Saying “no” nicely

Saying “no” nicely

Saying no is something we all have to do from time to time. We’re not machines and our capacity for work is limited, so sometimes we have to turn work down for the sake of sleep or sanity. And sometimes we want to turn it down, if the job in question is one we don’t think we should get involved in because of the subject matter, the format or even the customer. Mostly, though, we want to refuse the job without upsetting the customer, which is where saying no nicely comes in. So today I want to look at what we can do when we can’t or don’t want to take on a piece of work we are offered.

Do I have to say no?

That’s up to you – no one else. But, as I have found to my cost, all that saying yes too often does is lead to over-tiredness and poor work. Everyone has their own capacity for work but the essential thing is to know how near to it you are. This requires good planning and keeping a comprehensive note somewhere of, at least, the jobs you’ve got to do, the amount of work involved in each one and the deadlines. You also need to take into account any regular jobs that always come in on the same day of the week or at the same time of the month. Only with this information to hand can you decide for sure whether you have to say no or not.

Don’t say no too quickly

Sometimes when you’re under pressure the easiest thing is just to say no, but, taking a broader perspective, it may not actually be necessary. That’s why it’s never an idea to say no too quickly. Take a few minutes  – half an hour if you like. If you’re that close to saying no, it won’t matter if you lose the job through being slow to reply. Think it through. Is it the kind of job you’d like to take? If it is, are you sure there isn’t any way you coould do it? Many’s the time I’ve realised after a little thought that my initial kneejerk no would have been hasty and that in fact I can fit the job in without too many problems.

Who to say no to

For me the obvious people to say no to are clients who won’t pay my rate and clients who won’t treat me properly (those who are slow to pay bills, difficult to work with, etc.). This is where the “free” in freelance comes in. We choose our own customers, and we can’t complain about them if we’re not prepared to do something about the bad ones. I operate an informal blacklist system which, over the years, has seen me get rid of any customer who persistently fails to pay within a reasonable period. The result: I rarely have trouble with unpaid bills and I have a list of customers who are generally excellent to work for. I couldn’t have achieved that without saying no persistently to the difficult clients and even saying a straight “Please don’t send me any more offers” to one or two who didn’t get the message.

Who not to say no to

I have customers I don’t feel I can say no to, or only on very rare occasions. These are my direct clients who rely on me, and only me, for their translations. I will sometimes try to renegotiate deadlines with them or put them on to a colleague if I’m going to be on holiday, but if I find myself working a late night it will usually because one of them has sent me a job that needs doing when I’m already busy but I don’t want to turn them down. On the other hand, an agency can usually find someone else to do a job and I have no hesitation in refusing work from them if I’m not in a position to do it without working late or at a weekend. I might feel differently only if I have already repeatedly rejected offers from an agency that I really wanted to keep as a customer.

What to say no to

Common sense and professionalism dictate that we should refuse work in language combinations or on subjects where we don’t feel able to produce a reasonable quality translation due to lack of knowledge. Beyond that fairly obvious rule, this is a tricky area. There are those who are in a position to refuse all work not in their specialist area or areas, some who say they do this but in fact accept other work too, and others who are generalists and proud of it. I am currently moving towards a higher level of specialisation but I don’t feel in a position to turn everything else down flat. To deal with this, what I’m trying to do is always to leave a little extra capacity (in other words take on a little less work as a matter of course) in case a specialist job comes in that I really want to take. It’s not something I always manage successfully precisely because it’s not always easy to say no, but I’m doing my best.

Another type of work to say no to consists of jobs involving horrible formats: customers’ online tools, CAT tools you hate using, illegible pdfs or image files and others. I won’t work with any of these now, except in very special circumstances. It really isn’t worth it. You work more slowly, you don’t enjoy what you’re doing and the results are generally not as good as your normal work. So why commit yourself to doing it?

Say no in advance

If I am in a situation where I’m not going to be able to take on any more work for a few days, something I always try to do is to warn customers in advance. Continuous mailings with “I’m busy” “No I’m not” would quickly become annoying so I use Skype. Anyone who uses it to connect with me (you’re welcome to do so, if you like – my Skype name is simon.berrill) will be used to seeing mood messages saying “Busy until Friday (13th)” or whatever. This doesn’t always put clients off and there’s always the chance that they’ll send me one of those infuriating “I know you’re busy but can you just…” messages, but at least it gives them an idea of what my answer will probably be.

Maybe another day

One good way of saying no is to say yes, but not now. This has got me work on several occasions lately when I’ve been very busy. Instead of saying no straight out, I give an alternative deadline. Sometimes it isn’t possible, but it’s amazing how often customers find their “urgent” jobs aren’t really so urgent when they find I won’t be available to do them. You can often get two or three days on top of the originally suggested deadline and sometimes as much as a week for bigger translations – and you leave your client with the idea that you’re doing your best to help. You can’t really lose unless you try to use this tactic to get rid of a job you really don’t want to do. Then you might find that it comes right back at you, and this time there’s no way of wriggling out of it.

Pass it on

Another good way of saying no is to suggest colleagues who might be able to do the job instead. You need to be careful here, though. For a start, only suggest other translators the customer can really trust. And, just as important, only suggest trustworthy customers to valued colleagues. It really isn’t fair to land them with a difficult client who they’re going to have to badger for two months before they get paid. The best thing, if you do suggest a fellow translator, is to send them a quick message at the same time explaining all about the customer you’ve put in touch with them. Then they can make an informed judgment on whether they want to get involved.

Say no and mean no

There are times when there is no substitute for a firm no. Customers being customers, they will sometimes try to wheedle you round and persuade you that you could do what, in your heart, you know you can’t. If that’s the case, be straight with them. Explain exactly the situatioon you’re in “I’m already having to work late tonight and tomorrow…” and remind them that you can’t possibly maintain quality in your work if you take more on. I’ve had to do this sometimes with persistent customers reluctant to take no for an answer and it’s never failed in either sense: they’ve always left me alone after I’ve used it, and they’ve always come back to me afterwards when the crisis is over.

A case study

I’ve never actually been particularly good at saying no myself. It goes against my nature as a person who really wants to please others. So, I’ve made all the mistakes associated with taking on too much work and I’ve had to make quite an effort to develop my “no” reflex. This week I think I finally graduated from the no-saying course. A customer sent me an awful looking job: a load of files in various folders, all of them in different image formats. What’s more, it was a medical translation, one of my least favourite kind and an area where I lack expertise. I didn’t want to do it at all, and it was made worse by the fact that the customer (an agency) was asking me to quote for the job without even giving me a wordcount. However, it’s not a client I want to alienate as they pay well and on time, and they don’t usually behave in this way.

In the circumstances, I decided to use the truth to my advantage to soften my outright refusal to waste my time quoting for a job I didn’t want. I explained that I was busy working to tight deadlines and I didn’t have time to work out the size of the job from lots of different documents in order to give an estimate. I then added that I wouldn’t be able to even start the job until next week and that, considering that and the fact that I am not a medical specialist, it was probably a good idea for them to look for another translator.

I thought very hard about the next bit because I wanted to suggest someone they could go to, but I didn’t want any colleague to feel obliged by my recommendation to take on such a dreadful translation. In the end the answer came to me and I sent the customer a link to the directory page of an organisation I belong to that has many medical translators as members. That way, there would be no direct recommendation, no possibility of anyone feeling any obligation to do anything and no comeback against me for trying to land anyone in particular with the undesirable job.

So, I gave a firm negative response, but softened it by giving reasons and by suggesting colleagues to help, without actually landing anyone in it. It was the neatest no I’ve ever said, and, I think, one of the nicest.

How do you go about saying no to customers? Do you find it difficult? I’d be delighted to read your comments.


  1. Nikki Graham

    Great article, Simon. I think I’ll include a link to this in the ‘Links & Tips for New Translators’ page as you’ve given some good advice here. I’m not particularly good at saying no either. However, I don’t have a problem with telling clients that I don’t do legal, medical, technical, etc.
    I’ve never tried to say ‘no’ by pointing out that the quality would deteriorate greatly if I tried to squeeze something else in, so I’ll remember that one for future reference.


      Thanks, Nikki. The point about quality is something that comes straight from experience. I have taken too much on at times and quality definitely does suffer.

  2. Nancy Matis

    Hi Simon,
    Thank you for this article :-).
    I really find it hard to say "No" myself. But as you explain, there are nice ways to say "no", like explaining you could do it, but later on. It’s the same when I delegate, I also prefer to receive this kind of answer than just a brief email "No sorry, not possible" since in many cases, there are possibilities to reschedule. I think it’s always nicer to get a kind of "Yes but…" answer ;-).



  1. The power of 'no': how to command respect as a translator | Looking-Glass Translations - […] Saying ‘no’ nicely […]

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