No more funny formats?

No more funny formats?

Time to stop working with difficult files?

I seem to have been wasting a lot of time lately on what I call “funny file formats”. You probably know the situation. A potential customer calls and asks for a translation quote, but admits “the files are pdfs created in InDesign”. Now the InDesign part doesn’t scare me. I work with MemoQ and have had good results translating InDesign files directly with it. At least I’ve never had any complaints. Without having the program I can’t actually look at the files directly, but MemoQ appears to handle them well.

So I ask my customer, a woman running a small agency, if she can get the InDesign files for me. It turns out she can’t. All I’ve got is a set of pdfs and she wants the quote in a hurry. Fortunately, what I have got is a fairly good pdf-Word converter which I bought for twenty dollars a couple of years ago and which usually provides better results in practice than a direct pdf import into MemoQ. It’s not 100% reliable, but this time I’m in luck: the four files are quickly converted into friendly Word format and I can import them for a wordcount.

So I count the words, work out a price at a good rate and round it down very slightly in the spirit of quoting a “project price” rather than a wordcount price which we’re told is the thing to do nowadays (I have my doubts about this, see a future post on the subject). My customer told me she couldn’t understand where I’d got my figures from.


In yet another e-mail, I patiently explained the entire process, only to be met with another “I still don’t know understand your figures” response, this time accompanied by her own supposed wordcount, created by importing the pdfs into her CAT tool of choice, Trados Studio. It was ridiculously low, much lower than the real count for just one of the four files.

At this point my patience ran out. I was just trying to think of a nice way to dump the whole job, when a quick exit presented itself in the shape of a confirmed job from another customer which would make it impossible to meet the deadline for the pdf translation I now definitely didn’t want to do. I duly informed my would-be customer I was no longer available for her pdf job, although not without first pointing out the wild inaccuracy of her, and Trados’s, wordcount. To her credit, she accepted it very graciously, although I can’t be sure whether she believed me or just thought I was running away. Even had I done so, I think I would have been justified.

This was just the latest example I’ve had lately of funny files resulting in an utter waste of my time. A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a university lecturer who wanted his PhD thesis translated. He warned me that it was going to be an enormous job but that an American foundation was interested in paying for it. It sounded an interesting project and he seemd very likeable and friendly.


There was just one problem. To be able to give a quote, I was going to have to download the about 30 pdf files, one by one, from a website. This was annoying slow, but I did it. To get my wordcount I tried converting the pdfs to Word but this time I wasn’t so lucky. My normally useful conversion tool had met its match and I decided to try MemoQ’s direct import, which amazed me by working perfectly. I was in for a shock when I looked at the wordcount though: it came to more than 600,000 words! This was a serious translation job and certainly the biggest I’d ever been asked to quote for.

It was also going to be a very expensive one, and, conscious of that, I wanted to do my best to keep the price as low as I could. MemoQ helped me by finding a huge number of repetitions across the files, but the price I quoted in the end was well over 50,000 US dollars. Perhaps I could have done more to reduce the cost by looking through each file for bibliographies and other untranslatable parts, but I simply didn’t think it was worth more of my time. As I suspected, my would-be customer was horrified, saying he’d pass on the quote to the American foundation but without any hope that they’d agree to pay. I won’t hold my breath.

So what can I do to prevent this waste of time and effort being repeated time and time again? I know there are translators who simply reject “funny files” out of hand and there’s a big part of me that would like to follow their example. A motto like “Get it to me in Word or forget it” would simplify my life no end. But there’s also a part of me that likes to help and I feel rather unprofessional telling customers where to stick their pdfs. Maybe the answer is to reduce the time spent on preparing quotes for awkward formats. Just quote a wildly high figure plucked from thin air and, if they’re daft enough to agree, take the money and try not to laugh.

What do you do about quoting for “funny file formats”? Please leave a comment.

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