Staying off the high horse

Staying off the high horse

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A few weeks ago, a translator raised a question in the Standing Up Facebook group. Quoting precedents from the content writing industry, he asked whether translators could or should have different quality standards for different clients with different budgets. In other words, should we do better work for clients who pay us more?

At first sight the answer seemed clear and some group members were quite adamant in their views: it was unethical and wrong to differentiate in this way. Either we should do our best work or we shouldn’t work at all. If the pay on offer was too low, there could be no half measures, it was our duty to simply refuse the job. Their argument was appeared convincing enough.

And yet…is that really how we all do things? I began thinking and I realised that the way I work, at least, is nowhere near so clear cut. For a start, like many translators, I don’t charge all customers the same rate. If they are an agency, for example, or a colleague, I will charge less, to reflect the fact that they have done the marketing to find the end client. If, on the other hand, I am dealing directly with the end client, I will charge more.


Even when working with direct clients, the price they pay can be different. Ideally, all of them would want and be able to afford my “premium” service, including revision by another translator. This, however, is not always the case and many clients prefer to pay less for what is, in effect, a lower level of service: my translation without revision. What is this, if it isn’t different levels of service for different budgets?

Now I don’t think I could deliberately turn out substandard translations, and in doing what I do I have no intention of not offering my best work. But, in any case, what does “best work” mean? I’ve written before about my working process, likening it to sculpture, where I start off with a “rough carving” and then polish it into a finished “statue”. But when is that statue finished? Is it ever perfect? I would say that it isn’t. So at some point we have to decide that it is, to use two much-maligned words, “good enough”; that one more read-through or one more revision isn’t going to make that much difference. And what determines that point? If someone is paying us a higher rate, aren’t we more inclined to give the piece of work one more polish? To me it would be surprising if we weren’t.

Some translators might say that they are simply not prepared to work for clients who won’t pay for what they consider to be their best work. This is a laudable aim and we all, of course, have our standards. Like most of us, I set a rate below which I will not accept jobs. I also have a standard working method, which I follow for all the jobs I do accept. But I’m certainly not going to be the one to criticise a translator who tells me they can make the same profit as they normally make doing a particular job at below their standard rate because it requires less work. It may not be for me, but, especially in these difficult times, I can see the logic in it, particularly from an earnings-per-hour point of view. Besides, I don’t enjoy the view from atop a high horse.

What do you think? Feel free to leave your views in a comment below.


  1. Parvathi Pappu

    I’d rather not work with that client at all rather than delivering sub standard work

    • Simon Berrill

      Not wanting to work below a certain standard is something I completely understand and agree with. The question is whether you can have more than one acceptable standard.

  2. Timothy Barton

    Like you say, what is our "best work"? The line has to be drawn somewhere. If I were to read through an 80,000-word document one last time and all I changed was one comma, I’d legitimately feel it wasn’t worth the effort. Diminishing returns apply. At one point do we deem the returns not to justify means? I think that depends on just how critical the document is. If we’re translating a technical manual for a high-speed train, perhaps that comma might save some lives, and the client will pay for the extra scrutiny of the text; if it’s a tourist brochure, it probably doesn’t matter, and the client won’t be paying you enough to warrant you reading it through a dozen times.

    I’m oversimplifying, but the point is that "best work" is a nuanced concept.

    • Simon Berrill

      Yes! That’s exactly my point. It’s easy to say "Oh yes, I will only ever do my best work" but we’re making the kind of calculation you describe all the time.

  3. Timothy Barton

    Timing is also important to bear in mind. I’m currently editing a job due tomorrow morning. 18,000 words. I’m doing my second and final proofread. Ideally, at the end of this proofread I’d want to read through it all one more time. But there’s not time to do so. My client is aware of the time constraints and has told me to do the best I can with the time I have, which is what I’m doing. Not ideal, but the meeting at which the document will be used is taking place tomorrow, and my edited version will be far more useful than the version I was sent to edit.

    Fit-for-purpose is the key here. It’s being used in an internal meeting. If I use a full stop at the end of one list item, rather than a semi-colon as per the style manual, nobody will care. Anyway, back to my job due tomorrow…


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