Posted by: patenttranslator | February 17, 2011

Agencies are People Too (But Only Some of Them)

When I was doing my taxes last week, I saw that 15% of my income still came from translation agencies, while the rest was from direct clients, mostly patent law firms. Because I can charge only about half of what I can charge to direct clients when I work for agencies, this means that about 30% of the time I was working for agencies last year, which has been the case for quite a few years now.

Although I said in one of my blogs (don’t you love it when you can quote yourself?) the following:

” I think it’s OK to work for agencies if they are fair and pay decent rates, and some are like that, although not too many. But it’s not OK to depend on them for most of your income. For one thing, you won’t make any money. There won’t be really that much left after the agencies get their cut and after you pay your taxes. But even more importantly, you are not the master of your destiny if your income depends on a middleman. If you have your own business, you should be working for yourself, not for a broker. If you need a broker to sell what you know, you are not really a business owner …. you are just a temp!”

I think that I should qualify my statement by also saying something in defense of agencies of a certain kind.

I think that I should continue working for translation agencies, even though the pay is lower, for several reasons. First of all, they mostly send me other things than patents and I need some variety in my work. Otherwise I could become what one could call a “tokkyo baka” (特許馬鹿, patent idiot, a translator who can translate only patents). Some of them go way back, to 1987 when I was starting out, and they still send me work sometime to this day. Isn’t it amazing? How can I say no to them? They usually send very small jobs, such as personal documents, medication package inserts, or magazine articles, but once in a while it is a substantial translation.

I basically only work for small agencies. I think that small agencies belong to the kind of mom and pop businesses that made America the great country that it was not so long ago, until big, greedy corporations and Wall Street turned it into what it is now. Small agencies usually don’t ask translators to sign confidentiality agreements containing pages and pages of legalese in which they ask for just about everything a severely underemployed lawyer can think of, including paying the lawyer’s fee should somebody decide to sue you, and your firstborn as well. They don’t make you jump through the hoops of their idiotic accounting software if you want to send them an invoice. They usually pay on time because they know that otherwise they will have to find another translator. Once you get used to them and they get used to you, both sides know what to expect and it can stay like this for decades. With a large agency, every few months there will be a new clueless kid there asking you more stupid questions because the previous kid quit already in disgust over the low pay and poor working conditions. It makes no sense to invest your precious time and energy in a relationship with a project manager who will last only a few months.

I know a few translators who told me that they never had to work for agencies. But actually, all of those that I can think of are in fact also agencies – for instance I know a couple of German patent translators who work only for law firms and send Japanese patents to me. It turns out that there is no clear dividing line between a translator and an agency. I am an agency too sometime, although I prefer to work as a translator. But when I get a patent in a language that I don’t know, or too many patents in a language I do know with a short deadline, I too am an agency.

When I read angry posts on discussion groups of translators who hate this agency or that agency, all I can think of is … so why do you keep working for them if they are so greedy, mean and nasty? Just say no next time. You are not married to them. It’s a pretty big world. Find yourself a size that fits.

Agencies are people too, although usually only the really, really small ones.

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