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Is it just me, or does your heart sink when an existing client proudly announces that they’re launching a new translation portal? Or a new client comes along with the requirement to file all invoices electronically? It seems to be becoming more and more common in this digital age, with the upshot that the poor freelancer may have any number of different ways to retrieve and submit translations and file invoices – all of which need to be learned and remembered, of course.

I’m really not a Luddite and I’m happy to fit in with my clients’ requirements within reason, but just lately I seem to be wasting so much time trying to get to grips with the plethora of new systems. It’s not even just agencies, either: one of my direct clients is moving over to a third-party invoicing system too. I’ve tried for the past three months to submit an invoice via this labyrinthine new system, but it’s really not geared to translators: it asks for product codes and unit quantities without any provision for the unique nature of what we do. Translation isn’t a commodity after all, and trying to fit our pricing structure into the same form used for a supplier of bolts or electronic widgets is bound to end in grief. After asking for guidance on several occasions and getting no useful response, I eventually resorted to calling my contact in the company’s invoicing department and she talked me through what I needed to enter where. My first electronic invoice for this particular client has finally gone off into the ether. Here’s hoping I’ve crossed all the appropriate ‘t’s and dotted the necessary ‘i’s – it certainly took me far longer than if I’d just sent off my pdf invoice at the end of the month as usual – oh and I still had to upload that as well! Sigh…

I can, I suppose, see what’s in it for the companies in question. Streamlining, reduced workload, computerization…. but I wonder whether that really is the way to go for effective communication? I have a couple of agency clients who have used portals for some time and they can work extremely efficiently. When done properly, they are an excellent way of sending large files, with their associated reference material and TMs/glossaries if applicable, in one place via an ftp server, along with any client-specific instructions. It means files can be uploaded in the same way, especially useful for confidential texts. Such systems work for the benefit of both the client AND the translator – and in the best cases, they are ALWAYS accompanied by a separate e-mail from the project manager, checking availability and suitability. For me, that personal touch is all-important. The automated system only comes into play after that initial e-mail or ‘phone call and we still feel like valued human beings rather than faceless translation robots.
talking-on-phoneIn the negative camp, I went downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee one day last week and came back to my office to find two e-mails, timed two minutes apart, from an agency I’ve worked with for many years, always sporadically as they only rarely have jobs in my language pairs and specialisms. The first e-mail was asking about availability, and the second one was announcing that the job had already been placed! At first glance there was nothing to suggest that this was an automated e-mail, but when I’d stopped fuming (two minutes’ grace?!), I remembered that this particular agency has indeed switched over to a translation portal recently. Another one crossed off my list of good agencies to work for then… As it happened, I couldn’t have taken the job in any case as I was far too busy, but what a waste of time for all concerned if automated e-mails are fired off in all directions and only the firstcomer is accepted! Again, it’s a case of commoditising what we do, a retrograde step if ever there was one. Thanks, but no thanks.

Back on the topic of electronic invoicing systems, a number of my clients have introduced these of late, even if they haven’t gone down the full-blown portal route. When they work, these can be brilliant: I have one agency in Switzerland where you create your monthly invoice with one mouse click. No complicated instructions; the price/rate is agreed when the job is placed, entered in the system by the PM and the system generates the invoice. Perfect. Another agency that’s recently moved in this direction has a slightly more complicated system, but does at least send out detailed crib sheets explaining exactly what to do to upload an invoice – not ideal, but once you’re in the swing, that’s acceptable too.

I can’t help thinking, though, that if every client were to go over to electronic systems, no doubt all different, the freelance translator’s workload would not be eased as a result, but significantly increased. When we commission others, be it colleagues or tradesmen, or fellow professionals like lawyers or accountants, to do work for us, we don’t ask them to submit invoices in a prescribed fashion. Whilst not quite accepting them on the back of a cigarette packet these days, we just hope to receive an invoice by e-mail or in the post in due course – which I always pay immediately, certainly not after the 30 days that seem to be the norm for agencies.

Client relations work both ways, and I, for one, do think twice about working for agencies who make excessive demands regarding invoicing and sending/receiving work in the first place. As for using specific CAT tools, well.let’s not even go there! Just as it’s often the case that the clients who ask you to fill in time-consuming databases and forms before they even accept you on their books, are  usually the ones who never actually send you any work… We should never forget that we are professionals, and while we can certainly try to comply with our clients’ wishes, some things are just a step too far. Maintaining that vital human contact is so important for both sides – let’s keep it that way.

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