There is the fear, common to all English-only speakers, that the chief purpose of foreign languages is to make fun of us.
It may seem like a naive (or naïve, as The New Yorker would put it) question. Translation agencies find clients who need to have stuff translated, match them with freelance translators who need to have their bills paid, and then charge the clients about twice what they pay the translators, which is how they make money.
That is certainly one valid definition. Although, that is probably not really how translation agencies would define themselves. For one thing, a typical translation agency does not like to be referred to as an agency. Nowadays they like to call themselves LSPs as in Language Service Providers, which is an absurd term as far as I am concerned because the service that they provide, and they do provide a useful service, is precisely the matching of the need to have something translated on the part of a client with the need to have bills paid on the part of a translator. The actual translation service is in fact provided by the translators, who paradoxically do not refer to themselves as LSPs, although they are in fact the ones providing the translation service.
Artists agencies who represent singers, actors or soccer players don’t see the need to pretend that they are the ones doing the singing, acting, or ball kicking. For some reason they don’t mind being called agencies. But in the translation business, “agency” is a dirty word. I noticed that even many translators stopped using the word “agency” on blogs and dutifully and obediently call agencies “LSPs”, see my post “What Is an LSP Other Than a Misnomer?”.
I don’t think it should be a dirty word, partly because I myself am both a translator and an agency and I don’t see anything dirty about either of these two occupations. I call translators who like me wear two hats and serve two important functions hermafrodites. (OK, that was a joke, I really call them hybrids, like cars that can run on two types of fuel).
It turns out that there are many translation agencies, usually very small ones, that are run by translators. Some of them mostly translate and once in a while function as an agency, which would be my case. Some of them are run by translators who don’t translate much themselves. I know people like that too.
So hybrids like me are both translators and translation agencies. One reason why I prefer being a translator to being an agency is that I don’t like to owe money to translators. If I can do the work myself, I will do it. But sometime I can’t do it myself, usually because I don’t know the language, or because I don’t have the time. Right now for example, although I did most of the translating this month myself, I owe quite a bit of money to one Chinese translator, one German translator, one French translator, and one Russian translator. And the chances are that I will have to pay them before I am paid by the client.
Being a translation agency is no bed of roses as I explain for example in this post.
So what is the main difference between a translator and an agency in a world that is filled with hybrids such as myself?
I think that the main difference is that just like hybrid cars, translator/translation agency hybrids can run on two kinds of fuel. We can make money from our own translations, but we can also make money from the work of other translators which we then sell to clients. And if we can do the work ourselves, we do have a certain “unfair” competitive advantage, of course.
The way I see it, the main difference between a “pure” translation agency, which is run by people who usually don’t know the foreign languages that they are selling, and “pure” translators, who only sell their own translations, usually to translation agencies, is that the translators can make money without the agencies if they can find their own clients, but a translation agency cannot make any money without translators, unless it is a translator/translation agency hybrid.
Fortunately for translation agencies, most translators will never figure out how to find their own clients, which is where the agencies comes in.
So in a way it is also true that many if not most translators would not be able to make any money without translation agencies because they prefer to wait for agencies to find work for them.
But I think that my definition of the difference between a “pure” translation agency and a “pure” translator is still valid. Translation agencies cannot make any money without people like me, but translators such as myself don’t need translation agencies to make money.
We hybrids may still do some work for translation agencies because work is work, even if the pay is lower. And sometime we become them, because money is money, whether we make this money from our own translations or from the work of other translators, especially if these agencies too are hybrids … which then kind of complicates the situation even more.