Dispute resolution in the translation industry

For better or for worse, the translation industry does not currently have a standard procedure or body for resolving disputes between translators and clients. So, clients who feel that a translator has delivered substandard work and translators who feel that they’ve been unfairly treated by clients do not have a standard avenue of recourse and must either resolve the issue themselves or pursue it through traditional legal means such as small claims court or collections services.

A typical translation industry dispute situation often goes like this:
Translator: “My translation was perfect and now the client is refusing to pay. Several of my friends even looked over the translation and agreed that it was perfect. The client has to pay me.”
Client: “The translator came highly recommended but the translation is horrible, unusable. We’ve nearly lost one of our biggest clients because of this. We shouldn’t have to pay for this work.”

Disputes between translators and clients arise over various issues; quality issues are the stickiest, since they are so subjective. In other areas, a dispute may arise but it’s more clear-cut: either the translator met the deadline or didn’t; either the client paid on time or didn’t. But when it comes to quality, it’s often a “your word against mine” situation that quickly turns acrimonious. Following are some tips for avoiding and resolving dispute situations, both from the translator’s point of view and the agency’s.

First, every translator should belong to an a translation agency rating service (see a post on About Translation listing various services) and should check it before accepting a job from any new client. To me, this is an absolute requirement of running a successful freelance business; recently, I received several e-mails from translators complaining about a non-paying agency. In about two minutes spent on Payment Practices, the agency rating service I subscribe to, I was able to see that this agency had a track record of non-payment going back several years. While these translators certainly didn’t deserve not to be paid, I see no excuse for not investing $15 or $20 per year and a few minutes of your time to check out what other translators think of a potential client.

Second, translators need to be honest about their abilities; the vast majority of the quality issues I hear about (in which the translator admits that he/she did a poor job) involve a situation where the translator took the job for the wrong reasons: was afraid to say no, really needed the money, didn’t look at the documents before accepting, etc. Finally, translators need to be able to hear and learn from feedback about their work. Here in freelance-land, we don’t have annual performance reviews, and even those of us who are ATA-certified take the certification test only once, so outside assessments of our work are few and far between. If a client has legitimate complaints about your work, take them as a learning opportunity and avoid getting defensive; apologize and ask what you can do to regain the client’s trust.

From the client perspective, vetting a translator ahead of a job is somewhat harder, since there aren’t yet any services devoted to critiquing specific translators. A translator might be asked to provide references, but chances are that these will be positive. And, as with investments, “past results are not always an indicator of future performance.” Even a qualified translator will have an off day, technical problems, etc. and either miss a deadline or deliver substandard work.

I think that when this happens, the most important thing from the client’s perspective is to provide specific examples of what was wrong with the document, not just say “It was terrible and we’re not paying you.” For example, a client could provide a document with tracked changes, indicating the revisions that an editor made. Or, the client could provide a list of specific examples that show why the document had to be retranslated. If the document was sent to the end client without being reviewed and the quality objections are coming from the end client, the document should be reviewed by another translator before the quality objections are addressed, since the end client’s objections may or may not be valid.

The hardest-to-resolve situation arises when all of the above steps have happened and there’s still no agreement on whether the translation is acceptable or not. This brings up the question of whether a standard dispute resolution procedure or a dispute resolution organization is something that would benefit the translation industry overall. What we’re missing right now is a neutral arbitration setting, where the translation can be evaluated by someone who has no stake in the outcome. As it stands, the translator is likely to call in a colleague who is in turn likely to agree with him or her that the translation is fine, while the agency is likely to use another translator it works with, who will probably agree that the translation isn’t up to snuff. As of now, in the U.S. at least, there is no third party who will intervene in this type of dispute; maybe it’s a niche waiting to be filled?

3 Responses to “Dispute resolution in the translation industry”
  1. M.T. April 22, 2008
  2. Corinne McKay April 23, 2008
  3. Melbourne Translator July 27, 2009

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