About five or six years ago, I worked with several other translators for a small translation agency run by an elderly couple. As I recall, the husband spoke only English, but he had a PhD in chemistry, and the wife was handling accounting. Both were really nice people, I enjoyed talking to them on the phone and they always paid on time. At one point I was working with other translators on a long project for them for over a year, mostly reports and tests describing quality control protocols and pharmaceutical procedures in Japan prior to introducing a new drug to the market. A lot of chemistry and pharmaceuticals, plus a few medical terms such as names of diseases, not really very complicated material for translators who are used to this. They paid two kinds of rates: a regular rate, which was in fact the rate that I was charging agencies at that time, and a rush rate for rush projects, usually involving weekends, which was my regular rate + 50%. Now, I have been working for translation agencies for almost a quarter century, but this was the only one that in fact paid time and a half for rush work, which I think is what the law in US says that employees should be paid for overtime work.
A couple of years ago the nice couple sold their small agency to another, much larger agency. They sent their old translators a letter explaining what happened. I was wondering whether or when the new agency would contact me.
They did eventually contact me about a small rush translation, several hundred words to be delivered on the same day, although the e-mail did not say anything about a rush surcharge. Although I responded within an hour from the time of the e-mail that I would be able to translate it within the short deadline, the coordinator who was handling the job e-mailed me back that somebody already got the job because he had responded first. “The jobs are assigned to first responders”, she said. After I e-mailed her to let her know that I was not interested in working for her company anymore as it was not really my ambition in life to be a “first responder” (isn’t that what firefighters are supposed to be?), the new owner of the agency called me, apologized for the misguided actions of the coordinator (she had one of those names that were popular in the eighties, she was probably very young), and pleaded with me to reconsider. But I basically told him to go to hell and that was that. It made me feel pretty good about myself. The translation business has its moments when you are a freelancer.
I think that the logical result of the business model of large translation agencies is … poor translation quality. A small operation, such as the elderly couple mentioned above, is much more likely to be able to identify and keep a pool of qualified translators than a lazy coordinator who unwittingly got rid of this (highly experienced, if I say so myself) translator with a couple of e-mails. Based on my experience, very few coordinators who work for translation agencies really understand the translation business. Maybe they know Excel or Trados or some other software, but few of them know what they need to know. It is kind of hard to blame them for not knowing all the languages that they are dealing with, although there is no question that they are groping in the dark 24/7 if they don’t know these languages. But they don’t even seem to have what is really essential for their work: namely, good manners and the je ne sais quoi that you need to have to keep people who work for you happy. After all, translators are people too. If you are nice to them, they will be nice to you. If you treat them like easily replaceable cogs in the ingenious machinery designed by a godlike agency, the smarter ones will stop working for you.
Because I mostly work for patent law firms directly now, I am not dependent on agencies anymore. If a major law firm or corporation wants to treat me like a piece of garbage …., ah, I will probably have to let it slide because I can get much better rates for my work from law firms and corporations than from agencies, although I can get back at them too, for instance by increasing my rates if they let me wait too long to get paid.
But I am not going to take abuse from some dumb girl named Brittany or Kimberley who has absolutely no manners – at least not this kind of abuse – for translation agency rates.
Although I must say, I would have taken just about any kind of abuse from somebody like Brigitte Bardot when she was still young and pretty, preferably, but not necessarily “sur la plage ensoleillée“, but that is another story.