ATA Business Practices: Workflow Management

What do we do during two weeks of enforced vacation, when the offices that usually send us work are on vacation? What do we do when we receive an email on Friday evening asking us to have a translation ready for Monday? Balancing work and life as a freelancer includes these challenges.

The holidays are a good time to think of workflow management for freelance translators and interpreters. This column was published online at and this article in particular at

Workflow Management

This week’s column addresses the issue of repeat business from a group of steady clients, which is the goal of many freelance business operators. Newcomers who do not hear back from a client after submitting a job often worry that something went wrong. While a lack of communication may have nothing to do with the quality of the translator’s work, it is still worth taking the time to investigate.

Dear Business Smarts:

It seems like every Friday around 4:00 p.m. I get a call or a high-priority e-mail from a translation company (usually one that I have never worked for before) asking if I can take on an urgent project. The length of the text often means I would need to work all weekend in order to meet the deadline. I have a family and a life, and sometimes I even plan to spend the weekend doing something other than work. Should I feel guilty or unprofessional about turning down these kinds of jobs?

— Perplexed in Des Moines

Dear Perplexed:

In a scene from one of Tony Hillerman’s atmospheric detective novels about the American Southwest, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is interviewing a teenaged witness. He offers his pack of Chesterfields and asks, “Do you sometimes smoke a cigarette?” The kid takes one and replies, “Sometimes it is good.” “It is never good,” says Leaphorn, “but sometimes it is necessary.”

The same could be said of working on weekends, or indeed at any time when you had not planned to do so. Workflow management is a difficult aspect of being a freelancer in any profession—the most difficult of all, according to some translators. Anyone who has to make a living must strike a balance between work and life, but when one is being paid for output (words or lines) rather than for time on the job, the temptation to increase that output can be overwhelming. For those just starting out, it may be impossible to say no to the prospect of more income. Just remember that nothing is ever free, and that the cost of that extra chunk of money will be a chunk out of the rest of your life. Only you can decide whether the one is worth the other.

But if your life situation allows it, or especially if you are new to the profession and still building your client base and reputation, there is no reason not to accept an opportunity to make more money. The client may appreciate your willingness to work “overtime,” and may later start sending jobs with more reasonable deadlines. Keep in mind, however, that if you encounter technical difficulties while working on a weekend assignment, the client will most likely be impossible to reach, and you will have to solve any terminology problems on your own.

Regardless of when you accept work from a new client, it is important to establish your terms from the outset, including when you are willing to work and under what conditions. Make it clear that weekend work is the exception rather than the rule. You should also consider a graduated pay rate that incorporates a “rush charge” for working outside what you consider your normal hours.

Your decision about accepting weekend or rush work may also be conditioned by who is asking. You may be more willing to accommodate a client who has already accommodated you, by sending work in your specialty and by stretching deadlines when necessary. Conversely, always take the time to check the reputation and payment history of an unfamiliar company or other client, no matter how eager the project manager may be to close up the office on a Friday. Spending a gorgeous summer weekend at the computer for a client who then does not reward you with prompt payment is simply not worth it.

Whatever you decide, be careful not to get in over your head. If you have already determined how long and how intensely you can work without degrading the quality of your output, taking on an additional assignment may be counterproductive. You will do more for your reputation as a professional if you politely turn down a rush job (and ask the client to keep you in mind for future work) than if you deliver a text that you have translated with less than your usual care and attention.

Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: July 2007, p 44