Posted by: patenttranslator | February 22, 2012

What Is The Main Difference Between Translators and Translation Agencies?

There is the fear, common to all English-only speakers, that the chief purpose of foreign languages is to make fun of us.

Barbara Ehrenreich

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.


  1. Apparently, there is a limited number of situations where agencies do provide value-added services for their clients. A multi-language project which needs some serious coordinating efforts would probably justify working with an agency rather than with various independent translators. This added value would also account for charging the clients more than what an agency pays their own providers, suppliers, subcontractors, whatever… Think of other industries where project management is an integral part of services provided to the client. I also assume that many corporations would prefer to deal with “organizations” which they consider their peers rather than some “individuals”. To be considered “eligible” for a major corporate client, even if you’d never be a “peer” organization-wise, a translator should stop dealing in commodities, i.e. translation services which can be provided by any other translator, agency or Google Translate for that matter. Perhaps it is worthwhile making a point that “language services” provided by an agency are, you are perfectly right, provided really by individual translators, namely those which are, for some reason, incapable to provide them directly. This is certainly a sign of weakness which may also be indication for the quality of the translation provided. Thus, if the price is not an argument (and I don’t think really good, highly specialized individual translators should charge less than an agency), it is worthwhile making a point about quality, even if tranlsation quality is something I’d rather not delve into for the time being, it is such a complex matter…


  2. Yes, agencies are useful, of course, otherwise the market would get rid of them.

    But so are specialized translation services offered by individual translators.

    Most of my clients are patent law firms, big and small, who prefer to deal with me on an individual level not necessarily because they can save money as my rates are similar to what agencies are charging, but mostly because I understand patent translation, i.e. I understand what it is that they want from me.

    There are only a few translation agencies that in fact understand this field, although all generic translation agencies offer this service.

    Some corporations may prefer to work with a large agency, but I believe that many would prefer to work with individual translators.

    The problem is that most individual translators are invisible to such potential clients, they are visible only to translation agencies (on Proz, the ATA database, etc.).


  3. Right, I was on the verge of adding that quality should be defined from the point of view of the client, i.e. Google Translate is quality enough for a client if she only wants to get an idea what the text is about (actually, she doesn’t really need a translation at this point, most of the time, nobody needs a translation, from the point of view of a typical client a translation is a means, not an end). So saying that “I understand what it is that they want from me” is exactly how the client defines the quality of dealing with you rather than some generic translation agency (apropos, generic was the word I was looking for when writing “commodity”). Well, another great post, keep it up!


  4. Good post, nicely written. I love to read the latest info on chinese translation industry as I have been doing the research in the same since long. I just came across your blog and found it very interesting. I have subscribed to your blog and hope you will be posting nice stuff like this over the coming days.


  5. I think that you don’t give a damn about my blog, Chinese Translators, you just want to advertise your company, but I will let your comment stand since you went to all this trouble of looking for blogs relevant to you business and leaving plausibly sounding comments.

    Also, you don’t seem to be the same guy who stole my website design as I write in this post:


  6. […] What Is The Main Difference Between Translators and Translation Agencies? ( […]


  7. […] to the translator Who’s Afraid of Google Translate and Other Machine Translation Programs? What Is The Main Difference Between Translators and Translation Agencies? Common Sense Advice about Machine Translation and Content Lesson 25: What is wrong with translators […]


  8. Thanks for this well written blog about the difference between a translator and a translation agency. Isn’t it true that a well-managed translation agency also provide added services like project management, coordinating between translator and editor/proofreaders. I am sure a lot of professional translators are themselves editors/proofreaders but 2 pairs of eyes are certainly better than 1 :-).


  9. Well managed, specialized translation agencies can add some value to translations.

    But their main value from my viewpoint is that they find a customer for my services. They can’t competently proofread my translations because they don’t know Japanese, nor do they understand the technical subjects that I am translating.

    All they can do is find typos when they proofread what I wrote. They are likely to cause a lot of damage if they try to “improve” my translations.


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