I’m not only a “travel writer,” a term that makes me feel uncomfortable, actually (but that’s a topic for a whole other piece). I write essays–typically about social, cultural, and political issues, as well as pieces related to food and parenting. I am an academic editor, which means that I copy edit dissertations and theses, provide guidance about how students can improve the rigor of their qualitative research, and generally ensure that their finished product meets referencing guidelines. I very occasionally do research for other writers. (Once, I had to go to a courthouse in Brooklyn and scope it out to confirm details that only a local could know for a writer who lived far away). I probably do other stuff I can’t even remember.
And I do translations, Spanish to English and vice versa.
I love translation work. One reason is because Francisco and I do the work together (if you’re ever in need of a translator, I highly recommend a fully bilingual couple to do the work; native speakers often lack the formal grammar and spelling skills that a non-native speaker possesses, but they tend to “get” cultural references that even the most immersed non-native speaker might miss entirely). Other reasons I love translation? I get to practice my formal Spanish skills (as opposed to my sloppy, slangy daily Spanish) and I learn so much about topics that I probably wouldn’t have investigated on my own. I get to work with people from other countries, often on interesting and, occasionally, incredible projects.
Together, Francisco and I have translated the strategic plan for a winery in Rias Baixas, Spain (we learned A LOT about albarino… and felt obliged to drink a few bottles in order to understand our subject. Hiccup). We’ve translated artists’ contracts for a New York based representation firm. We’ve translated all of the text-based material for a wonderful art exhibit about marginalized communities in La Boquilla, Colombia, and all of the dialogue on several documentaries.
Four or five years ago we also took on a quick small project, translating a few articles for a New York based writer. I probably wouldn’t remember the project had it not involved the translation (or non-translation, as we eventually decided) of a single phrase that actually led to an hour-long debate between Francisco and myself about its meaning… and which totally stoked my interest (and ongoing passion) in the theories of translation.
I actually trot out the story of that project every once in a while because I find it an exemplary way to explain some of the challenges of translation. But now, I get to trot the story of that project out for an entirely different reason: we never got paid for it.
The Havana Film Festival of New York is showing here this week. Francisco is overdosing on documentaries and movies from Cuba and Latin America while I hang out with Mariel and write between her infrequent naps. After yesterday’s feature, a woman approached Francisco and said, “Are you Julie’s husband? I think I owe you money.”
Funny… the night before, Francisco had brought home a post card advertising a film by a woman with the same name of the person who owed us for the translation project. “I’ll bet you a hundred bucks it’s the same Marilyn Perez,” I said to Francisco.
And it was.
Now you’d think that if someone approached you and said “I think I owe you money,” that (1) perhaps they were ashamed they hadn’t paid you for work you did years ago and (2) since they were outing themselves, that they finally intended to pay.
Francisco actually couldn’t remember how much Marilyn owed for the project, and so he told her he’d check with me. I spent about 30 minutes going through years-old email, trying to find the original invoice. “I don’t know,” I finally told him, completely annoyed. “But it was at least $100.” We agreed to say $100 and just settle the account.
Francisco saw Marilyn again today and when he told her the balance owed, she actually told him she “could have gotten volunteers” to translate the articles. “But you didn’t,” he told her. “You hired us. You knew the rate beforehand and agreed to it.” “But I ended up losing money on the articles,” Marilyn continued. “That has nothing to do with our work,” Francisco says. “And we definitely lost money.”
I’m not entirely sure how their encounter ended- Francisco’s cell phone punked out- but I know for sure he’s not bringing home a hundred dollar bill.
What’s the lesson to be learned here?
I’d actually written off this loss several months after we finished the project, convinced that Marilyn wasn’t going to pay. Perhaps Francisco shouldn’t have even confronted her… even though she was the one to initiate the conversation about her debt.
Should we charge in advance and require that payment be made in full before working on any projects?
We have lots of clients- 99% of them are wonderful. They pay on time, in full, and address any concerns directly and professionally. I don’t want to impose an up-front system on them and I’m not particularly keen on having a different approach for every client; it’s just too much to keep track of.
Should we only accept projects from clients we already know and referrals from those same clients? Perhaps. But it might limit some opportunities.
How do you handle private writing or translation clients and payments? I’d love to hear your advice and experiences in the comments.
*By the way, if you live in the United States or pay taxes in the US, you CAN write off unpaid projects as long as you have evidence of your project agreement and can substantiate you weren’t paid.