Collecting Experiences


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This & That ― Vignettes of a Professional Journey
a column by Ines Bojlesen


Adjectives such as “shy,” “reluctant,” “tentative,” and “uncertain” do not go well together or individually when it comes to charging and collecting the compensation for our work. Unless we decide to donate our services to charities or other parties when we are hired, getting paid is intrinsic to our work.

I was in the early stages of my translating career when a direct client hired me in person to translate a section of the Brazilian labor laws on a rush basis. The client mentioned he would be flying to the States the following evening and would pick up the translation by the end of the day. I worked overnight on the text; the legal terminology was still not my forte and consequently required a lot of research.

I had it ready and typed (yes, those were pre-computing days) by the time the client was expected to pick it up and pay. The time came and went, with no sign of this person or even a phone call. I fail to remember how I came to the information, but I knew he was staying at the Hilton in São Paulo. So on a bus I jumped, translation in hand, and sat in one of the round hotel lounge sofas, facing the door, hoping my client was still there.

I guess you can call it beginner’s luck. Less than an hour later, I saw my client passing through the revolving door. I wish I had had a camera on me and could have snapped a picture of his face when he saw me. Surprise turned into embarrassment and then mortification. I made every effort to sound professional and nonchalant when I greeted him and informed him that the translation he had requested was in the envelope, together with the receipt for the amount he had agreed to pay. He did not say much, went up to his room, and came back with the payment in cash. When I think of this experience now, I realize I was fortunate, considering how little I knew about that client.

Another  near failure to collect happened when I worked as a telephone interpreter for an agency that went belly up. However, because I had an extensive paper trail of my work, I ended up being paid the entire sum owed me, although three months in arrears. Another client who had not paid me for many months for work done contacted me for another translation. I told him I would be happy to do it, provided I first received a check for the amount in arrears. The check was mailed overnight, but  I did not start working on the new job until after the bank cleared his check.

When a sizeable job offer from a company or agency you have never worked for sounds too good, resist the temptation to accept the work without checking the company’s credentials. There are currently many resources that you can use to check client payment history and reliability. Even if you find positive information, it is advisable to propose an advance payment or partial payments as you go, since the client is new and the translation large.

Some situations call for understanding an occasional hiccup from a long-standing and good-paying client. A polite reminder of a late payment and willingness to wait until the client overcomes a cash-flow issue is good business practice. I have never regretted trying to accommodate a good client’s temporary problem.

In our profession, we face pressure to lower our rates and deliver work ever faster. We spend a good amount of time researching, reading, and updating new technology and terminology. As freelancers, we have few tax benefits and deductions. We have no room in our bookkeeping for the so-called “bad debts” line item. Be careful, inquire, check payment lists for client history, and then be as professional when collecting as you are when meeting deadlines!

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