By Alexander C. Totz
All things payment are such an essential part of audiovisual translation as I have come to learn in my decade plus of experience. It’s quite easy to rattle off all of this in hindsight. Even within our field, I’m convinced the business of this specialization is a rather unique animal indeed. (For a much deeper dive into the business of translation, I refer one and all to Corinne McKay1 and Judy Jenner2.)
First and foremost, you must clearly know what your overhead is in order to break that down into a viable rate. I learned this the hardest possible way on my very first large project. Literally out of nowhere, I got a call from Hollywood. Someone who was partnering with several highly established entities and names was looking to get something translated. It was all so sudden and seemingly far-fetched that the first place I went for guidance was the Internet, to see if this person was actually legit.
Given though that it was my first job, I pretty much bit immediately. Cutting to the chase, even though I delivered on time—in the middle of the holiday season!—it took me about two months to finally get paid. The essential point here is to ensure from the start that everything is in writing. Most luckily for me, and this really was kind of dumb luck, I had put a late payment clause into the contract. Thanks to the insistence of the partner who’d originally contacted me, I ultimately earned double of what I was originally supposed to be paid.
Once you’re approached by a potential client, it’s good to suss them out to learn about their work, and more importantly if you really want to work with them. See what they’ve actually done or produced, and certainly what others might have said about them.
In one way or another, all the audiovisual clients I have worked with are creatives: people who are struggling, persevering at some stage in their journey to bring some creative work into the world. Typically, they are motivated by passion, even and especially if the material stakes are high. As a former theater director, and now a filmmaker, I have a keen sense of those stakes.
At this early juncture though, I find it critical to be as dispassionate as possible in assessing the scope of the work and my potential service to it. I usually then ask what they’re after in the final product. Specifically, what this is for, who is going to be reading or seeing it. With the struggle to get something born into the world creatively, there is often plenty of ego involved. But more importantly for translators, there can be a pretty fundamental and consistent lack of understanding and respect among creatives for the service that we provide.
In my experience, many of them, for their own very good reasons and otherwise, want something for nothing. The most important quality you can look for in a potential client is a genuine respect for the skills and services you have to offer for exactly what they are worth, both to you and the market. The advent of technology and globalization, specifically the ease with which people can now communicate and travel across physical borders, has for me mostly been paradoxical as a translator. We can be perceived as gatekeepers, annoyingly holding back the tide of change.
But as Corinne has pointed out, it’s really in the confidence and certainty that we genuinely have something special to offer that we actually have “gates” worth “keeping”.
Even if you’re just starting out, based on your overhead it’s essential to know how much work you can/might produce at an hourly and a daily pace. Then once you hang your shingle out there, it’s the small points, or at least they seem small, which can be very much worth paying attention to. Getting “dinged”—bank fees, any kind of transaction fees—is usually part and parcel of international transactions. It’s always best to factor this into your rate or fee, or make it very clear in the written contract. For large jobs, especially with new clients, I find it essential to have a written agreement of some sort. Once that’s signed, and as part of that, I typically ask for a start work payment. Then, just prior to delivery, I ask for proof that the delivery payment is being sent before delivering.
Finally, it’s really important to be flexible. About three years ago, I did a very large project for several big, well-known entities—a striking déjà vu from my very first project. My initial quote was based on my per-word rate, but ultimately it came through when I gave them an hourly one. No matter how you scale your rates, it’s really important that your clients can understand them in a way that makes sense to them and their work. That flexibility though can extend to what they can actually afford.
Often if we can’t reach an agreement, I ask about their budget. That same client returned to me sometime later with another project which wasn’t nearly as far advanced as the previous one. On an exceptional basis, I worked for very little, but actually had a blast on the work in question. Sometimes passion does matter—why else would we do this otherwise?
1Corinne McKay, “Thoughts on Translation” (https://www.thoughtsontranslation.com)
2Judy Jenner, “Translation Times” (https://translationtimes.blogspot.com)
Alexander C Totz has been an audiovisual translator for a over a decade. Clients have included France Télévisions, Sony Pictures Television, Blumhouse TV; filmmakers Euzhan Palcy, Guillermo del Toro and Jacques Perrin; and producers Jake Eberts and Mark Morgan. Graduated from NYU SCPS with a Professional Certificate in French>English Translation, Alexander is completing their first film, a short personal documentary about the long-term effects of bullying. They can be reached via www.cinoche.biz.
Published in Deep Focus, Issue 2, March, 2019