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There is a common denominator in the mails I get from self-published authors, a concept that might be summed up with: “I had issues with other translators in the past, so I am more cautious now.” Sadly, I understand all too well: scammers are common in all places on the Internet, while people who are just bad at their jobs are simply uncountable.

I hate scammers and bad translators. They hurt me and the other honest professionals by giving our entire category a bad name. I always did my best to denounce them and – when I worked as proofreader – make sure they weren’t paid for the butchery they called “work”, but they seem to pop up like mushrooms after the Autumn rain. Without being as tasty.

What makes a bad translator? Unfortunately, there is no perfect answer. A shady-looking person might be simply inexperienced at communicating with perspective clients, while the most cordial and seemingly competent freelancer could be a very good scammer. There are, however, some indicators that might tell you that you’re dealing with a dishonest or incompetent person.

 

Inability to Provide References

Bad translators usually cannot provide good references. When someone boasts a long translation experience, but refuses to give you the contact(s) of someone who could vouch for them, you should become very suspicious. “I worked with these guys, but they’re very busy people and don’t like to be pestered, so I’m not giving you their emails” is a silly excuse: if someone allowed you to list them among their references, then they are willing to spare some time to tell people how good you are.

Even when a translator does provide references, it wouldn’t hurt to check on those names and see if they are people who work in the field (editors, authors, other translators, etc.) or just average Janes and Joes who happen to be among the translator’s friends on Facebook. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Boasts of Incredible Speed and/or Very Low Rates

The Internet is full of offers that are too good to be true. Someone who promises to translate your work in no time and for almost no money isn’t probably telling you the whole truth.

Between direct witnessing and firsthand reports, I know there are many ways for unethical translator to cut corners, from using low-end translation tools (or even Google Translate), to cutting out entire portions of the text, to simply not revising the translation before sending it out. I’ve even been told of one case in which a translator “subcontracted” a job: they had several people translate one chapter each, then melded everything together. I’ve never seen that particular translation, but I suspect it wasn’t very consistent.

In short, if someone tells you they can translate your 200,000 word novel in a week, I wouldn’t bet on the quality of the final product.

For the same reason, someone working for rates that cannot make a living wage is most likely either quite naive or producing low-quality translations. This isn’t always true: one of my best friends doesn’t charge much for their translations (which they do in their free time, having a 9 to 5 job as well), yet those are among the finest I have ever had the privilege to read. But generally speaking, you shouldn’t expect excellent work for a low price, just like you wouldn’t expect Michelin Star cuisine from a cafeteria. Quality has its price, and translators have bills to pay like everyone else. Everyone saying otherwise is selling something, and you probably shouldn’t buy it.

Refusal to Do a Test Translation

A “test translation” is a short text (usually between 500 and 1,000 words) that the freelancer translates as a proof of skill and goodwill. When in doubt, always ask for a test translation before working with a translator, especially if they have no references and/or previous experience. If they refuse, do not contact them anymore. If they accept, ask a native reader to check their work; do not give this “test reader” the original, just ask them if the writing looks good and fluent. Most people will do this quick favor for free, and it could save you money, headaches and drama.

On a sidenote: some translators might ask you to pay for a test translation. I never would, provided that you’re not going to sell the translation or otherwise make money out of it. It is, as I said, a token of goodwill.

Asking for All the Money Up Front

Most translators, including myself, will ask you for an advance before starting a job. However, be very, very aware of anyone who wants you to pay the entire sum immediately. Few honest translators (indeed, few honest professionals) would ever do such a thing. If the freelancer you contacted insists on that, avoid them like the Plague.

This should be an obvious point, but I keep reading on the Internet of clients who cry out in outrage because the translator disappeared with the money. A little investigation turns out, most of the time, that those clients had paid everything up front. Never make this mistake. Always keep part of the money as an insurance that the job will get done.

Refusal to Sign a Contract

Another obvious (but oh, so overlooked!) fact. Informal agreements may look nicer, but are way less legally binding and can lead to all sorts of trouble. When someone says that you don’t need a contract, or straight out refuses to sign one, you might want to avoid them. A contract guarantees both parties, and anyone who gets outraged because someone on the other side of an ocean “doesn’t trust them” isn’t probably the kind of person you want to do business with.

 

Remember that no list is all-encompassing, and that scammers find new ways to rob people of their money almost every day. This post is just a way to give you some advice, but is by no means a complete guide. If you know other telltale signs, or you want to share your experience, leave a comment to this post or send me a mail.

 

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