Today is Sunday and while I wouldn't like to write about a substantive translation issue, I thought it was a good opportunity to broach an ethical problem. The ethical problem I want to tackle here is:
respecting other people's time
Respect for other people's time comes in two basic varietes:
- Not wasting it, and:
- Giving them something in return for the time they give us (e.g. the time they spend dealing with our own problems).
Of the two above aspects I will speak in only most general terms: it'd be a good idea to make sure that we don't waste other people's time through inefficient processes in our own business. It would also be a good idea to fish out those cases where a current or potential partner clearly invests his or her time in our business relationship (for example by writing a thoughtful response, an elaborate offer, a detailed quotation etc.) and reply in kind.
However, at this time I want to focus on a different aspect of respecting another's time:
Just like someone's money, his time belongs to him and we shouldn't claim it from his under false pretences.
If this sounds complicated, I will try to offer a 'real-life' illustration: A beggar should not lie about his ailments and disabilities when he asks compassionate walkers-by to share their money with him. A worker should not lie in his CV based on which he negotiates his salary. A vendor should not lie about the quality of his product delivered to clients. Or else they get their money under false pretences.
Time can be similar to money in this regard, and sometimes time is converted to money in a very direct way, such as the billable hours charged by lawyers and some other professionals.
In this context I want to address a popular problem in the translation industry, which is:
The artificial rush
This is the direct cause why I decided to write this article. I simply read about yet another translator being hurried into a rush translation only to have it shelved for a long time after delivery.
To avoid wasting space on triviliaties, let me say right away this isn't about including a buffer zone in a deadline, especially where the delivering agency or client has a record of late deliveries. Also, the need for revision, checking, editing and proofreading is not artificial.
What is artificial rush is when the client or agency higher in the chain claims the job is urgent and needs to be done ASAP, for example tomorrow morning, while in reality nobody looks at the delivered translation until next week or even later.
Time or money... or both?
Usually a client or agency who claims the job needs to be done ASAP also claims that the circumstances are objective in nature, that the urgency is a necessity that results from independent reasons, and thus that no rush fee should be applied – in contrast to more culpable
situations where someone forgot about the need to translate, took his sweet time or simply wants it fast because he's impatient.
The false pretences involved in the artificial rush make the contracted agency or the contracted translator allocate their time and resources in a changed way in order to respond to a client's legitimate need... which does not exist. How about we call the plumber and ask him to speed up the job – and potentially delay his jobs for other clients – because we have a wedding in our house next week when we don't actually have that wedding? That's false pretences.
Apart from the time and factors like moving deadlines with other clients, also money is involved when the agency or client agrees not to charge a rush fee after being told a moving story of how the client (or outsourcing agency) really needs that job so fast. Except that story isn't true. Which means a lower price was obtained on the basis of a false story.
Potential legal liability
Depending on the jurisdiction, sometimes good faith is required of parties negotiating a contract. Using inaccurate information to influence the other party to give a more advantageous deadline or price could be found to be in violation of the good faith requirement. This is because an important benefit would be obtained on the basis of an argument – or plea – based on false premises.
Claiming a rush that does not exist is not just a white lie
Now, this is not an accusation!
Now, this not a fraud accusation against busy business people who exaggerate the urgency of their deadlines especially in response to previous delays by irresponsible contractors.
Rather, my aim here is to appeal to those busy people to sit back and think for a while and be more scrupulous about the urgency claimed in their jobs.
Let me say one thing in case it's not realised yet: when a translator has an urgent job to do, it means serious overtime, sometimes night work, sometimes weekened work, time away from family, time away from sleep or some other form of rest. It can also mean having to move or decline some other jobs. This is often not compensated additionally (i.e. the translator is only paid the standard fee for the translation but not an overtime fee or some other kind of reward for his sacrifice).
So, would you - sorry for being a little too direct perhaps – 'colour' the story a little to make your workers stay a little late without overtime pay to accomplish something which is not really that urgent?
Rather, I invite you to realise the parallel between the exaggerated rush and the false pretences under which money or some other benefits (e.g. services) are sometimes claimed from business partners, which is normally considered a big no-no.
What you can do instead is:
The multiple vendor chain – a specific form of artificial rush
- Be honest with the translator and say: 'Look, I don't know when I can find time to deal with this, so it may well be next week that I write back to you, but I'd prefer to have it on my desk tomorrow.'
- Distribute the rush fairly and make it felt equally across the entire chain, not just the last week ring. This is not only a matter of fairness but of actually not botching the whole job at the translation stage.
- If you're an agency or the source documents otherwise come from your own clients or business partners, let alone your employees – discpline your clients or business partners or especially your employees to respect their deadlines. Communicate the necessity for the receivables to be delivered on time because they will need to be translated yet, and translation can't be a hastily whipped up rag tag job.
- Plan in advance, which often comes down to just thinking prospectively. Predict the need to translate (which is not difficult when you know you're addressing a foreign audience when writing in your own language), especially if the need to translate is a cyclical, repeatable event in your organisation. Book a slot with the agency or translator. Don't phone at the last minute and expect to be bailed out like a damsel in distress. Again. Okay, sorry for being so direct, but I hope you got my point. No offence intended.
- Compensate your translator or agency for the rush. If you must have the rush, at least pay for it the normal surcharge and don't ask for it to be waived on the basis of a story that just doesn't hold water. Savings are important but too much is too much. Do you really need to make the financial savings at this time at the sacrifice of your translator (because an agency's sacrifice will usually be handed down to the translator to make)? If the savings aren't necessary, just expend (and expense) the money which is the normal fee for the service you're asking for.
Compensation needn't always involve money. It can even come in the form of retaining the same agency or translator for future jobs instead of working with different people at each time. Also, if you can't afford large one-off surcharges (or your shareholders won't understand them), you can offer higher base fees in consideration of the waiver of rush fees. You can always provide some kind of marketing benefit like publicity or contacts. For example think of your partners who could need the same services, or a way to promote your translator or agency such as mentioning them in the credits where other people (e.g. companies from other sectors) can see them. Translators frequently need past clients to vouch for their business reliability, e.g. in government or court procurements for translation services, certification/credential procedures, and in some cases even simple recruitment with another agency. (And if you're an agency it does you no harm when you recommend a good translator whose calendar you're unable to fill on your own.)
There is also one more thing to consider when speaking about artificial rush: the long vendor chain, in which a client places a job order with a large agency that hands the jobs down to a smaller agency, which then subcontracts it further and so on until the translator at the end of the chain has perhaps as little as one day to complete a job that the end client was told would take one week.
And the client was not told that the job would be any sort of rush job, let alone an ASAP job! It follows logically that neither was the client duly made aware of the increased risk of errors and mistakes and other quality issues (e.g. lack of time for research and consultations) resulting from the rush. After all, in the client's mind, this is all a routine slow operation. That is dishonest towards the client. Again, it has the vibe of false pretences because the client pays for normal quality, not for rush quality.
On the other hand, the translator cannot and should not be held liable for a rush he did not create, let alone for natural human limitations that he cannot overcome. Making the translator the victim of the 'multiple agency chain' is unfair. What is also unfair is that the translator will likely be expected to address end client queries and complaints as if he had completed a non-rush job. Because, like I said before, the client has obviously not been told that his normal job has been turned into a rush job! This means burdening the translator with additional layers of post-sale service and with complaints that would be inadmissible in a normal rush job. This means making the translator provide some kind of premium rush service – rush deadline but normal or even premium quality. Which is unfair also.
What to do?
The response is to abandon the easy way of just hiring another middleman and actually recruit translators instead. This can be done in advance to avoid needing to recruit in the heat of the moment. Speaking of which:
A week's translation workload, four days for finding the translator and one for translating
Some jobs that came with very tight deadlines for the translator also come with long time windows for the agency or client to choose the best translator. Or even the cheapest translator.
While looking for the best translator is somewhat understandable, here's the truth: the quality depends much on the time available. You may be better off giving a good translator a good amount of time in which to complete his work than looking for a perfect translator to deliver your job in a rush.
Also, if you've just spent four days looking for a cheaper translator, then it's completely unfair and even tacky for you to ask the chosen translator to fit a week's worth of translation (e.g. 13,000 words) into a single day without charging you a rush fee. You could at least have given him a full week! He benefitted nothing from your search of a marginally cheaper translator (e.g. 10% difference). You're the paying client, but it's not all about you. Especially not when you ask for favours instead of paying what should normally be due. Don't. You aren't even underpaying the guy, you're actively disrespecting him when you do that.
But what about translators respecting the time of others?
Good one! Here's what a translator can and should do:
- Consider his or her colleagues' time when outsourcing rush jobs. Essentially, remember that you're a translator too.
- Only take jobs that the translator is 100% sure he or she can deliver on time, unless a very clear understanding exists that the deadline is only an estimate (or an attempt at the impossible). Don't generate rush for others by your unpredicted failure to deliver on time.
- Present his qualifications and your availability honestly for the same reason you don't want your clients and agencies to misrepresent the jobs or their urgency.
- Inspect jobs carefully before confirming them, for the same reasons as above. If you walk out in the middle of the deadline it will mean rush for others, and perhaps additional expenses but certainly additional sacrifices e.g. of their time with families.
- Not wait until the last moment, especially when there is some risk of problems or complications. The need for research isn't even a risk, it should be expected.
- Communicate any need for assistance, or any problem with the job, as soon as possible. Any time lost here can make rush for others, possibly the need to pay otherwise avoidable rush fees to other service providers, and even possibly delay or failure of the entire undertaking for which translation was needed.
- Not wait until the last minute lest the Internet connection is lost or electricity goes off or anything else like that happens. Generally aim to deliver before the deadline, so that anything like missing attachments or questions or explanations can be handled and concluded before the originally appointed deadline. (For really fast jobs, one can send the file first and spend 20 minutes typing in any non-critical explanations later.)
- Bonus: have a shortlist of competent substitutes in case the translator should fall ill, suffer from an accident or otherwise be incapacitated from translating. It also helps to have recommendable colleagues so that jobs can be shared and jobs from outside the translators' respective comfort zones can be exchanged comfortable (preferably with the client's knowledge and consent but in any case not in violation of a contractual ban on subcontracting).
- Save the clients' and agencies' time such as above by having recommendable colleagues for jobs one cannot accept, taking no more than reasonable time to decide on taking the job or not, not walking out without a really good reason, not wasting time squabbling about minute details, and otherwise being creative and diligent in avoiding time loss for clients and agencies or, better still, saving time for them. One way to do so is to:
- Limit the need for proofreaders' and editors' time with one's translation. Some agencies still retain proofreaders and editors instead of making translators the last ring in the chain. It's probably even more difficult for such agencies to pay translators good wages and make any decent markup. Don't make the good agencies waste money, translator. Reciprocate by minimising the time the agency's proofreaders and editors need to spend making your text the final version. I will write a separate article to explain what else is in it for you. But there's quite a lot, other than just being a decent chap.
Also, if you want agencies and clients to respect your time: respect theirs to inspire reciprocity. Professionals have high standards!
Recap and bottom line
To have a time-respecting culture we need to:
- Avoid claiming others' time without a real need, and especially under false pretences.
- Communicate about anything which relates to time, e.g. how much urgency we really need or how much urgency we can really provide.
- Engage in substantive, meaningful communication. Cut the games of appearances, which are not worth botching a job.
- Be creative and proactive in saving time for others.
- Inspire reciprocity to promote a time-respecting culture.
- But don't make time an idol or another money-like variable: remember that time too is about the people. Especially if it involves time with their families or time that's claimed from them as a necessary sacrifice for a cause.
I wish every reader plenty of rewarding business relationships in which everybody's time is respected.