When the client realizes that a cheap interpreter is not the same as a good interpreter.

August 27, 2012 § 15 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

Yesterday I received a phone call from a client asking me to interpret a high-profile conference for their organization. Several months earlier this same client had discarded me as a potential interpreter stating that I wanted too much money to do my job.

This is how it all started: When this client, who I will refer to as “Client A”, first won a contract to provide interpretation services for a big company, they contacted those interpreters who had previously worked interpreting for the same big corporation under the agency who had the interpretation contract before “Client A” ousted them during the bidding process for a new contract.   I still remember the first time “Client A” called me. After telling me how they had looked into my professional background and how happy they would be if I were to agree to work for them under this new contract, the person from the agency told me: “…but you are not one of those interpreters who want to charge $600 per day, right?…” Of course I immediately replied: “Of course not. I used to charge that, but it was many years ago when I was not well-known in the industry. Now I charge plenty more.”

Needless to say, after a few months of a little song and dance, I learned through another colleague that they had already retained the services of other interpreters, relatively new to the field, and definitely new to the company the interpretation services were to be provided for.  That was it. I did not dwell on it, and I frankly forgot about the incident.

Now, back to the present, the client started the phone conversation telling me how sorry they were that they had not hired me for these assignments.  He explained their reasons, all of them financial, and then briefed me on the events the less-expensive retained interpreters had done so far.  I learned how the quality of the service was not at the level this big company was used to; I heard how the big company executives had complained about the interpreters, and how they had asked for me by name.  Finally, the client told me that they really wanted me on board; he asked me to name my “price” (fee) and asked me to have lunch with them.

Of course, this was music to my ears!  Yes I was happy to get the contract under favorable terms, but the thing that really made my day was to see the clients’ realization that as a general rule, quality costs money.   I took advantage of this great opportunity to educate the client about our profession, and I was very pleased to see how this client had finally “seen the light”.  I know this issue is a constant struggle for most of my colleagues. For this reason, it is important to hear your comments and stories about other clients who may have learned their lesson as well.

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§ 15 Responses to When the client realizes that a cheap interpreter is not the same as a good interpreter.

  • Tony, we need to hear plenty more of these stories so newcomers and and clients learn the value of the services professional interpreters provide.

    I was recently contacted by a big-name company who asked me to name my price then counteroffered at $200 less. I stood my ground; two weeks later they returned to me. During the event we found out our work was being recorded – they never asked our permission, did not inform us… We all contacted them and let them know the terms of the game had just been changed.

    If this had been an individual less familiar with indutry standards, norms and regulations surrounding our profession we could have at least understood the lack of knowledge. But that was not the scenario facing us. That was professional disrespect.

    To all a our colleagues out there, share your stories of successful client education – by your efforts or their failure to deliver.

  • Lionel Dersot says:

    This is all well and flattering but after reading the same kind of post elsewhere, I would appreciate to hear some clarifications about those other inadequate interpreters. Are they less qualified because they are young and unseasoned, or do they lack training, or are they just starting? Around me, I hear of cases where veterans get less contracts because younger ones accept less. They are trained but only lack long track record.

    • Lionel,

      Taking a shot at your question. Many of the new/young interpreters I work with lack cultural knowledge of the type you acquire by living in a culture; they lack the hands-on experience of performing in a given setting and having to handle the unexpected; they have not received any business training and do not know how to negotiate with clients; they do not fully understand the concept of client education and expect the client to know how to work with an interpreter; some of them simply believe that knowing the language is all that is required.

      None of the above is insurmountable. Some of the work I do is targeted at preparing young and new professionals to perform well in our business environment, understanding the value and role of culture in our work, preparing them to deal with clients from a non-adversarial position, etc.

      I’d urge interpreting schools to include mentoring in their programs, partnering with professional organizations with the specific goal of getting young and old professionals together to share experiences and real-world knowledge.

  • Jeff says:

    When I was asked by one company to lower my prices to the level that they typically pay, I simply thanked them for considering me for the job. I told them that I am sure they should be able to find someone bilingual that could do the job at that price. I also pointed out that if they continued to be concerned by unbiased interpreters, interpreters that tended to paraphrase and arrive late, they could always feel free to call us and we will be happy to provide services at our standard rate. We ended up with the account and mutual respect.

  • Recep says:

    It is great to hear such stories; if you are a “serious” company, you should treat your customers in the same manner by employing the best translators/interpreters, in mutually beneficial terms…

  • Silvia Schrage says:

    I love the mention of paraphrasing… I had a client that had been using volunteers and then chose to hire me. When I met some of the attendees they said: “We were hearing in black and white but now we hear in color”. They did call me back for all of their conferences for many years, which included some very fun/challenging opportunities, such as an interview President Clinton, as a surprise guest, but eventually thought they had built up their pool of volunteers… I wonder if they are back to black and white, or not.

  • Thanks Giovanna for your constructive clarification concerning those “other interpreters” scorned at by veterans who happen to be basically young and green interpreters if I understand things well. I would be curious to know more about your activity concerning guiding newbyes. Are you freelancing or teaching somewhere? I am available for a private discussion. Check my web site for details. I am located in Tokyo.

  • Karen Henry says:

    Thanks for sharing this. The same is true of the translation profession where many clients believe that the translator is a glorified bilingual secretary and have no idea how much effort is put into research and quality control to produce excellent work. A lot of this excellence can only be gained with experience, training just gives you the tools to start with. I have postgraduate degrees in both translation and interpreting, yet I’m always learning and always encounter challenges. That’s what keeps you on your toes!

  • I thank all of you for sharing the above.

    Mine is what you call an Agency, We hire interpreters, translators, etc for clients. We are located in Uganda, Africa and I thought we were having problems because we are in a third world! Now I know that the problem is worldwide. I think, you interpreters are being unfair to the agencies. The problem is like this; You get this client who wants interpretation services but is only willing to pay up to a certain sum of money for the service yet he wants professionals. Try arguing and explaining that professionals will not work for what he is offering and he will tell you how other agencies are well prepared to accept his offer and give him the same personnel!!

    Most clients want to have CVs of the proposed interpreters before signing the working contract. That is how they find out that Agency A is charging more than Agency B yet both Agencies are hiring the same interpreters.

    What does that mean? It means that you, the interpreters have failed to keep standards. Some of you, professionals or not, will accept any amount of money in the name of “its better than not working for a whole month”.

    So when a top Agency, like ours, is approached and offered a contract, it is hard to get the client to accept the terms that befit professionals and AIIC members for that matter. The Agency ends up losing the contract. Yet, after losing the contract, it is discovered that the same interpreters worked for the rival Agency at much less cost.

    Next time round, this tough Agency also accepts the lower pay so as to win the contract.

    Anyway, that is what is happening in Uganda where we are.

    Down here, it is the interpreters themselves that are killing the profession by accepting peanuts.

    It is also true that most clients, especially those who do not use interpretation services often, do not understand what it is. Most of them approach us and ask for “a translator to translate from language A to language B in a conference”. When you sit them down to explain what interpretation services entail including the costs, they are usually taken aback. Then they start begging for cheaper services because “they had not budgeted for it and now the budget is exhausted”!!

    Enough said.

    Symposia Consult (U) ltd.

    • Gaspar says:

      “Most clients want to have CVs of the proposed interpreters before signing the working contract. That is how they find out that Agency A is charging more than Agency B yet both Agencies are hiring the same interpreters.”

      An agency isn’t only about making phone calls and finding out which interpreter is available, is it? In that case, why wouldn’t you explain your prospects that you’re more expensive because… you have more staff, prefer to pay the interpreters more to ensure they will be able to prepare the conference beforehand in decent conditions, that your services offer more and better quality than others, etc.?

      I often have to explain why I charge twice as much as some of the people who graduated the same year as myself. Interpreters probably face the same problems as agencies when it comes to discussing fees.

  • Carolyn says:

    What do you do when the cheap guy (or girl) turns out to be pretty darn good??? What can you then tell the client? The market has been disrupted and now, to get your fees, what do you do??
    If I’m called for a quote, I send it. If they choose to hire me, so be it. If not, someone else will come along, but it is very frustrating to find someone who isn’t half-bad is offering the same service for 1/3 of your price. Aaaarrrgghhhhh!!!!

  • Carolyn, you are spelling the very inconvenient truth this self-congratulating party is eschewing while slapping backs on the tune of “we are better than thee”. Fact is that you all are stellar interpreters, no doubt about that. Fact is that there are pretty much competent interpreters belonging to other generations who do it for less, contemporary market factors pushing down the limit of what is acceptable.

    It is a simplistic view to compare the top gun with the inadequate. Down there are layers of circumstances and competencies that can’t be wrapped into a single trash bag. Symposia Consult raised a good point, which goes down to facing the very question you are shunning at: “what do you do??”. I repeat, contrary to what one commentator mentioned, this kind of camaraderie of the top of the crop chanting “we are the champions my colleagues” is standard tune and blog entries waxing us and spitting at them with more or less innuendo is endemic. “what do you do??” is indeed the inconvenient question you are shunning at.

    And by the way, your clients are not reading your blogs, nor mine.

    • Carolyn says:

      Lionel, I had to laugh!!! So true. Cients don’t read our blogs. They have their own on market shares, profits and how to cut costs!!!!

  • […] un texte, un traducteur automatique voit des mots; un traducteur humain voit du sens When the client realizes that a cheap interpreter is not the same as a good interpreter 5 Things You Need to Know before Starting Working as a Translator/Interpreter Trip of the Tongue: […]

  • This was a translation – not interpreting – assignment, but it fits well the lowering your price issue covered here.

    A (new) direct client called me asking for a cost estimate on a job, said she had good references on me, and so I sent it.

    A week later she called me to say that she had found someone who would do it for 25% less. I thanked her for the heads-up, so I wouldn’t be waiting for her order.

    She sounded surprised (possibly faking), “But I want YOU to do it!”

    I told her that I had given my price, and she had references on my work. If she had good references about that 25% cheaper translator, it would make sense to hire them, not me.

    She stuck to her guns, “You didn’t get it. I want YOU to do it for 25% less.”

    I had to explain, “You are the one who is missing the point here. You have my price, which entitles you to my level of service. Then you have someone else’s price, 25% cheaper, that will get you THEIR level of service, which I don’t know. It’s your choice, of course, but you can’t mix things up.”

    “All right” she said, “I want you to do it for your price, if that’s what it takes.”

    I’ll never know whether there was actually someone offering to do that job for 25% less, but… I don’t care!

    According to my book, if I granted her a 25% discount to grab that job merely because she asked for it, my original cost estimate would have been blatantly dishonest, an attempted rip-off.

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