Recently, several newly established freelance translators have asked me about how and when to say no to clients who are offering translation projects. It’s a delicate topic, since as freelancers we need to accept work in order to stay in business, but we also need to decline work in order to maintain a good quality of life to avoid taking on projects that are outside our areas of expertise. Following are some tips on how to say no to clients without harming your future relationship with them.
When I decline a job because it is outside my area of expertise or because I think the deadline is unrealistic, I tell the client what the issue is, because I think that this builds an honest relationship with the the client, who is then more likely to believe me when I say that I can take something on. For example if the project involves very technical documents or hard science, I simply say, “It’s not my specialization; the end result will be much better if you use a translator who specializes in that area.” If the deadline is more than what I can take on, same plan of action: “I’m concerned that I can’t do a quality job in that amount of time. Of course if you can extend the deadline…”
One advantage of this strategy is that I offer it as evidence to new clients. If the client seems nervous about using me and I want the project, I tell them that I regularly turn down work that is outside of my specializations, or I say “I never take on a project that I feel I can’t do a good job on. I wouldn’t give you a quote for this project if I weren’t confident in my ability to produce a high-quality translation.” This way, the client knows that I don’t automatically say yes to everything.
Personally, I try not to refuse a project because of rate or deadline issues without at least putting forth a counter-offer. For example if a client says “we can pay X cents a word,” where X is much lower than my rate, I might say “I would be very interested in this project if you can pay my base rate of Y cents a word.” Depending on the situation, for example if I can tell that the client is new to purchasing translations, I might also suggest that “Of course you’re welcome to look for someone who will work for that rate, but I would be concerned about quality since most established professional translators don’t seem to be working for that rate.” If the issue is deadline, I usually take a similar approach, “It sounds like a really interesting project, but I find that in order to produce a high-quality translation, I need to limit myself to 2,000-3,000 words per day. If you could give me 4 days to translate your 10,000 words, I would be happy to help out.”
When you’re weighing your decision on whether to accept a project, I think it’s important to differentiate between a rush deadline and an unrealistic deadline. For better or worse, rush deadlines are the reality in many translation specializations. However, I think there’s a difference between doing 10,000 words in three days (a real squeeze, but possible if you are very familiar with the subject matter and the documents are either in a read/write format or a very legible PDF and don’t involve complex formatting) and doing (or more likely trying to do) 10,000 words in two days; at that level, I think it’s almost impossible to work accurately enough that quality doesn’t suffer.
I think it’s also important to differentiate between going the extra mile/kilometer for your regular clients and allowing yourself to be exploited by new or infrequent clients who are in a bind. Not all translators share this view, but I feel that my regular clients deserve some special treatment for the quality of life that they allow me to enjoy, working on my own schedule, on interesting projects and earning a healthy income. So, if a regular client needs 10 words translated, I do it without charging. If a regular client’s project requires a few hours of work on a weekend, I charge my regular rate instead of a premium rate. However, I don’t do these favors for non-regular clients; the “royal treatment” is reserved for my top few (very few!) clients on whom my business depends. That’s a post for another time, “The Art of Saying Yes!”