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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Defending Yourself

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Defending Yourself

Defending Yourself Against Unsubstantiated Complaints


This month's column is condensed from an exchange of e-mails on a subject that makes every freelancer's blood run cold: an unexpected complaint about poor quality.

Dear Business Smarts:

I recently delivered a translation to a new client who, in turn, was acting as intermediary for her own ultimate client. The subject area was familiar, I applied all my usual quality control procedures, and I had no doubts about the quality of my work. This morning, to my horror, I received an e-mail from the intermediary saying that, according to her client, "the quality of your translation was extremely poor. Our client, who is a lawyer, is very dissatisfied. I will need a strong argument from you to defend your translation." I immediately consulted my e-mail records to make sure I had not sent the wrong text, and checked the translation itself for obvious errors; everything looked fine. I have been working in this field for a number of years and thought I was consistently providing excellent work. What should I do now?
— Aghast in San Diego

Dear Aghast:

The first thing to do is not to panic. Because you are convinced of the quality of your work, you can confidently address the situation. Contact your intermediary or the ultimate client if that is possible, and ask to be told the exact nature of the problem. Explain that you work very hard to deliver outstanding work, and politely request specific instances of dissatisfaction. If the issue is merely a misunderstanding — a house style or particular set of terminology that you were unaware of, or inappropriate formatting — it can easily be remedied. Refrain from offering a rebate right away, particularly if no one has asked for it.

Update 1 (a week later):
I contacted my intermediary, but she could provide no details. She has sent several messages to her own client asking for details about his dissatisfaction, but has heard nothing. She says she has even sent me a check in full payment for the translation, although she has not received payment from her own client.

Update 2 (two months later):
Having heard nothing from my intermediary or from the ultimate client, with whom I had requested direct contact in order to discuss the translation, I received the following message today: "I have good news! The client finally agreed that the translation from German into English was acceptable, and sent me a check in full payment for your translation assignment." What a relief! But what exactly was going on here?

Dear Aghast:

Incidents like this happen just often enough that translators and interpreters need to be on their guard. Unsubstantiated objections to the "quality" of a translation frequently arise from some error or misunderstanding on the part of the client, who then attempts to deflect blame onto the translator. The tip-off in this case is that the ultimate client never responded to repeated requests for details, and in the end had to admit that the "poor quality" was okay after all. If you had not defended yourself, and had negotiated a reduced payment or some other form of compensation for the "problem," you would have been the loser. As it happened, you had enough confidence in your own abilities and performance to demand proof of your alleged shortcomings, and finally prevailed when those shortcomings turned out not to exist. The unwavering support of the agency in this case backed you up considerably.

The lesson to be learned here is that in order to assert yourself, you must first acquire confidence. The hard work you put into developing expertise in your language combination and subject fields will pay off when your capabilities are challenged. The key to confronting this type of situation is to remain professional at all times.


Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: May 2007, p 36