Faced with a rush translation? Just say no.
To the neophyte translator, who is still struggling to find regular clients, the words urgent and rush sound like an invitation to test her skills, her ability to meet deadlines and, most importantly, land a new client. These words are part of the stable repertoire of a customer’s manipulative language. At times, these rush translation requests come with an overt quasi promise of more work. And the inexperienced translator falls for it. I know because I did it on several occasions during the first few years of my career.
I am not disqualifying every single claim to a rush or urgent translation, because I have also faced bona fide rush requests from well-established clients. The difference is that there is no manipulative language, no empty promises of more projects coming up. As an in-house translator, I had to drop everything in order to address the occasional urgent request for a translation.
In addition, reliable customers who request bona fide rush translations offer to pay extra for your trouble and don’t usually haggle: they’re in a time crunch and they come to you because you are reliable too. They’re willing to pay top dollar for your services. Other than that, rush requests belie a pervasive lack of organization that comes from project mismanagement and unrealistic expectations set by sales, marketing and/or product managers at the end-customer side. Translation companies big and small, desperate to please and earn money, accept these rush projects without question, thus becoming part of the contagious lack of organization I referred to earlier.
But said translation companies protest: “The customer is always right.” This is one of those proverbs that are rather a self-fulfilling prophecy than a rational statement of fact. No, not all customers are always right. In fact, some customers are usually disorganized, unfocused, distracted, etc. Behind every corporation or small business, there’s a very fallible human being who can’t be always right even if his (or her) life depended on it.
Translators could use some of the scientific method approach: look for the root cause, investigate, experiment, fail and fail again, examine all plausible causes for a particular result, eliminate the improbable and arrive at the truth. So what if a client says I have a rush translation due tomorrow, 3000 words from a contract or a list of parts for a blowout preventer? Whether you are a single contractor, a 10-staff translation agency or LionBridge, you have a choice. Learn to say no.
In our minds, we all sometimes entertain an ideal dialogue with a client, trying to elucidate the causes for a rush, delay, lack of proper deliverables, attempting to resolve conflicts and miscommunication. We all sometimes wish that our client were more understanding, had more time to talk on the phone, actually gave us the materials we requested to do our job instead of wasting our time. But these are ideal scenarios that play out only in our heads. We have no power or authority to go into a customer’s organization, talk to the befuddled managers on how to insert the translation process into their processes and workflows instead of leaving translation as an afterthought. We cannot change their behavior. But we do have the power to say no. Let me play a scenario for you.
If translation companies, from government contractors to the lowliest of the lowly and lonely single translator starting out as such had the courage, the presence of mind, the firmness of will, the determination to say No, I can’t do your rush translation, then clients may start to reassess their workflows. We can be more detailed in our answer: No, I can’t do your rush translation under the circumstances you describe. If we acted this way, maybe, just maybe clients will reflect and play a fairer game, because good writing, good translating cannot be rushed.
There are other sad considerations behind a rush translation, aside from a chaotic workflow on the client’s side. Does the client really care for the end user who will use the translation? If not, why pay for it? I recently faced the following situation: a lighting manufacturer wanted some bilingual instructions to be translated and laid out as soon as possible, almost urgently, because their Chinese partner was sending new fixtures sooner than expected and shipment to customers had to be accelerated. Even with suitable translations, a proper document layout cannot be just rushed, slapping images on pages as some artists does with scraps to make a photo collage. What was so urgent about inserting the rushed translation into the fixtures’ packaging? What if the instructions, properly translated and typeset, were given adequate time and then end users were directed to download those instructions from the manufacturer’s website instead? There wouldn’t be any need to rush a translation. If we compared the rush time to a regular lead time for translation delivery, we would be talking about a few days. What will a few days’ delay make against a company’s quarterly sales?
Software developers and makers rush products all the time in a highly competitive marketplace, trying to outdo each other with new features and reach the market before the other. But, why sell buggy and mistranslated (mislocalized) software in the first place, knowing that correcting those bugs and mistranslations cost added time and money to the company and to the customer? My 7 years in the software business have shown precisely that time and time again. Where’s the rational workflow, the proper product and project management in that?
The point here is that mismanagement and chaotic workflows don’t just affect translations and translators but products, services, time-to-market schemes and, ultimately, profits. Easy does it, the saying goes. Speed is not a virtue but an obstacle, like any other. Anything worth keeping, buying, investing in, admiring and valuing is truly worth waiting for. Don’t rush it.