiate the price after the contract has been signed and goods delivered (i.e. after you have performed your part of the deal). Look for any provisions enabling them to reduce the agreed price based on "poor quality" and other "problems" with the delivered goods/services.

You are being swindled - there are MANY such agencies around!

The only way to get back at such "stinkers" is to make their name public. But, that's up to you.
Or you could at least threaten them with publicizing their "business practices"...

Anonymous said...

BJ, as others have commented, there may be legal repercussions to publicizing the client's name, so I'd be careful of taking such a step.

I would take another approach - talk to a lawyer friend (don't hire someone) and ask them to write a strongly-worded, legalistic letter and send it to the agency. You can even write it yourself and have a lawyer friend sign it. Make sure to pepper it with quotes from the original contract and repeated instances of "breach".

I've not worked with many agencies, but in general most places that try to rip you off back right off when you show them that you're willing to take legal action.

A bully will only stay a bully as long as there's no one to put him in his place - they're banking on you not doing anything. In Israel this is referred to as the "Matzliach" method (Matzliach means "succeeds," but is also a common Israeli surname. The method operates on the premise that they try to put one over you, and if they manage to, they've "succeeded" and if they haven't managed to, they're still not worse off.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you all for your supportive comments! I did protest, but then I felt that if I was not willing to do a word count myself (as I should have initially, but the format was odd, as I mentioned), I had no proof of which word count was correct. It was not worth it for me to spend my time counting the words -- the job had been relatively easy, it was small (so it was never going to pay that much to begin with -- and of course it ended up paying less than I expected!), and I just thought of it as a one-off, something to do one evening when I had a little time. However, I will not work for that agency again, and I may describe the incident on one of the sites you directed me to. I might write them again to complain, too.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

I'm working as in-house translator and PM of a medium italian agency, and I've never seen this kind of situation. First of all, we pay the translators on the target test, and we leave to them the task of counting how many caracters they have translated. Second, when they call us for support, we try to answer to all their questions and to solve the problems with them. too many agencies work in a not seroius way...

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear there are agencies that are more honest and supportive in their dealings with translators!
I did end up protesting the situation some more and was told that they had estimated the cost based on a source word count and then paid based on a target word, but I still don't like their practice.

Best wishes,