Client is Unhappy: Who is to Blame?



When things go wrong between the translation company and the client, what was preventable and what was not?


An email that accidentally did not get sent, a client who wants Angolian instead of Mongolian (yes, it is a real case from the times of the USSR), a hard drive failure, an interpreter is late to an assignment – so many glitches can potentially happen in any translation/interpretation company daily.

But what if the client is unhappy for a good reason? Who is to blame?

Get Started with InterStar

Interpretation and translation is “best human effort” and everyone including our clients understands that you cannot be 100% efficient and flawless all the time.

It boils down to the concept of trust and professional responsibility. When we come to a doctor, we have no choice but to trust his expertise: medical professionals are tested, certified, audited and required to go through rigorous continuing education training. So are lawyers, nurses, etc.

That is not the case with interpreters and translators in the conference interpretation market in the United States. While medical and court interpreters are certified, conference interpreters are not a protected licensed profession. Same for translators who work with written texts.

quality translation servicesIt means that any reputable translation and interpretation conference interpretation company has to take extra Quality Assurance steps. Our clients implicitly trust us because we are “experts.”

Any business savvy translation agency worthy of its name will say the same thing: we hire the best interpreters and translators, we provide the highest level of quality, we (insert more marketing hype here). What may happen in real life?

Clients are usually unhappy for one very simple reason: the translation company wants to get the client no matter what and may start bidding wars with other similar companies. As a result prices are driven so low that any professional interpreter would refuse the assignment. It will be picked up by the “gray market” with unpredictable results.  

cost of translationIt does not really matter to the translation company: their profit margin will be there no matter what. But because the client pays less, the client thinks he is getting a good deal, while in reality it is very far from being the case.  

‘Why is your estimate so much more that all the others we have received ?’

The answer from any top notch translation company should be:

Because this is how much professional interpreters plus our profit margin cost. Because we do not get involved in bidding wars just to get you as a client. Because we do not compromise on quality. Professional translators and interpreters do not have a “best rate”, they charge!

You would not even think about coming to a lawyer office and ask: give me your best rate.

No, they cannot work alone because it is not done (with a few exceptions).

No, I cannot sell you simultaneous interpretation with 5 languages (or even 2 languages) in a huge conference room without a booth because it is simply not done.   

automobile translationThere is an old Russian joke about a notoriously unreliable brand of Soviet cars. Someone sees a man next to a tree and that car up there in the tree. He asks the man: “What happened?” and the man answers: “Well, I know it was a bad car, but I did not realize it was afraid of dogs too!”

An equivalent of that in the conference interpretation world would be interpreters in the (insert name of language here) booth turning off the microphone and saying: oh, it is too difficult for us, we were never trained to do it.  Then they stand up and leave in the middle of a presentation. And such things are known to have happened.   

Some companies will bend backwards to get you as a client, will do all that you want but they simply will not be able to deliver because working conditions are substandard and interpreters are not up to the mark. Do they care? Not really. It is about getting a one-time client who’ll never come back. That is why we heard from suspicious clients: “We had problems with interpreters in the past!” Well, if you had good ones, it must not have happened!  

translation company partnershipThis post is not ranting or trying to smear other companies or expose a “scheme”. It is – first and foremost – a call for professionalism and responsibility: providing conference interpretation services is much more complicated than it may seem at first sight and hiring professional quality interpreters and paying them fairly is a part of that responsibility to you as a client. Real translation companies need to build a relationship with clients not look for quick profit.  

Not that we forget our profit margin. Yum. But not at the expense of interpreters.  

So who is to blame if the client is unhappy? Not the interpreter, but the translation company that succumbed to pressure and compromised on quality hiring him. Always look inside!