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Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Role of Translation "Agencies"

The love-hate relationship between freelance translators and translation companies (aka “agencies”) is probably as old as the translation industry itself. In contrast with the virtually infinite universe of potential translation users, translation agencies provide a finite market for translators to offer their services to buyers who largely play by the same familiar rules and provide a buffer between the translator and the client. Freelancers often resent the price they must pay for these services in the form of lower rates. Many tranlators feel that their work does not need the extra quality check most translation companies perform and even suspect that their translation may be ruined by ignorant agency editors. Stories of agencies that fail to pay or delay payment for translation work performed also abound.

Do you think translation companies perform a useful service and what advantages / disadvantages do you see in working through translation companies v. for direct clients?

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Blogger KevinFulton said...

I *like* working for agencies. I'm not very good at direct marketing, and I'd rather spend the time translating rather than contacting companies. A good agency handles the logistics, makes sure that any mistakes I've made are corrected, and collects from the client, freeing me to spend my time doing what I do best.

Several years ago I decided that I wasn't going to translate personal documents for one-time clients. Even though they don't require much effort, the related logistics made these translations unprofitable. Many people have the idea that a translating is like cutting a key: a service that can be performed "while you wait." I'm not interested in interrupting work for a regular client in order to make a few dollars translating a birth certificate, driver's license or divorce decree, so I made an arrangement with an agency. I refer all personal documents to them, and they send me the work. I make a little less, but the agency has all the headaches related to obtaining the documents and delivering the translations.

I have a few direct clients (obtained through referrals) who regularly send me work, and I do my best to accommodate them, since I make good money. These are generally financial statements and similar documents that can be translated without much research, so if I have to be out of the office, I can do the work on a laptop with little or no hard-copy reference material. If I'm really pressed for time, I sometimes subcontract the work (and inform the client, assuring that I'll check the translation personally).

However, I lost my best-paying direct client, a law firm specializing in intellectual property, due to an inability to take the work. Their documents were always difficult, but the deadlines were reasonable and the rates were twice what an agency would pay me for the same type of job. Three times in a row they contacted me literally as I was going out the door to leave on an extended trip. There was no time to find a subcontractor, and I had to refer the work out. After the third time, they quit calling. I contacted them and was told that they were happy with one of the people I referred, and besides, he was always available and charged less.

Agencies, on the other hand, if you have a good relationship, will generally call back. By choice, I only work with a limited number of agencies. This occasionally leads to "down time," but I'm happy with the situation. In over 20 years of working with agencies, I've had only one problem requiring repeated contact, and in that instance, the owner was an incompetent businessman, not a crook.

Even though agencies pay less than direct clients, there is a lot of effort involved in educating a direct client. For reasons beyond your control you can lose them more easily than you can find new ones. With direct clients, customer loyalty is based upon availability as much as price and quality of work. Agencies, on the other hand, always have a list of translators. If one isn't available, they just go down the list until they find one, and if you do good work, they keep you in their database.

Yes, I would prefer to make twice what I make now with half the customers, but given my diffidence toward marketing, I'm happy with the (more or less) constant stream of work from agencies.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Arturas said...

To say that translation bureaus exist because some translators are too lazy to do their own marketing is an oversimplication. Bureaus can only exist because they provide a unique service that translators and clients do not. Like any product, a bureau has certain advantages and restrictions. A bureau offers a client multiple language services, convenient biling, and dependability. They do not necessarily offer consistency (one editor cannot make two translators use the same style.) and they do not usually allow for the solution of difficult problems where dictionaries fear to tread. They take care of marketing and provide convenient billing for translators, but in my experience, they rarely help their translators improve, most likely because there is nothing stopping a translator from working for their competitor either in the present or the future. They may also maintain fixed prices, resulting in no raises for translators. The only way to obtan a raise is to move to a different bureau or to work independently.

Rephrasing that, if a client has a standard text that needs to be translated into a variety of languages, a bureau is just the ticket. If they text is critical or unusual in terms of vocabulary or grammar, then a client is better served by working directly with a translator because a translator can also serve as a great proofreader for the original text if he provides a client with feedback and the translator should work directly with a client where there there is no dictionary entry for a word or the meaning is not entirely clear. The best translations are the result of collaboration between the author and the translator.

So if one is happy with working with a bureau, that is fine, but it depends on the type of texts one handles. A poorly written CV will not be corrected by a bureau (the client is always right) but an oboxious translator can help a client to improve it so that it better reflects the thinking of the target language and population.

5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Translation agencies have their merits and their shortcomings. Since I work in the English-Arabic language pair, I wrote a review on the Arabic translation agencies and what I think are their pros and cons.

All the best,

9:50 PM  
Blogger Datawords said...

Translation agencies can use their position and their strengths to have free lance translators do their job for little money. But that kind of behaviour is in my point of view the exception and thanks to my experience as a translator (I've been working with French translation agencies for several years now) I can clearly say that the good relationship between the translation agency Datawords, for example,and I is built on the reciprocal respect that we have for each other.
I encourage you to have a look on their website to get a better idea of a good translation agency (

3:59 AM  
Blogger Philip Chimbers said...

Hi there,

I am an English - French translator and I have started working withe a new translation agancy based in Madrid for the past called:
"". I have no complaints. Altough they pay less than I would usually get from the client directly they pay on time and gaurantee me a steady flow of work. I means I don't have to worry about all that investment in marketing.


9:38 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dear all,

just a very short comment to let you know that Multilingual recently covered the same topic, with an interesting point of view written by Gianni Davico, owner of a translation company. Also, in France, Tradonline interviewed about 400 freelancers about their relationships with translation companies and published their findings in a report, published here. I wrote two posts about that in L'Observatoire de la Traduction, the blog about translation I keep up-to-date.

Don't hesitate to have a look at this material!

All the best!

Guillaume de Brébisson
Site de traduction Anyword

10:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am an agency and have never worked as a translator. I have been in the industry for nearly 8 years and both agencies that i have worked for i have negotiated with translators. From what I know, we usually pay the rate of the translators request unless it is outrageous.

However, i do know of another...very large agency...that pays very little for their translators. As in, if i would pay 0.08-0.12 per source (depends on language and could be more), this agency will negotiate the rate of 0.04 per source. I was told the reason why they negotiate so low is because their project managers and coordinators get a "piece" of the rate that is charged to the client...for example....

Client is charged 0.24 per word
translator is paid 0.04
proofreader is paid 0.01

that's 0.19 left...
company takes 0.15
pm takes 0.03
pc takes 0.01

the pm and pc are told to negotiate so they can increase their take from the project.

Incredible...and it happens...however, i know that any credible translator that i have never worked with would ever work on a project for that rate...

Kim A

12:06 PM  
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3:13 AM  
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3:22 AM  

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