In Defense of Working with Translation Agencies

Working with Translation AgenciesAmidst all the chatter about rates, discounts, treatment of freelancers by agencies, etc., the commonly suggested solution seems to be to stop working for agencies and get direct clients.

I, for one, have absolutely no desire to work for direct clients and wish to speak in defense of the practice of working solely for agencies.

While working for direct clients may appear to be advantageous to us as freelancers, especially in terms of direct compensation, the disadvantages are seldom mentioned.

  • Inexperienced translators will find it difficult to provide the level of service required and market themselves well enough to obtain and retain direct clients.
  • Geography and language combinations may make it difficult to contact and negotiate with decision makers. Personally, I would need to woo German auditors, tax consultants and/or CFOs or corporate communications heads of SMEs in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. I find that extremely difficult to do from the USA.
  • There is a LOT of extra work and time involved in
  1. finding prospects
  2. selling yourself to those prospects
  3. client education when you win them over
  4. handholding before, during and after each project
  5. project management/outsourcing larger projects, DTP and layout work
  6. finding and keeping “substitutes” for you when you want some time off (and ensuring your helper doesn’t wind up taking your client away)

None of those activities (with the possible exception of project management duties) result in billable hours or pesos in your pocket. So while your gross per client/project may increase 1.5-fold or even 2-fold over agency pay, your net hourly pay could actually be lower depending on the time spent on these other non-billable activities.

Finally, some people, and I count myself among them, simply do not have the skills/aptitude, or may not have the desire to do all the marketing and “selling yourself” that is absolutely required to gain and hold direct clients.

And contrary to what many freelancers may think, or the impression newcomers may get reading blogs, LinkedIn or other social media “news” about our industry, there are plenty of translation agencies/companies that do pay fair rates (given market conditions), that do respect their vendors, that do pay as agreed, and that do return to those vendors/freelancers who not only deliver as promised, but also respect the agency for what they do.

Yes, the current wave of consolidation is seeing some of the “good guys” being taken over by some “not so great guys”. But even the mega-agencies have their “premium segments” and I have heard from numerous freelancers who are quite happy working for them under quite reasonable conditions. And there are still numerous SME-type agencies/companies out there that are run by “us”, as well as the “boutique” agencies that specialize in a niche market or a certain language pair/direction.

Working for direct clients is NOT the panacea for all of our freelancer woes. Yes, it may be the answer for some of us but it is not the only answer for all of us.

So until the market forces me to adopt a new strategy, I will happily continue to work for translation agencies and companies as my “direct” clients. I am more than happy to let them do all work required to get and retain clients, while I focus on delivering quality translations. And I am happy to let them take their fair share of the pie for that work. Such agencies are the norm, not the exception in my experience.

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Author bio

Ted R. WozniakTed R. Wozniak holds bachelor’s degrees in accounting and German and is a graduate of the German Basic Course at the Defense Language Institute. Before becoming a freelance translator, he was an accountant, stockbroker, Army liaison officer in Germany, and an interrogation instructor at the U.S. Army Intelligence School. After pursuing graduate studies in Germanics, he became a freelance German > English translator, specializing in finance, accounting and taxation. He is also the president of Payment Practices, Inc., an online database of translation-company payment practices, a former mentor at the Graham School, University of Chicago German to English financial translation program, a former instructor in the New York University German to English financial translation course, isthe current Treasurer of the American Translators Association, and owner/moderator of Finanztrans, a mailing list for German financial translators. He resides in New Orleans, LA.

19 thoughts on “In Defense of Working with Translation Agencies

  1. Well said! I would like to add that now that I have some experience as a freelance translator, I am able to translate faster, better and more efficiently, which has effectively driven up my rates a lot, at a faster rate than I believe hunting down direct clients or trying to force up my market rates would achieve. It’s not an infinite source of income growth, but I’m starting to understand it to be very important in the first few years of a translator’s career and often overlooked. I would also like to add that, as far as I know, in certain specialties such as medical translation, due to what the end client is looking for in terms of certification, regulations, etc., direct clients are often impractical for freelancers to get.

  2. Our project managers also spend a lot of time with file preparation, especially if the project is a website or mobile app with a lot of code / tags that need to be filtered out in order to provide only the “translatable” text to our translation team. If the client is using an unusual CMS or sending the project as multiple design files, this process can get pretty hairy.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the principles of this article. I’ve been a freelancer for 10 years and the majority of my revenue comes from agencies. I have no shame in discussing that fact openly.

    Working with agencies allows me to focus exclusively on translating, giving me the time and space I need to hone my craft and do what I love best.

    Some successful freelancers work exclusively with direct clients. I am able to work the hours I choose, translate tn texts I enjoy, and provide for my family working mainly with agencies.

    For me, the most important benefit of working for (good) agencies is that the person on the other end of the line understands exactly what your work entails and what your needs are. Direct client education is extremely time-consuming and eats into your bottom line.

    I have a healthy mixture of both, but my favourite clients are definitely the agencies I’ve been working with for several years.

    • Brenda, I’m with you. I work for agencies aplenty, and also with direct clients. Direct is best, hands down. If you don’t have the time, inclination or ability to negotiate or find client for yourself, learn! It’s well worth it. Often with a direct client you can get them to pay up front, not at the end of some ludicrous 90 day billing cycle. Grow a pair, translators, and do some of the ground work. You will be rewarded. End of rant…

      • I agree too! The “good agencies” are too few. Some colleagues have even hired a marketing specialist to help them build a good business plan, just like most businesses and professionals do. That is an acceptable alternative when you have no idea of how to sell yourself. 😉

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      • Sure. Thank you for checking our approach. What I meant is that a Text United freelance translator enjoys benefits from the two worlds in the following sense:
        1. A freelancer charges a direct client appropriate rate, which reflects his/her linguistic skills. There is no cut for an agency.
        2. A freelancer can focus fully on translation because jobs are prepared by a project manager employed in client’s company. In case a client does not have internal capacity for project management at a given time, Text United organizes their project for a fee, as a managed service. This is often the case with more complex projects.
        In any case a freelance translator wins, as he/she should, because he adds most value in any translation job. On the other hand, a client gets quality for the best price due to the transparency of the process.

  6. I totally agree. 2 extra reasons to defend agencies:
    – Some customers need to have their documents translated in many languages. Agencies do take care if this.
    – Some projects can be very complex (pre-processing, post-delivery corrections, online publishing, language independent or interlanguage quality checks …); when the project manager is on top of the job, it improves the life of every translator working on the project. Several of my customers are agencies; I can testify they did not lose touch with translators, even when they no longer have (many) in house translators.

  7. I agree with some aspects of this posts, of course, but we should also admit that if we are not willing to invest some time doing our own marketing, then we are not “freelancers” in the first place, either as translators or as anything else.
    There is an alternative some colleagues have chosen instead, which is hiring the services of a marketing specialist to help them create a good business plan, just like many other businesses and professionals do, and then they keep going with the work by themselves. The specialists only provides the starting point to run their own business.
    Yes, good agencies do the work of marketing, organizing the projects, dealing with the clients, covering for our days off… and it can be helpful for many of us. It is fair that they keep a SMALL percentage of the earnings for doing all this this logistics.
    That would be a GOOD agency. But let’s be realistic, there is a growing number of agencies that pay too little and too late, keeping the best part of the earnings for themselves and exploiting translators. And this happens only because there are too many colleagues who agree to work under these conditions.

  8. I have a couple of direct clients, but most are agencies and they are often the smaller ones, which offer more flexible collaboration and payment terms.
    The main issue is not really about working with agencies only r with direct customers only, both being customers. The main issue is if one focuses on
    a) vetting one’s customers constantly according to one’s own standards not their requirements and
    b) monitoring that one’s revenue becomes gradually less dependent on one single customer (in financial auditing we had the 5% rule), in order to ensure that one is really independent, not a de facto employee, Of course the latter depends if one really wanted to become an independent business person or not.
    Of course a lot also depends on the current status of the market, where it is going and what one estimates one’s own position is in that market and where one plans to go. Foresight ensures continuity.Learn the basics of marketing and you will know this.

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