Translation as a Distressed Buy

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Distressed buys

Far too often, translation is a “distressed buy”. This means that the client comes to the translator or agency with a tight deadline for a file, needed for a date in the near future. Other distressed buys include things like “un-delete” software (usually purchased just after you delete something you didn’t want to delete) and “find my lost phone” software programs (usually purchased just after you lose your phone). Let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone involved likes the distressed nature of translations. It would be great for both companies and freelancers if all jobs were “whenever you get a chance”, rather than “the sooner the better”. In this article I’ll talk about some of the factors behind this and the impact it has on agencies and freelance translators. I’ll conclude by giving some suggestions for freelancers working on urgent translations.

The first reason translation is frequently a distressed buy is that it is often not something in the client’s mind until they find they urgently need it. Numerous clients have approached us with a story like the following, “we are bidding on this foreign construction contract. Having written all the bidding documents, we now realise we also need our supporting information to be translated and submitted along with the bid, however the deadline is next Monday”. Companies with more experience bidding on overseas contracts will learn that this process will often be required, and will make arrangements much earlier in the process. The obvious benefits to the client and to the translation agency are clear.

Another reason is that translation is seen as something which happens after everything else is finished, rather than part of the process of creating the product. In the minds of many clients, the first step is to get all the necessary documentation ready for the deadline. The client will only start thinking about the translation once the documentation is prepared. Examples I have encountered are when clients are attending trade shows and plan to get their materials all written with a deadline a week before the show, in time for printing. They expect the translation will be done in much the same way as the printing – quickly, cheaply and without any further input. In that situation, it would be a good idea for the client to complete the documents on a rolling basis, with the translations also completed on a rolling basis.

A final reason is that many translation agencies offer “fast turnaround” as a unique selling point. On their website, many companies will include language like “any deadline can be reached”. This is doing two things. One, it is meeting the expectation of the client and offering them the value of getting it when they need it. As we have said, there are numerous reasons that translation can naturally be an urgent project, and companies which can meet these urgent requirements have a certain competitive advantage. But, two, this approach is also ingraining the idea that it is fine to leave translation to the last minute. Ideally a company should only ever need one single urgent translation, before updating the process and workflow for the next time.

If we accept the premise that urgent translations are generally lower in quality than non-urgent ones, as agencies we should do whatever we can to help our clients avoid the need for urgent translations. However, this idea is actually rather controversial. We still need large scale academic evaluations, looking at the relationship between deadlines and quality. While there is plenty of research showing that for one individual translator, shorter deadlines do reduce quality, the question is whether splitting a larger file among say 30 linguists and then combining the results reduces quality significantly. My strong feeling is that it absolutely does reduce the quality, mainly for reasons of consistency. For that reason, as an agency we always try to educate our clients, and help suggest ways to avoid leaving the translation step until the last second.

As an agency, when those “fast turnaround” jobs do arrive, we can either lose the job (and potentially the client) by insisting on comfortable deadlines, or we can do our best to deliver good quality within the shorter time-frame. The same exact message is true for freelance translators. I would suggest that some agencies are better equipped to handle short deadlines than others, and actually the process for meeting a really tight deadline is very complex, involving technology and many linguists working simultaneously. As a relatively small agency, we know our “top speed”, and will turn down anything requiring faster work than that. I would hope that all agencies are aware of their own limitations. My feeling is that some agencies promise the world, but cannot really deliver what they say.

From a freelance perspective, the same logical reasoning is true. If you decline a job, you can potentially lose your client forever. In my freelance days I gave up on a number of clients because all their jobs seemed to have ridiculously short deadlines. One or two is fine, but some agencies seem to have nothing but urgent deadlines. Obviously, that’s a perfectly valid business model for the agency, but when I was a freelancer myself, I would only do urgent jobs for agencies who had built up a good relationship with me over the years. Thus, clear communication throughout the translation supply chain is absolutely vital, both for freelance translators and translation agencies. I would also point out that when I was making my living purely by freelance translating, if the first time I heard from a client was when they had an “urgent job”, it usually meant that the client would be trouble in the long term.

Rush fees

Rush fees are additional fees (usually expressed as a percentage of the normal rates) charged by translators or agencies on top of the normal rates for meeting urgent deadlines. They generally serve two purposes. The first is that they discourage the client from leaving jobs to the last minute. In this context, rush fees can effectively be seen as “late tax” – if you leave translation jobs to the last minute, it will cost you more money. The second is that they compensate translators or agencies for the additional work and effort needed to deliver jobs with short deadlines.

Some freelancers have asked me whether or not I think rush fees are a good idea. I think it depends on where the freelancer is in terms of their career and life goals. If the freelancer’s goal for the next year is to, for example, double the number of agencies on their books, then rush fees could be seen as an obstruction to that. Anything which increases your rates relative to other freelancers will reduce the amount of work you are given. On the other hand, more established translators who wish to keep their current workloads, may charge rush fees to discourage tight or difficult jobs. When I was freelancing I would generally work one day (but not two) over the weekend, and I would not charge a rush fee for doing so.

As an agency, we do not have “rush fees”. We make each quote based on numerous factors including deadlines and language difficulties, and the total cost to clients is much more complex than adding simple percentages for each extra service. That is why we appreciate it when freelance translators make their fees totally clear upfront. We can then quote to our client on the basis of what the freelancers will actually charge us. Clarity and communication are essential. I believe it is worth mentioning rush fees on your application or cover letter to agencies; this ensures everything is clear for everyone.

Translating differently for rush jobs

When I was freelancing regularly, I had a slightly different approach for rush jobs compared with regular jobs. The main thing to bear in mind is that rush jobs are generally split among more linguists. Therefore, I would usually use a more “vanilla” approach to terminology and structure. Neat and clever turns of phrase are great, but if they don’t match with other parts translated by other translators, it can create problems. So I would play it on the side of “under-translating” when working on an urgent job.

Although it’s tempting to think that rush translation for distressed buys is actually less skilful than a more thorough translation with a better deadline, in fact, I think it requires a lot of skill to translate something correctly within those constraints. I think it would be an interesting exercise for translators to learn the difference between translations for normal deadlines versus rush deadlines, and what other terminology and approaches can be used. This is something lacking from translator training at present.

Translation as a distressed buy

Translation as a distressed buy

As an agency, rush jobs generally require a certain investment in technology. It is possible to manually compile the work of, say, a dozen translators, but much more than that and the project management tasks gets bigger than the original translation task. This is another reason why agencies who specialize in rush translations tend to have strict software requirements. The software can do certain things such as compile the various segments and ensure the formatting is uniform. Some software does have limited consistency checking functionality, but I’m quite certain that consistency suffers when breaking up work among multiple translators.


Translation will always be a distressed buy because clients will always have a need for jobs to be completed quickly. We can slightly mitigate this (and thus drive up quality) by helping clients understand the timeline and process required for good translation. We can also work to maximize the quality of jobs which are delivered within a tight time frame. Urgent jobs won’t be going away any time soon, so translators and agencies need to accept this and work hard to drive up quality standards.

At certain times in their career, freelance translators can profit greatly by offering rush translation services (and possibly adding rush fees for doing so). When translators work on rush assignments, the process is somewhat different to a regular job, and as translators, we should ensure we are capable of producing the best possible quality under those circumstances.