You can’t shake the uneasiness. Maybe while you were interpreting in a deposition, an attorney objected and then asked to have the question and your interpretation read back. Then nothing more was said about it. Maybe in the translation you just finished, there was one unfamiliar phrase repeated throughout, but you made the deadline and it is already in the hands of the client. The more you think about it, the more you feel that you made a mistake. You aren’t sure if anyone caught it since you haven’t received a complaint…yet. At this point, your conscience won’t leave you alone.
That is a good thing. That means you care about your work product. Embrace your conscience with a big Thank You. I will walk you through what goes on after you’ve left the stage. Because the more you know about the impact of your work- good or bad; the more you’ll know how to improve. Look for two upcoming posts: what you can do to resolve a mistake and what to do when the client wrongly claims you made a mistake.
When a mistake is discovered, here’s what happens on the client’s end.
If you were working for an agency, they will hear the complaint from their client. A professional agency should give you a chance to tell your side, so they will contact you and ask you about the job. Some will test your honesty by not mentioning the complaint, to see if you will reveal the mistake to them. Others will be honest and tell you exactly what the client said. This allows you to help the agency rectify the problem and thus help them keep their client. If they keep that client, you have a better chance to stay on with the agency but it is likely you won’t be sent on assignments for their specific client. If the agency has to resolve the problem on their own you could easily lose the agency as your client. Often the agency will need to discount or not charge their fee to keep the client so there is a financial burden to them.
Fact: The agency can replace you with another freelancer much easier than they can replace a paying client.
If you were working directly for a client, you may not hear about the complaint until after they themselves have decided what to do about it. If this mistake has affected their client’s case, the firm has to act quickly and follow the rules of civil or criminal procedure. If they have to tell their client what happened, then your name takes another hit. Hell hath no fury like an attorney in damage control mode.
Fact: Most interpreters don’t realize the repercussions of misinterpreted testimony.
Unless you have a long term, exclusive relationship with this client, chances are you won’t hear about the complaint at all. Lawyers don’t like adding the task of questioning you to their agendas. You will begin to notice they don’t schedule you anymore and then your overall work load drops off. It is usually because they simply mentioned the experience with you to another lawyer, which snowballs, tarnishing your reputation.
Mistakes are ethical and procedural slip-ups too. Judicial professionals hold us to the same standards they are held to. Being late and delaying a deposition costs both parties time and money. Missing a deadline on a translation can set back the client’s production schedule. A breach of confidentiality or privilege can result in a mistrial. This is why clients react so strongly to these mistakes.
Reasons for mistakes never outweigh the repercussions. This awareness will give you the additional instinct to avoid them.
The longer you freelance in this business, if you make the effort to keep getting training, you can count on five things to happen.
1. Your performance will get better and better.
2. What was once difficult will be easy.
3. Your confidence will get more and more solid.
4. You will enjoy the work every time.
5. You will also face a client’s complaint about your work that will take you right back to how nervous you felt when you were just starting out.
So when faced with a complaint about your work, when do you stand up for yourself and when do you just move on? The answer is when you know, without question, which of the following is true:
1. You did not make any mistakes or
2. The client is right and you made an error in your performance.
The only way to know is if you are distinctly aware of your performance by practicing constant and honest self-assessment. Interpreters need to listen to what they themselves are saying and rely on the instant recall of the last interchange. Most professional interpreters have retention of the prior several seconds. All interpreters should truthfully acknowledge a check list of their own weaknesses, which most clients object to, including heavy accents, pronunciation and grammar mistakes and being late. Translators need to practice good time management and make mental notes of their word choices and the options they can choose from. We also need to invest in a good proofreader since fresh eyes can make or break your reputation. We also have to know the regulations and expectations of competitive professional interpreting or translation. That is the only way we can know if we made a mistake and were to blame or not.
I’ve learned that most interpreters and translators usually know when there was a grey area in their work product. We also know when our performance is at risk because of the environment or setting we are working in. An example would be when the interpreter faced with screaming attorneys and witnesses all talking over each other. The freelance translator can be uneasy when given a barely legible copy or a deadline that is moved up from the original one. But we do have the right to tell the client of the risk to our performance and ask that it be remedied. And we, as freelancers have the right to turn down any job.
But there is still the probability that the client is wrong in their accusation. My profession has an inexcusably low percentage of end user knowledge of the fundamentals skills required to be an interpreter and /or translator as well as our process and regulations. The biggest culprit is the client who feels they are more fluent than a licensed trained and qualified translator or interpreter.
Honest self-assessment can lead to fewer mistakes in your control. It happens to all of us. Every now and then a mistake slips into our normally impeccable work product. I have three more posts about this. One tells what happens when the client discovers a mistake, how to resolve it when you did make a mistake and how to handle the client wrongly claiming you made a mistake when you didn’t.
One of the best tools I learned about running a business was calculating the value of my time. It helped me to manage my time by spending it in ways that created or led to future income. Placing a dollar value on your time is key to success as a freelance interpreter or translator. This is a common fact for all small business owners.
But our clients can benefit from learning how we charge and how we spend time on a job. Recognizing the value of a freelancer’s time helps you put an added value on the work we do for you. And when you see that time is not being spent efficiently by the freelancer you chose, then you know you have to find a more professional service provider.
We freelancers have to spend a lot of time that is not paid in order to complete a project. We are not paid for giving an estimate for translation or transcription work and that can take a long time. If our estimate is more than the client budgeted for, then we have lost the time as well as the job. After reviewing the task, if the deadline is shorter than we can finish the job, then again we lose the job and wasted that time. People who charge for estimates soon lose that client to those of us who don’t.
Having a finely tuned system for estimate development works for me. It is based on knowing how long it takes me, individually to translate or transcribe specific assignments. I ask the client to give me those details and they are outlined on my website. I also am free to say no to a job instead of performing that work poorly. Rushes are charged according to the value of me working on weekends and during non-business hours. But I never accept a job that I know, even with overtime hours, I will be so rushed I could make mistakes.
Interpreters measure our paid time in hours of the duration of the assignment. Longer jobs are preferred, obviously, but the duration of a deposition or hearing can’t always be predicted by the client. That’s why we have a minimum charge and the standard is two hours. Also it is common for interpreters to get last minute calls, or “pop ups”. Since we have to try to schedule enough work in advance to make a living, we often have to revise our schedule to fit those in. It is good business for us to be flexible and accommodate the client. Unless the client is continuously calling at the last minute. Whether it is an agency or law firm, it is obvious that they only call you when they have exhausted their list and that is disrespectful. I simply tell those people to take me off their list.
The biggest culprit that wastes time for both interpreters and translators is the cancellation. That is why we charge a fee for that. For interpreting it is completely lost income that we counted on and lost through no fault of our own and we don’t have time to replace it. For translations, we already spent time reviewing for the estimate and setup and we blocked off time for the work. Cancellation terms and fees should be presented up front when scheduled and agreed to in writing before leaving for the interpreting job or starting the translation job.
I learned these lessons when I first started doing this work thirty five years ago. Like all novice freelancers, I felt the obligation to say yes to every job that came my way out of fear of not having more work soon thereafter. We freelancers are basically unemployed at the end of each day unless we have the skills to develop a clientele that relies on us. There is another key to success, provide the best language work on time and you will be trusted and relied upon by the client. I have learned that it is a relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
Here is a good way for a full time employee to understand how the freelancer values time. If your boss assigns you a task and then takes it away and refuses to pay you for that time during your regular pay day. Or if you are called the night before and told not to come in the next day and that day’s pay will be deducted from your paycheck. Full time employees are protected by law against that, including unpaid overtime.
We freelancers have to negotiate those waters with tact and skill. Hopefully we are sailing a well-built ship.
Has someone ever walked away from you in mid conversation or hung up on you on the telephone? Have you ever done that to someone? It must have been caused by anger, disagreement or frustration. Whatever the reason, the result is information is not communicated. It is also considered very rude and that can result in a deterioration of the relationship.
Today we spend so little time speaking face to face or even on the telephone. It is almost all by email or texting. We can apply the same behavior to these communications. Reading and responding to only part of an email is cutting off the sender from the rest of their message. Fortunately, until you tell them that you only read part of what they wrote, the rudeness factor doesn’t come into play. But the problems associated with acting on incomplete information are worse than a slight. They can cause you to miss or be late to an important meeting, not have all the details to make a decision or not know about a change in your role or responsibility. The list of consequences is proportional to the reasons you are contacted in the first place. And when it is revealed that the email was dismissed or considered not important enough to be read completely, that business relationship is jeopardized.
But what about those long winded emails that never seem to get to a point? They are definitely considered more of an imposition than valuable information. Like I tell the authors whose books I edit, a little honest self-assessment goes a long way. The cure for the habit of pouring words into a message is to first break down your points with bullets. Then put the critical instruction first. Limit or dispense with the niceties and do that cold turkey. Close by telling the respondent to respond with any questions they may have. If you are a hard core babbler, show the message to a friendly critic. If it wins their approval then you have a template.
As a freelance court interpreter, I know my clients are very busy and they are doing me the favor of giving me an assignment. Sometimes a legal secretary, paralegal or court clerk doesn’t provide me with all the details I need. So, my follow up email is succinct. I ask only for what I need to know. As short as one sentence with greeting and closing.
I felt the irritation first hand when I had sub-contractors who repeatedly didn’t read my assignment emails, replying with questions I had already answered. After I responded a few times in short answers including a reference to the already stated information, most people were cured. But others didn’t catch on. These people took up more of my time and became labeled high maintenance. Giving excuses for not having read my email made matters worse. My time was spent providing work, so I replaced them with less demanding freelancers.
My goal is this post will be 510 words or less. Thanks for reading. Please comment.
I was reading about a pair of successful musicians who spoke about balancing the management of the business end of their bookings and keeping their songs and performances sharp and entertaining.
They used the quote “Commerce comes second to craft” and it struck a chord with me. I can hear a chorus of agreement with those words when applied to almost any business. If you have a faulty product (your craft) then your commerce (profit) is not guaranteed. I bet it is a very popular quote to use at annual meetings and the like. Advertising agencies would really put a nice spotlight on their corporate clients with those words.
It is especially true in the field of judicial interpreting and translation. In order to take pride in your work we have to keep improving. But training is new to our field, it is not considered mandatory and is not always accessible. We have to test the self-imposed boundaries to self-discipline. We have to search for and make time for training opportunities.
And yet the ugly truth is that getting hired is not always contingent on a high level of skill in this business. We can find agencies and clients who will assign us a job based on our rate and availability and never ask about our training. And another fact is that they have no standard way to asses our skill level until we are actually working. This void is not found in a lot of industries where training starts with higher education and then is part and parcel of the career path. That is the standard most industries look to when they measure a professional skill. So let’s rise to that expectation. Show high respect for colleagues who pursue training. And consider the high value of the agency or client that asks for your credentials and tests you. They are holding you to a higher standard.
But in a market that does not recognize our craft as a discipline, craft comes second to commerce. There is more focus on how much we will charge than on our qualifications or earned certifications. The concept that some bilingual lawyers or legal staff have that they can gauge our interpreting skill defies the foundation of our craft.
We have to find a balance. I suggest we hold true to placing craft over commerce even if other colleagues, agencies or clients don’t. I also suggest organizing your promotional material be it your website or professional media presence with concrete details that support your actual skills. List training, conferences, earned certifications (State or National licenses and/or professional organizations) and tests passed. This will give the client a standard to measure you by. And your craft will be what they remember you for and the commerce will be a good result of your effort.
The closest a freelancer comes to dictating a full schedule of assignments is the cattle calls some agencies make to get an assignment filled. This is when they send out a mass email inquiring about availability which they admit is based on the first to respond will be the first to consider. The pivotal word in these inquiries is consider. The client (usually an agency) will take into consideration your rate and the reputation of your performance with that agency. Once your rates and terms are favored, inevitably what occurs next is if you are personally favored by the scheduler. Granted the more professional the agency, the less this behavior takes place. But in the high pressure job that schedulers face every day; the freelancer who is low maintenance and reliable is recalled fondly.
Learn the professional tone of how your client does business and work with them in that same tone or better. This rule is applied across the full range of clients from a single individual who contracts you to a small law firm or a multinational firm through a court system or agency. In each situation your performance and behavior decides how they judge you. Are they so busy that your repeated questions would bother them? Do you need to have them send back your invoices to be corrected? Do you expect them to research your assignments for additional information you need? These are common complaints among schedulers.
How much power does the attorney or judge have in deciding who is assigned to interpret? That depends on the feedback given to the attorney by his or her secretary. If the court is hiring you directly the judge can tell his or her court clerk who to use or not to use. Agencies do get some feedback but mostly, only when it is bad. The agency is most likely going to act on bad feedback if the relationship with the client is on the line. The more professional agencies take into consideration the context of the complaint about the freelancer and interview both parties before acting. If an agency passes on a complaint about you and is going to limit your assignments, be honest if you were improper or unprofessional. If you weren’t, ask to have it investigated with the client telling them that you want to rectify the situation. If it is not proven to be poor interpreting performance, the agency can easily avoid assigning you with that attorney or Judge and everyone is happy.
Certain types of cases have defendants that are encouraged to stop the litigation or discovery process and come to a financial agreement or a punishment agreement. In civil law this is called to settle, In Criminal law this is called to take a plea. Procedures that are scheduled in advance will be canceled when a plea is entered or when the two parties agree to a settlement.
So you should consider the potential cancellation of a deposition or hearing or trial in civil court and a hearing or trial in criminal cases. Part of being professional is being prepared to protect yourself financially from such losses. At the same time, being a good professional means knowing how to not antagonize a client by penalizing them for performing in the best interests of their client. So, know that these types of assignments can be cancelled at any time by the attorney, the court or the agency. And learn what your market standard is for a minimum charge for a cancellation during a certain time frame.
Assignments can be postponed.
In civil court, a trial can be postponed if the Judge decides to order the parties to go to mediation. Interpreters may not be necessary during mediation. The parties may come to an agreement and settle as a result of mediation so you will lose the assignment altogether. Or they may not settle and the trial would be rescheduled.
It is important to hold on to your client and not make over burdensome demands but preserve your financial integrity. You have to know the possible change of direction the legal process can take that can turn a postponement into income producing assignment or a loss. You should have a postponement policy in place that you ask the client to agree to, in writing, when you first accept the assignment or enter into a contract with your client. It is considered unprofessional to notify the client of a change in terms or fees after you accept an assignment. But much like what the parties experience in the outcome of a mediation, you are going to have to accept less of your goal fee and the client is going to have to pay more than they hoped they would. This is a situation when you should blend familiarity of your market standards with flexibility in your terms.
Don’t set your fees and terms of payment without finding out what the market charges and requires. The vast majority of law firms, court administrators, Court Reporting firms are familiar with the standard range of fees and terms. Some courts have set fees, otherwise you tell them your rates and terms. They also know the value of experience in legal settings, certifications and training because that means you are reliable and self-sufficient. T&I agencies for the most part, set limits on what they will pay you. The good ones follow what is considered fair rates.
If you ignore the market fees and terms, you run the risk of charging too much and making unreasonable demands for your work. Or if you charge too little and are too flexible in your terms you open yourself to the disrespect of not being paid on time or worse, not at all. Learn the standard behavior and terms of your market. Your market is defined by your geographic location, your language pair and those who share the same credentials, experience, training and reputation that you have. As in any profession, if you are just starting out you can’t expect to charge the same as someone who has a long list of tests passed, training and ten, twenty or thirty years of experience. But you can prove yourself as reliable, competent and fair. We all started at a lower rate, paid our dues and rose in rank. That is the path of a freelancer.