Translation risks for freelance translators

by | Sep 9, 2016 | Translators' Column

In the Multilingual magazine (September 2016 issue) Daniel Harcz discusses the main translation risks agencies face regularly. He covers risks such as not getting paid, taking on unknown new freelancers or clients, maintaining confidentiality, essential equipment failure, accepting translation projects without having ascertained translators’ availability.

All his points struck a chord with me, looking at these risks from the other end of the telescope: freelance translators’ risks aren’t that different.

Translation risk 1: getting paid for translation jobs

Freelance translators tend to mostly work for agencies. Most agencies pay up within their specified payment periods, some are slow payers, some may never pay at all.

As Mr Harcz pointed out, one point of reference is the Blueboard of The basic information on Blueboard is open to everyone. Only translators who are paid-up members can see the reviews and comments. There are various other lists available where translators can check the payment practices of agencies and other clients.

What a lot of freelancers do is ask around colleagues to find out if a new agency that has contacted them has a good payment record.

When working for direct clients it is impossible for freelance translators to know whether they will pay or not. A lot of translators don’t want to risk losing a new client by asking for prepayment. The translator may need the work, and, most clients (in my experience over 95%) pay up. So the risk is relatively small.

I have had clients who were extremely reluctant to pay. Some I threatened with court action – and they paid up eventually. Some never paid, but, when looking at the bigger picture, these represented maybe 1% of my turnover. A risk I was willing to take at the time.

Translation risk 2: how to detect whether a client is likely to pay

The multilingual article lists a number of “betraying signs” to look out for when dealing with new clients: Examine the general voice of the email, its style and wording. Are there signs of disrespect? Is correspondence extremely short? Is the tone of the correspondence less than polite?

Mr Harcz regards these as indicators for an intention not to pay.

I would add as indicators that they refuse even partial prepayment despite having been given good reasons for your request. Or, they complain about your work being too expensive but accept your quote nevertheless.

Translation risk 3: working with new colleagues

Translators are often faced with either no work coming in at all or a lot of enquiries coming in at the same time. So, occasionally, a regular client may ring up when a translator is already working on a major project. They don’t want to lose an established client but really can’t fit the translation in. Whom to entrust with this job? All their usual colleagues are busy too, so now they need to find someone new. One option is to go to the Institute of Linguists or ITI website and search for someone suitably qualified. Someone says they can do it, but membership of a professional body is no guarantee that the work they deliver will be on time and to the standard your client expects.

No matter how well qualified: translators have off-days, the subject doesn’t suit them, their style totally grates with yours, they make mistakes etc.

How can the translator subcontracting a job safeguard against this? It is impossible. All they can and should do is specify the precise requirements of the job in an email and make sure the translator accepts them. That way, they have legal come-back if it all goes wrong.

Apart from that, trust in the professional translator but make sure you have a generous deadline. Check with the translator half way through the given deadline, how they’re getting on with the job. At worst, you’ll just have to burn the midnight oil and finish the job yourself, at best the translation is absolutely fine, delivered on time and at a reasonable price. Everyone happy.

Translation risk 4: how to maintain confidentiality

I don’t believe that there are many professional translators out there who would, maliciously or for gain, pass on confidential information.

However, in this day and age of mobile devices, scammers and hackers galore and the issue of data protection, maintaining confidentiality is a major concern. Translators must make sure that their antivirus software is up to date and their devices are password protected. You should use additional password protection for extremely confidential information. You should not pass on confidential client information in any way.

I have never known one translator ask another translator for a confidentiality agreement. Confidentiality is just taken as read among colleagues. It has never been an issue during my working life as a freelance translator. What can and does happen is that translators ask you to sign a confidentiality agreement with their end-client.

Translation risk 5: essential equipment failure

Translators are dependent on their technical equipment. Equipment failure can mean missing a deadline.

Scenarios like these happen:

  • A scanner stops working.
  • The computer packs up / has a virus.
  • A document mysteriously disappears from the computer (because I work on a file downloaded from a mail and forget to save it on my computer, for example).
  • There is a power search, wiping the last three hours’ work off the hard drive, as the autosave interval was set incorrectly.
  • The internet connection fails.

Most freelance translators have had problems like these.

To safeguard against any of such issues making you miss your deadline or delivering substandard work look into the following:

  • Whose equipment can you use, if your own fails? While most people today have more than one internet enabled device, could you finish a 10,000-word translation on it? Does it have the same CAT tool  installed and anything else you’ll need? Do you synchronise regularly?
  • Purchase an uninterruptable power supply (UPS). A power search can do a lot of damage to your computer. A UPS is worth the investment.
  • Save work at short intervals and on more than one device, if it’s a large job.
  • Have a back-up plan in place

Translation risk 6: running out of time

Freelance translators can occasionally find themselves running out of time when trying to meet a deadline. For example, a document they were working on turns out more complicated or takes longer than anticipated. There are many other reasons why this happens occasionally.

My advice is to talk to your clients and seek an extension of the deadline. There is often leeway in deadlines as most people allow a little time for when problems develop. Clients may be willing to give you some rope. But if you have a good reason for not meeting the deadline, a good relationship with your clients and an excellent track record of getting it right they are more likely to extend. If they won’t or can’t, suggest alternative translators to them, so they have a chance to still have the job done on time. Having passed on responsibility, you now have the time to finish your other job within the specified period.

Freelance translators must consider carefully how much work they can carry out in any given period. Taking on more than they can cope with is not recommended and one of the most sure-fired ways of losing a client.


Freelance translators tend to take on a lot on trust or check translation risks out by referring to colleagues. So, the more colleagues you have you can rely on for insider information, the lower your risk. For the rest: take all necessary and possible precautions.

Accurate, confidential, efficient and reliable English-German translations

Professionally qualified German translator into English and English into German, offering first class translation services for commercial, industrial, governmental and private clients.

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