Translation Contracts: Are They Really Important?

  • Time to read: 10 min.

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Let’s talk about translation contracts.

OK, so you’ve just scored a translation job (and not one that pays pennies).

The next decision you’ll make is whether or not to use a translation contract.

There’s’ a short answer and a shorter answer.

Shorter answer: Yes

Short answer: Only if you want to get paid.

Here’s why.

Listen, nobody likes dealing with contracts. They’re a lot of work, they can get messy, and they’re just so damn inconvenient sometimes.

But guess who also knows that? Your potential clients.

And guess who’ll be the first person to get screwed if they decide to not use one? Yeah, you.

So I’m going to outline some information about contracts that you need to know and understand if and when you decide to use them in your own translation business.

Before I do that, though, I should tell you that contracts aren’t only used for your regular run-of-the-mill document translation services. In fact, I received the following email from Sol, a regular reader:

Hi. I’m a voice over actor and thru one of my contacts I’ve been offered a film translation job by a significant client. I’ve done several small translation projects before but this is my 1st video translation and don’t have a clear sense of a fair offer.

Can you give me an idea of what a ballpark rate would be? Through my research I found an average of $15 per minute of video which includes written transcripts in both English and Spanish. Is that correct?

Also, even though I’ve worked with these guys before and have proven themselves trustworthy this is a big project (about 10hrs of video) and would like to draw up a contract.

Would you have or can you suggest a sample contract I can use as a guide?

Thanks for your time! I’ve really enjoyed your site and I’m seriously considering getting certified.



All types of translation work, whether it’s document translation, video translation, book translation, etc. should be based on a contract, even if you’re a translator as a side hustle.

BTW, I have a translator friend who when he was just starting out, was asked to translate movie subtitles. He mentioned that it was interesting work. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it wasn’t just any type of movie he was asked to translate. Instead, it was… ahem… those of the “adult” variety. Now that was probably an interesting contract.

OK, so back to contracts.

Before going into specifics on ATA’s model, let’s look at a very important distinction when it comes to the world of legal agreements between the language service provider and the client.

There are two general types: service agreements and contracts.

Translation Service Agreements

In general terms, translation service agreements, like for business translation services, are more broad than translation contracts. A service agreement is paperwork drawn up by the client and outlines the business relationship between client and freelancer in somewhat broad terms. It describes what both sides expect on a macro level. There’s usually no discussion of timelines, word counts, or payments.

That is because there is an expectation that the relationship will not just entail a single, one-off translation job. It will most likely involve multiple jobs over a longer period of time.

A few years ago, I was approached by a library system in Onandaga County in New York. They had received some grant money and wanted to translate their website, online catalog and a host of other items.

I agreed, and instead of drawing up a contract, the county protocol was to draw up a translation service agreement. It outlined how I would get paid, how I would submit my work, and gave a rough outline of the type of work I would be doing. I was also given a county-provided contractor number so they could track payments made to me in their system.

When the library system needed something translated, their contact would email me with the details and we would then reach an agreement on specifics like price and delivery terms.

Translation Contracts

Translation contracts are your typical contracts between a freelancer and a client to perform a specific job. The contract usually outlines a timeline, word count, payment terms, language pair and any other clauses that will be specific to that job.

ATA’s sample contract is a decent model for most translators needing a contract for a one-time job with a client.

Let’s look at the various parts:

Initial Part

First off it’s important to outline the basics. Don’t screw this up. It’s not that hard.

  • Date
  • Translator’s Name
  • Client’s Name

Part 1: Description of Services

The next section is where we really get into the nitty gritty:

Description of services: This is pretty basic stuff but it’s important you have this part nailed down because here you lay out exactly what it is that you’re going to do. What piece/document/video exactly are you going to be translating? How many words/hours/pages are you going to be responsible for?

If you’re going to be doing more than just translating, you need to include those other services here as well. For example, does the job include any desktop publishing? Editing? Proofreading? HTML coding? That information should be laid out here because if it’s not in this section, you are not responsible for it.

Section one also lays out the delivery parameters. The delivery date is specified, as well as the delivery format and method. Does the client want a PDF file, a DOC file, or just a plain text file? Do they want it through email, as an email attachment, or hand-delivered by a guy wearing monkey suit?

Parts 2 – 5: The Money

Once you’ve hammered out what you’re going to do, it’s then time to figure out what you’re going to get paid for doing it.

This section covers a few different aspects. You might not need every clause, but you need to think about every clause here. The last thing you want is to not get fairly compensated for your work.

Fee for Services: Pretty straightforward. This is where the payment terms go. There’s no need to include your per word rate here. Since you’ve already outline the volume of work you’ll be doing in the first section, here you just put what the total amount of compensation should be.

If the job is 8,000 words and you’re charging $0.12 a word, you’d put down $960. Make sure it is clear what monetary currency you will be paid with. Most translators/clients work in USD, but you’ll want to clarify that in this section.

You’ll also outline payment terms. If a job is particularly long, I recommend that you get break the payments up into two or three installments. Nothing sucks worse than a client who decides to try and stiff you and withhold payment from you after you just turned in a monster translation job.

It’s better to divide that job into two or three parts, and specify to the client in this section that you will not work on part two of the translation until you receive payment for part one.

If the client balks, drop ’em. If not, they’ll screw you over later.

Cancellation or Withdrawal by Client: This happens quite frequently in the writing world when a magazine that pays upon publication accepts your article but then decides not to run it in the magazine for whatever reason. Most magazines (reputable ones, anyway) will offer a kill fee. This is basically a percentage of what they were going to pay you for the full article.

I haven’t seen it happen quite as often in the translation industry. That said, feel free to include it if you think you need to.

Additional Fees/Costs: ATA differentiates between the two of these. Fees basically involve extra work that is not outlined in section 2. What if the client comes to you in the middle of the job and requests translation of an additional 1,500-word section? Here you would outline that any additional work is going to be calculated at $0.12 per word, or whatever you want to charge.

Costs on the other hand, are not associated with the translation job itself, but rather include any external costs the translator has to pay in order to satisfy the customer’s request. This includes overnight delivery costs, specialized packaging/binding services, or other types of courier fees.

Part 6-7: Client Review & Confidentiality

Part 6 is where you and the client basically outline how long the client has to review the translation before you as the translator can basically wash your hands of the translation.

The confidentiality portion is something that a lot of new translators forget about, but it’s a pretty important section to include in any translation contract. This is especially true if you are using terminology management software for your translations.

While you should definitely agree to keep confidential any source or target text requested by the client, you should also make sure that you and the client agree on any retention of terminology databases or glossaries compiled by the translator during the course of the translation job.

This can and will be a point of contention with some of your clients. Some (if not most) will not understand that you compile terminology glossaries from your work to assist you in future assignments.

Clients will try to stop you from retaining those glossaries. If you feel that retaining the terminology will assist you in your work, you should fight for that right. If it’s something you could live without, you might as well let the client win that point.

It will all depend on the translation you’re doing and the client you’re translating for.

Part 9-10: Indemnification & Changes

You’ll notice that I skipped part 8. It’s a no brainer that the finished translation is property of the client. Once you translate the piece, you’re done with it. There is no other responsibilities on your part, except to get paid and splurge on some Diet Coke to get ready for your next translation.

Let’s talk about indemnification.

Simply put, you need this clause in your contract. What it does is outline that you won’t be held responsible if anybody hurts themselves or loses money based on bad information that the client gave you in order to do the translation.

Now if you royally screwed up the translation because you suck at translating and something bad happens to someone because of it, then yeah, it’s on you. Otherwise, it’s on the client.

And last but not least, my favorite clause in the whole contract. Probably because this happens all the time. It doesn’t happen as much with reputable clients, but it’s still a pretty widespread issue that every single translator on the planet has experienced at least once.

Here’s an example:

I finished a translation for a client and sent it in. The client accepted it, no questions asked. Two months later I get an email from the client asking me to “clarify” some of my translations.

Turns out that a girl who worked with him spoke Spanish and English and claimed that I had mis-translated some of the words. He freaked out thinking I had done a terrible job.

Luckily, I was able to calm him down and let him know why my translations were correct and why the suggestions from his secretary were wrong.

Chalk that one up to client education.

And there we have it. The basic parts of a translation contract. You can always download the one from the ATA website and use it verbatim or you can pick and choose the parts you need, which is what I recommend.

Either way, kids, don’t leave home without that translation contract.

FAQ – Importance of Translation Contracts

What is a translation contract?

A translation contract is a legally binding agreement between a translator and a client that outlines the terms of the translation job.

Why is contract language important?

The contract language is important because it sets forth the expectations of both the translator and the client. It also protects the translator in case there are any issues with the project so that you can focus on making money in translation.

What should be included in a translation contract?

At a minimum, a translation contract should include information on who will be performing the work, what the scope of the work is, when the work will be completed, and how much the translator will be paid.

Why is it important to have a contract?

Having a contract is important because it ensures that both parties are clear on the terms of the job. It also protects the translator in case there are any issues with payment or scope of work.

Is it necessary to have a contract for every translation job?

No, but it is highly recommended when working in translation. Even if you are working with a client that you trust, it is always best to have everything in writing. This way, there is no confusion about the terms of the job or the payment.