Mar 16, 2010

The truth about translation agencies?

My colleague Wendell Ricketts, a translator working from Italian to English, has compiled a list of ten reasons for those in need of translation services to avoid agencies and contact translators directly. I don't agree with all of them, and some apply more to his language pair than mine, but I think they are worth reading and considering. If you represent an agency, consider to what extent these statements apply to your operation or do not. Translators can use them as part of a presentation of their services. End users of translations should consider these points very carefully and determine if they apply to their situation. I will take the liberty of requoting or summarizing each of these points and putting my own spin on them, but I encourage everyone to read Mr. Ricketts' original argument.

I myself enjoy excellent relations with a large number of agency clients. I do not share the hostility that many translators feel toward agencies, and I consider my agency partners to be a vital part of my business strategy. They provide project management and other services for which I do not always have a great deal of time. They are, for the most part, honest and transparent in their dealings with me. And it is very seldom that I feel abused in these relationships, quite the contrary. However, my agency partners are the kernels of wheat that are left after a lot of chaff has been blown away over the past ten years. Considering all that chaff, I must agree with a lot of what Mr. Ricketts writes.

1.          Don’t be fooled into thinking that working with an agency means guaranteed access to qualified translators.
This one really depends a lot on the individual agency. I believe this is certainly true for the major players like Lionbridge, TransPerfect and Tek as well as many others. There is so much trickle-down subcontracting going on there that one never knows what Lower Elbonian will end up doing a translation or review with the help of a ouija board. Cattle calls for translators on ProZ and other portals make it clear that many of these organizations are incapable of recruiting and retaining good translators. It is often instructive to view the posting history of an agency or other outsourcer on various job portals to get a feel for how often they need to look outside the presumed pool of regular translators for new blood or additional help. In general, a large number of postings should be grounds to exercise caution. Not always, but careful examination of the data often reveals disturbing patterns.

2.         Agencies may not use native-speakers of the “target” language.
Absolutely true. But once again, this depends on the agency. I have seen cases of agencies with no competence for English in-house using native speakers of Romanian or Russian to translate from German to English. The results are not always cause for rejoicing if you care about quality. Other agencies I know would never dream of pulling such a stunt. But how is the owner of a machine parts business in some German backwater to tell which agency is lying and which is telling the truth when the claim is made that only a highly skilled native speaker of the target language with an engineering background will translate his technical manuals? If I were that business owner, I would reduce my risk and consult the BDÜ, ITI, ATA or other professional directories and find a suitable candidate myself.

3.         Can you trust the person who edits your project?
Here it is important to question an agencies workflow. Or a translator's for that matter. Over the years I have found that an editing process which does not involve the translator in the final version is seldom worthwhile. Here I am less concerned than Mr. Ricketts about the damage that non-native speakers of the target language can do to the text; I have seen enough idiocy from native speakers to last me for a lifetime. Some of the best reviewers I know for my English texts are native speakers of German, but these people would never dare to alter more than obvious typographical errors without checking proposed changes with me. And I often find their suggestions useful; if not directly usable, they often inspire better solutions. What works here for me is a combination of the right people and the right process. I think this can be difficult in some cases regardless of whether one deals with an agency or an individual translator. However, the chances of a real expert translator's work getting screwed screwed up are greater when an agency is involved. I dropped one of my agency clients after the company hired an idiot German geologist to edit a laboratory report I had translated from German to English. I used to work in a laboratory in California that performed such analyses daily, and as a research chemist I ordered such work often or performed it myself. And that dumb cookie not only thought she knew the science better than I did, she also tried to correct my grammar so that subjects and verbs would no longer agree. And other linguistic horrors, which I have thankfully suppressed.

4.         Why pay more for less quality?
Indeed. Why pay at all? If cutting costs trumps quality, try Otherwise, consider how to get the most for your money. Mr. Ricketts' point about the possibility of saving money by working directly with a translator isn't necessarily correct; I charge most of my direct clients and many of my agencies more than many agencies charge direct clients. However, this buys a level of service that they probably could not receive at the same rate from an agency. Face it: the best talent is seldom available at the rates the discounter agencies are willing to pay. If this isn't apparent to you from the results, then you probably don't know the target language as well as you think you do. If you don't care, bully for you. Your competitor will sooner or later.

5.         Do you really want a “use-and-discard” translator?
Wham, bam, thank you.... Looking at some of the recurring agency postings on ProZ, one cannot help but sense a certain promiscuity and hope that the customers of these lexical whorehouses use appropriate protection. Most of the agencies I deal with do not work this way and emphasize long-term relationships with their specialist translators, but as noted above, it's a good idea to investigate any agency you consider using to see how often they are looking for translators for the same type of project. Ask yourself why this happens so often if the agency really finds "appropriate" candidates.

6 & 7.   Can you contact your translator directly if you need to?
Go read the original post for these points. All I can add is that some translators may prefer a buffer (=agency) if you are not efficient or reasonable in your dealings with them. I usually enjoy dealing with end clients, but when these do not understand that I am not a translation agency, do not outsource and cannot deal with their French, Chinese or Japanese documents, I get a bit put out. Especially when I made the same point the week before to the same person. In most cases, I love being able to deal directly with authors when something is unclear or decisions need to be made. Very few agency project managers function efficiently as intermediates. I am blessed to work with a number of notable exceptions who give me direct access to their clients when I ask for it. If we can't trust each other, there's no point in working together at all as far as I am concerned.

8.        “A little bit of everything” means an agency with no real focus.
A totally valid point that also applies to individual translators. I really love "boutique" agencies like my friends at Translators International in the Netherlands who specialize in just a few areas and build international teams to handle these areas very well. They don't do fashion, and they won't deliver a pizza with your translation.

9.         You can get pizza delivered quickly, too. 
If you find an agency that promises to deliver your 50,000 word job by tomorrow at noon - at any price - be sure to stop by the pharmacy on your way home and buy a big jar of Vaseline. You'll need it to cope with the result. I generally work with honest agencies who aren't afraid to say no and make it clear to prospects that nothing good can come of such scenarios. They care about results and don't feel the need to use red illumination at the entrance to their places of business. But there are many others.... 

10.    Most of what you’ve been told about the advantages of translation agencies simply isn’t true.
Mr. Ricketts is spot on here. Most translation jobs definitely do not benefit from the presence of a middleman, even if some busy translators do (to allow more time for an activity they love and less for administration). Agencies are best used in cases involving the management of complex processes involving multiple languages and complex production work flows. If your company does not have these skills in-house, then your best bet is to find a good small to medium-sized agency. Why not a big one? Because these generally care less about results and often promiscuously subcontract to the lowest bidders in Lower Slobovia and other remote parts of the Earth noted for expertise in major languages like German, French, and English. Even on an international scale, small companies such as the Dutch one I mentioned above or a number of other partners of mine of similar size around the world do a great job with big projects for major corporations. And they care about quality more than the big boys ever will.

However, quite honestly, much of what I see from my agency clients really does not actually require the agent's role. However, in the cases where those agents work with a limited pool of translators whom I know and trust, I am grateful for their intermediate role in taking the pressure off and shifting a job to another well-qualified colleague when I am booked out and stressed. What I don't tolerate is agencies (or direct clients) that like to juggle translations like bananas with clumsy monkeys and then expect me to clean up the squishy mess.

For those who are uncertain how best to use the services of translation agencies or individual translators, the ATA's guide to "getting it right" provides very valuable advice. 


  1. Very good posting, Kevin. I really enjoyed every bit of it. :)

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing!

    At the moment I am struggling against the price dumping practice of some agencies I've been working with for years. This post can be an inspiration to acquire some direct clients.


  3. Thank you for sharing Kevin. I personally work for lots of agencies. Honestly some are good and some are less qualified. Agencies are just like freelancers, there's same amount of risks involved whoever a client chooses to hire.

  4. @Marcos: "Price dumping" is not always an issue with agencies. I've had agencies pay the equivalent of 35 euro cents/word, though I'll admit that's not common. If an agency shows up proposing that I work for 10 cents/word, I politely tell them to get buggered and don't think about the matter any more. If you are able to offer unique value and explain this value in a persuasive manner, then most of the time you can get a reasonable rate. When you can't, say goodbye with a smile. Serious prospects will often come back later.

    The actual price dumping comes not from the agencies but from the translators who accept or offer untenable rates. Or who charge direct clients the same rates that they charge agencies, because they do not understand the additional effort that is often necessary or advisable when working with direct clients. It's a matter of business skills and understanding on the part of the translators.

    Whether you continue to work with agencies or acquire direct clients isn't the most important issue. What is critical is to look for mutually beneficial, respectful relationships and to dump the ones that cannot be described that way. Think "upgrade". In some cases the upgrade may need to start with you and the way you do business.

    @Joy: I would say there are risks involved in any case, but the risks involved are not of the same magnitude. Sometimes they are greater with an agency, sometimes greater working directly with a freelancer. However, a company that takes the time to identify a limited team of good freelancers and works with these over a longer period of time will be in a far better position than one that relies on agencies. But if that company has complex needs and/or lacks the necessary project management skills and review capacities for languages services, then there may be no better alternative than a good agency. But this really fits the smaller proportion of cases I see.

    One trend I have observed in the current economic troubles is for many companies to start managing their own translation projects and stop having this done by agencies. Quality and control are the major factors here, not cost. One direct client I acquired last year, one of the most respected agricultural equipment manufacturers in Germany, opted to go this route after getting screwed by at least three agencies ranging from a fairly small operation to one of the world's ten largest. There was little consistency in the work delivered by the agencies and a lot of empty promises. Those were more or less the customer's words. Things are much better now with the hand-picked freelance team.

  5. One other risk of dealing with agencies that I forgot to mention is that many small operations claim to be much more than they are. Be very sure of what you are dealing with. A case in point is that individual in Zurich, Dominic de Neuville, who is featured so prominently in the lists describing poor payment practices and worse. The various web sites for his businesses claim many offices in Austria and Switzerland and talk of "expansion", and there is a mention of "international partner offices" in London, Paris, Milan, Madrid, Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow, Istanbul, Tokyo,
    Hong Kong, Beijing, New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Dubai. A former employee of his recently revealed to me what a crock all of this is for one guy with one real, physical office. Following that logic I could claim quite an impressive list of "partner offices" :-)

    By the same token there are translators who lie about their qualifications or who have great qualifications on paper but are still useless as translators.

    Due diligence - caveat emptor - is a duty which cannot be ignored without enormous risk in any important business transactions.

  6. "one cannot help but sense a certain promiscuity and hope that the customers of these lexical whorehouses use appropriate protection."

    Educate and entertain both at once. I like your style Kevin. Nice article. :)

  7. Dear Kevin,

    Instead of Sylvia, I write the comment to your blog article this time.

    In fact, we mostly work "with" agencies. We don't feel treated wrongly by those agencies who stay working with us in all these years. The most important is the "cooperation/collaboration," not the rates they pay. Quality awareness is a must at a translation agency and quality has a price. We don't dump prices for quality and stay working with those ones who know what results in quality and who work hence in due dilligence "with" us.

    From your blog articles, I know that you are of the same philosophy. And I believe the more translators are aware of quality, the more they can benefit from agencies. The more agencies are aware of quality, the more they can benefit from translators who are of the same awareness.

    Although it requires more effort to explain to end clients about translation processes, it worths when the end clients are willing to take their time for understanding what information needed by translators to achieve quality for their projects. However, the translators must be familiar with the respective vertical lines of the end clients. If they don't, they shall leave the job to agencies who know better of the clients' vertical lines. That is, if a translator does not know much of a certain field/subject matter, s/he shall not try to acquire end clients in that field.

    There are many would-like-be translators and many would-like-be agencies. They dream of acquiring end clients, but they are doomed to fail. Sylvia, I and my team members work on different subject matters and we do not act so much as an agency than a group of translators who help each other finding and working on right projects from right clients, either agency clients or direct clients. We are not of the opinion that a good translator can translate everything in all subject matters. But we are of the opinion that a social networking among translators can help enhancing translation quality as well as price. By this way, we can easily forget about those translation websites/plattforms/whorehouses who disturb market order, encourage exploitation and thus aggravates price dumping by attracting more and more would-like-bees - Instead of quality, they need only mass to make their money.

    Direct clients or agencies? It isn't a problem at all. The translator decides on his own. You have made the point very well.


  8. "Native speakers of Romanian or Russian to translate from German to English" - is that really so horrible? If their English is near-native and their German is very good, i don't see a problem. It is this kind of discrimination by 'native speakerism' that gives an unfair advantage to native speakers even when they are objectively less competent.

  9. Another point about agencies not mentioned here is competence with CAT tools. Certainly in Japan anyway, even agencies that claim to use CAT (ie, some of their translators own it) don't really have a clue about the issues involved. Agencies will make rash promises about the capabilities of memory, and yet have no systems in place for managing and leveraging it. Many freelancers on the other hand will be able to pass on real benefits to an end client. (I suspect European agencies may be more CAT savvy than their Japanese counterparts.)

    I love the agencies that I work with. If only they could liaise with each other to manage the workflow more evenly...

  10. You make an interesting point, Rod. My experience has been that the real value of translation memories often diminishes drastically in the hands of an agency, even one which makes a real effort to manage the data and possesses expertise in the technical systems. The sad fact is that even highly competent project managers who are generally familiar with a customer's material and do a good job of ensuring competent editing often lack the time or the linguistic judgment to do proper TM maintenance. This situation is made worse where the agency does not insist on the development and maintenance of customer terminologies.

    This leads to a situation of constant "drift" in the terminological compliance and linguistic quality of "multi-translator" TMs at agencies. Add to that the gradual and natural drift of language in some sectors, which requires rewriting of 100% matches in order to maintain "quality", a knowledgeable person really must call into question much of the current agency practices of selling the "benefits" of TM. Many of the good agencies are aware of this, of course, and account for it in their compensation of translators (i.e. do not always insist on those silly match discounts).

    It is very important to limit the number of translators contributing to a TM where possible. One of the most technically competent and conscientious agencies I work for has restricted work in the field of chemistry to two translators for years (me and another chemist with excellent linguistic skills). Recently, however, I noticed some real crap in the TM, which I could not imagine my excellent colleague producing even if she were drunk. When I inquired, my suspicion was confirmed: a third "translator" had recently been added to the team. If the agencies build enough "relationships" with the wrong translators, eventually they'll end up with (linguistic) herpes or worse... and pass it on to the end customers.

  11. Many thanks for this post, Kevin. Informative, insightful and entertaining.

  12. Thanks, Kevin! I love your posts in general (they always teach me something and make me laugh, good combo!) and this one in particular is excellent. My experience mirrors yours; although I think that my agency clients do a really good job at their work, I've landed some excellent new direct clients lately. They say that "we can't get reliable quality from an agency at any price," which I found interesting. Also I think you are *so* right that the people to blame for hair-curlingly low rates are not the agencies that offer those rates but the translators that accept them. Thanks for such a good post!

  13. >> the people to blame for hair-curlingly low rates
    >> are not the agencies that offer those rates but the
    >> translators that accept them.

    I'm inclined to pass the cup of blame around to both sides: the agencies lacking in the business skills needed to get better rates and prefer instead to cut their competitors' throats (and often their own) with prices as well as the translators who lack the understanding of what constitutes a proper rate for a particular situation. Face it - most "translators" these days should not be in business, and they aren't. (If you, Dear Reader, are one of these and want to evolve beyond linguistic monkeydom, read more here.)

    I had a fascinating conversation with an agency owner and entrepreneur recently who predicted the extinction of the traditional agency as we know it and the formation of dynamic teams, including the "right" PM for a particular project, in quality-reviewed networks. You see a little of this sort of thing in virtual companies and project teams in other fields, but I am not aware of such practices being widespread (yet) for language services. His was a compelling argument and an interesting concept, but I don't know how I would handle a complete changeover of our sector to the business model he described. It would be a very, very interesting challenge.

  14. You know something, Kevin? I was propagating a similar business model that your agency friend describes to my Chinese colleagues. The formation of dynamic teams, including the "right" PM for a particular project, in a quality-reviewed network - that is it!

    Actually, I am doing it all the time. That is why I introduce my good agency clients to my colleagues. And each time they land a contract, there is immediately a particular team created to tackle the job. The colleagues in the network team up to fix all the problems that may surface in a project. I am not necessarily being there as the PM or as a member of each team. This works so well that we know each other's idosyncracies in doing translation jobs, that dynamic teams are always build for specific jobs. For instance, there will be two projects for automobile industry in June and July and I have already two different teams for these two jobs. Another project for IT industry will be in by the end of September and I am looking for suitable colleagues to team up since March. It takes time to find out who is good for what, how the jobs in a project to be splitted, and who is going to take on what to ensure the quality, but it worths to work this way. The rates we are asking for the projects are always reasonable.

    Translators want no peanuts. Clients want no monkeys. Well, there is a solution for the situation.

  15. Kevin thank you very much for your insightful articles; I learned a lot from them. I am a German <> English translator and I have a frustrating experience with an company that never paid me a cent for translating 8000 words!
    Continue with the good work you are doing and I promise you that I will be reading all your articles. I will also try to recommend your website to my colleagues.
    Thank you very much

  16. It was useful to be aware of such fake activities. I think it's not the branches and worldwide presence that matter but the quality of translations. Instead of focusing on spreading such lies, they should concentrate on improving their services. For example, this might never be the case with many agencies though, such as Absolute Translations, Master TR Translation, Altis Agency and many many others.


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