Posted by: Steve Vitek | November 29, 2011

The Pros and Cons of Being a Translator/Translation Agency Hybrid

As I will need to buy a new car soon, I was weighing the other day the pros and cons of hybrid cars. I will probably just get a smaller car that has a very good mileage in a year or so. The main problem with hybrid cars is that they are still very expensive and as a freelance translator, I am already doing my share to minimize my carbon footprint since “commuting to work” in my case means that I stagger bleary-eyed in my pajamas with a cup of coffee from the kitchen to my office, which is just upstairs. The only damage to environment that occurs during my daily commute is when I spill coffee on the carpet. It happens quite often, but this kind of spillage is easy to clean and there is no need for dispersant, buying of politicians and bullying of reporters working for our “watchdog media”. All you have to do is boil water in a pot, pour it on the stain and absorb the coffee in a piece of tissue.

In any case, hybrid cars still use solid fuel, you just don’t see the smoke from the chimney – that burnt the coal – that produced the electricity – that was stored in the battery – that you are using when you drive your car. Not to mention the carbon footprint impact from the amount of energy that must be spent first during the coal mining and then during the transport of the coal.

Which got me thinking about the pros and cons of my hybrid existence as a translator/translation agency. Like many translators, I have been a translator/agency hybrid for more than two decades. But most of my income has always been derived from my translations. This year, however, between 20 to 30% of my income will be probably from translations of other translators.

This increase is mostly due to the fact that I started saying yes to clients who are asking me to translate patents from languages that I don’t know. This year I was handling quite a few translations from Korean and Chinese and some from Spanish, in addition to Japanese, German, French and other languages that I usually translate myself.

What are the disadvantages of functioning as a translation agency? The main disadvantage is that as an agency, I am assuming a financial obligation to the translator that must be met, and it must be met on time. I usually have to pay the translator before I get paid because unlike some of my clients, I always pay within 30 days. I also know that I would have to pay the translator even if I did not get paid at all, which is why I sometime say no to projects that I consider high risk – for example translations of long patents into several languages for new clients that I know absolutely nothing about.

Otherwise I see mostly advantages in the hybrid arrangement. A translator who is also an agency learns what people who only translate may never learn.

You really have to be organized when you are a hybrid. It is easy to forget about a deadline when you are working on your own translations while other people are working on two or three projects for you. I think that the fact that I have to proofread very carefully translations of other translators before I deliver them to clients also makes me a better translator.

Even if the translation is in a language that I don’t know, for example Chinese, Spanish, or Dutch, I can most of the time find the word that I am looking for in the original language because I translate similar languages, namely Japanese, French, and German. Although Japanese is not really related to Chinese at all, I can usually identify the meaning of the Chinese characters in technical terms that do not seem to make sense in English. And since I have been translating patents for almost 25 years, I can probably spot a potential problem in a translation better than your typical clueless translation agency proofreader.

It is interesting how different things are all of a sudden when the tables are turned and the translator is now the agency. I try not to bother translators with stupid questions and fix everything that I consider a problem by myself. Although just about every translation has a few minor problems, most of the time there will be only typos, wrong numbers and omissions in a good translation. If I have to fix more than that, it means that I picked the wrong translator for the job. I also believe that it is important to respect the choices that the translator has made and change as little in the translation as possible. I believe that changes should be made in a translation only if they are absolutely unavoidable, as I write for instance here.

I can also see, for example, that the result of “rush translations” is usually a much greater number of typos and omissions, even in the work of translators who usually deliver excellent work without a single typo or omission.

I know that there are many translator/translation agency hybrids out there because I sometime work for them as a translator. For example, I work for several German translators who send me Japanese patents, I used to work for one Spanish translator, etc.

Some of these hybrids eventually become mostly agencies, some mostly function as translators. I much prefer to work for a tiny agency that is run by a former translator than for a typical translation agency that makes you jump through one hoop after another, including things like: long and sometime demeaning agreements in which you are asked to pay “reasonable attorney’s fees”, and you agree that you may not contact the client (who is unknown to you) on your own. I don’t steal other people’s clients, but agencies don’t own their clients. Their clients are free to dump them at any time, for example if they find a translator’s website.

There seems to be more and more hoops that translators are asked to jump through these days: some agencies for example require that translations and invoices be sent in their software format through their website, some require the use of Trados or other computer memory tools, etc.

Generally, the larger the agency, the more difficult it is to work with, the lower the rate, and the longer the payment terms. Translator/translation agency hybrids are usually much easier on your nerves, and they usually pay better rates and faster.

Personally, I think that it would be a better world for translators and their clients if more translators were hybrids like me.

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Responses

  1. Ditto.

    I freelance and outsource and find it a nice blend of responsibilities. I would say that it gives me a little more perspective on why some agencies literally cannot pay my large invoice immediately, and I’m less inclined to get furious about a few days’ lateness as some. I also get the chance to develop a deeper working relationship with those I do work with, and subsequently develop more efficient ongoing work processes.

    I suppose striving to have clients pay upfront would be ideal, but that is of course not always practical.

    A side-project I’ve been working on levels the playing field somewhat for linguists and agencies, with buyers given the data to make a decision that’s right for them; from a single freelancer with specific expertise to an agency with XXL-project capabilities and myriad QA processes. Plug: over at http://www.linguaquote.com – and freelancers can also use it as a directory to find vetted linguists themselves.

    Thanks for the post. It’s always nice to hear from someone in the same situation.

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  2. [...] freelancing now I would not . . . Wanted: A Fair and Simple Compensation Scheme for MT Post-Editing The Pros and Cons of Being a Translator/Translation Agency Hybrid I am a freelance translator: To blog or not to blog? If Yes, then how? Resistance may be futile: [...]

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  3. [...] Being a translation agency is no bed of roses as I explain for example in this post. [...]

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  4. [...] As I will need to buy a new car soon, I was weighing the other day the pros and cons of hybrid cars. I will probably just get a smaller car that has a very good mileage in a year or so. The main pr…  [...]

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