One of the most frequent questions that I see from beginning translators is how to decide if a new client or a job offer is legitimate. It’s a delicate process, and it’s not an exact science. Sometimes even experienced translators get scammed, and sometimes a client that seems a little shady during the first contact turns out to be quite trustworthy. Following are a few tips on this issue.
First, always (always!) use a translation industry client rating list to see if the prospective client has been rated there. About Translation has an excellent post on this very topic, and it’s well worth a read. I belong to and swear by Payment Practices and I check it immediately when a new client contacts me. In my experience, known non-payers have generally been rated on Payment Practices or a similar list, so these services are an invaluable resource.
I also think it’s completely acceptable to ask a prospective client for references from other translators as long as you as the translator offer the same in return. Ask if the client is a member of a professional association for translators or translation companies. This is not an absolute guarantee of legitimacy, but it indicates that the client is at least willing to invest the time and money in joining such an association. In addition, never work for a client without getting full contact information including physical address, telephone number, and the name and contact information for the person who handles accounts payable.
Asking for advance payment is also an option, especially if you are not in dire need of the work that the client is offering. This type of arrangement might involve full advance payment, partial advance payment, or a partial advance payment and then another installment once you’ve submitted part of the translation. Some clients will agree to this type of payment plan and some will not, since the client then runs the risk that a translator who has already been paid either does not return the translation or returns an unacceptable translation. In my case, I ask all clients who are not established businesses to pay in advance, since (don’t ask me how I learned this!) it’s actually not very hard for an individual to disappear after receiving the translation, for example by moving without a forwarding address or phone number.
Part of the vetting process is not quantifiable, but rather involves using your intuition about a client. I’ve found that just the process of politely asking a client about some of the issues above can go a long way toward avoiding a non-payment situation before it starts. When a less than solvent client knows that they’ve landed on a translator who checks industry rating lists, asks for references from current translators and clarifies the payment terms and methods up front, they’re likely to seek another, less savvy translator.