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you're firedI had one of those awful days last Friday, when an agency client got in touch to say her end client wasn’t satisfied with my work. I’m relieved to say this hasn’t happened more than a handful of times in my 30-year career, invariably involving clients who think they speak better English than a native speaker, but it’s none the less stressful when it does happen.

With a wary but open mind, I duly turned to the table of queried phrases I’d been sent by the agency and soon had steam coming out of my ears: not only were none of the exact phrases actually in the source document, but the client’s suggestions were drafted in what can only be described as pidgin English. There were also spurious English phrases with no German equivalent, almost as though the client had changed their mind and was trying to get further translations for free! OK, calm down, count to ten, so far, so predictable. I approached my agency client again and pointed out that these phrases weren’t actually in my translation. She said she would speak to the end client, but asked me to make what responses I could in the table. Cue a further hour of time I could ill afford, justifying why my carefully-couched phrases were correct and the client’s non-native drivel was not. Not the best use of an already hectic Friday afternoon.

What irked me about this was not so much the criticism – we can all make mistakes and I’m happy to take on board carefully judged and appropriate feedback – but the fact that a non-native speaker should presume to think they know better than a native English speaker with 30 years’ experience in the profession and in my particular subject specialism just beggars belief. Not only that, but the agency’s approach that it was OK to simply pass on the criticism without even looking at it to see whether it was remotely well-founded! This translation had already been edited by another native English-speaking subject specialist and I had validated the minimal tweaks she had made. Yet the agency had simply sent the whole lot over to me and washed their hands of it. When I returned my comments with a very strongly-worded letter, I was told that the agency staff “were just intermediaries” and that their client was in turn acting as an “intermediary” for the ultimate end client. But yes, they were all German native speakers. And no, they had no doubts whatsoever as to my competence – well, you could have fooled me!

In the meantime, I had another small text to do for this same agency and the same end client. I was so incensed on Friday that I suggested she find another translator, but was more or less begged to carry on.  I reluctantly (and foolishly!) agreed, but when I came to look at the text on Monday morning, it turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back: a pdf source text, which had looked fine, but the accompanying xliff file was the worst pdf conversion I have ever had the misfortune to come across! All the umlauts were missing, the word order was all wrong, there were huge gaps in the text…. It was just impossible to work with and I informed the client that enough was enough, I wasn’t prepared to do the job. I had wasted quite enough time on this client over the past few days and wanted nothing more to do with them. She duly apologised for the dreadful conversion (blaming excessive workloads at their end), sent another, tidied-up document, but I’d gone past the point of no-return and reiterated my final decision. There comes a point when you realise that you are not enjoying working for a particular client, and there is no point continuing.

Interestingly, a colleague had also contacted me that very same morning, with similar issues with this self-same client, and having come to the same decision. It strikes me that agencies have a duty to respect their translators just as much as they respect their client’s wishes, and if they push us too far, they’ll find themselves up the creek without a paddle – all their preferred specialist translators having voted with their feet! Agencies take quite a sizeable chunk of the fee an end client pays and have a duty, in my book, to do more than just act as a go-between, pushing pieces of paper to and fro between the translator and the end client. When that relationship breaks down and the translator loses trust in the agency (just as much as the other way round), there is little point continuing.

The whole point of being freelance is to be able to pick and choose who you work for and what jobs you accept, yet often we’re too “nice” to say no to unreasonable behaviour on the part of clients, especially when it develops over a period of time. I’ve worked for this particular agency for a number of years and had initially liked their seemingly professional approach and the fact that they took great pains to have everything proof-read by native speakers and to have any changes validated. The staff were always very polite and charming to deal with, but little by little I’ve come to realise that every job has turned into a game of ping-pong. Final versions from the end client would arrive weeks, or even months, after the event, with a request to do a comparison in Word “for future reference” – why these weren’t sent as tracked changes for ease of checking, I really don’t know. Changes made by the end client at this stage were often incorrect, yet if you pointed this out, you were told that this was the term they preferred. On using this term again, at their behest, in a later translation, it would be changed back to the term you’d told them it should be in the first place! Files were often in pdf format, and whilst I usually charge a pdf supplement, they maintained this shouldn’t apply as they had done the conversion – yet checking the ultimate target file was a nightmare, as the conversion was often less than perfect, and this had to be reviewed every time the document was processed in Trados. In fact, I’d come to dread requests from this client, which is why it was actually quite a relief to finally say “No more”. We should do it more often!

How many times does our heart sink when a certain client rings about a job, or an e-mail arrives from a particular agency, or even direct client? In some cases, it may be because they take ages to pay and you’re not quite sure whether you’re prepared to wait, or do battle for what you’re owed. Other times it might be because the file formats are never straightforward, or because the hoops you have to jump through are simply too onerous. Or even that you really don’t enjoy the subject matter – why say yes, if you really want to run in the opposite direction?

Especially now, with exchange rates so disastrous for UK-based translators, dealing with clients in Europe has to be an enjoyable experience or it really isn’t worth the effort. I did have respectable rates negotiated with this agency, but current exchange rates make them a much less attractive proposition nowadays, even without the hassle factor! Added to the fact that they are based in Switzerland and use an intermediary bank who take off an automatic 11 euros in charges for every transfer without so much as a by-your-leave…

So yes, we definitely should consider sacking clients when the relationship just isn’t working any more. Being a doormat isn’t good for anyone. It’s up to us to decide who we work with and when we’ve had enough. Putting the free back into freelancer is quite an exhilarating experience!