I have read quite a few blog posts written by freelance translators and by people working for translation agencies about whether a customer is better off hiring freelance translators directly, or hiring translation agencies, who prefer to call themselves “LSPs” (Language Service Providers) these days.
The conclusion on most of these blogs seems to be that translation agencies can indeed provide services that individual translators are unable to provide, such as coordination of large projects necessitating great multitudes of translators working into multiple languages.
But I believe that the question in the title of the post is a little simplistic and quite a bit misleading.
It so happens that the world of language service providers, which would have to include both translators and translation agencies, is not neatly divided into translators and translation agencies.
Large corporations who need to commission enormous amounts of translations every year usually have their own in-house translation department which functions as a translation agency. These departments then seek out individual translators in the same manner as traditional translation agencies do, and the rates they pay to translators are usually only on the high side of what translation agencies would pay.
I used to translate chemical patents from Japanese for one such department of a multinational manufacturer for several years, until they replaced me with a cheaper resource, which is something that multinational corporations have been doing for at least the last 20 years pretty much on autopilot.
And there are also legions of individual translators who in addition to translating themselves also function as translation agencies, including this mad patent translator. For example, I translated a little over three thousand words of a Japanese patent today, and after that I proofread two short translations done for me by other translators which I then sent to the client as a translation agency.
I will say it again: the world of translation providers is not divided between translation agencies who are quasi omnipotent, and hapless freelance translators who cannot possibly provide the whole range of services that conventional translation agencies provide.
The way I see it, the world of translation providers is divided between people who don’t really know what they are doing, and people who know what they are doing. If you think about it, it works like this in every profession. I don’t bring my car to the biggest car shop I can find because I believe that this car shop can do everything for me by virtue of being big.
I bring it to a small local outfit called Great Bridge Muffler because I like the guy and I think that he knows what he’s doing. This is what most people do with their cars because it makes sense.
I don’t think that it makes a whole lot of sense to send a translation to an agency because it is big and thus it must be good.
The opposite is often true for a simple reason: the guy who owns Great Bridge Muffler does a good job, most of the time, because he specializes in certain car brands and a certain type of work.
Translation agencies who translate “any subject from and into any language” by definition don’t specialize in anything, or if you will specialize in everything, which is why they will often do a terrible job. If a large corporation needs a lot of translations year after year, it needs to create a translation department within the company that will match best translators or translation agencies specializing in the type of translation that the company needs with the available work.
The main value that translation agencies, large, small and very small add to a translation is not in what thousands of agencies advertise on their websites as “three or four levels of control”. This is basically just simplistic propaganda written by marketing specialists that only people who don’t know much about translation are likely to believe.
The main value that translation agencies provide is matching the right translator with the right job, and I think that for that they fully deserve the hefty commission that they charge.
But how can a translation agency that translates every subject from and into every language possibly do that? The coordinators who work for these agencies most of the time don’t even know the languages and subjects that they handle. I am sure they work hard, but I would not expect much from them, as most of them are young, inexperienced and underpaid young people. The burnout rate among project coordinators at most translation agencies is very high and once they have left the agency, they often share there frustrating experience with translators on the Internet.
If I were a company or an individual who needs to spend a lot of money on translations, I would use Google and try to find a translator or a translation agency that specializes in the kind of translation that I need. And obviously, I would take a good look both at the experience and at the rates this translator or translation agency is charging.
Personally, I would prefer to work with a freelance translator or with a small agency that has a lot of experience in my field, because I believe that the real question is “are you somebody who specializes in what it is that I need”, not “are you an agency or a translator?”
The Sun is not revolving around the Earth, although people believed it for a long time because they thought that the Bible said so. When Copernicus and Galileo disagreed, the Inquisition did not like it much, but even the Inquisition could not stop the new concept from taking hold because it was obviously true.
And contrary to mendacious advertising propaganda, the new religion for our times, quality of service is not directly related to the size of the entity that is providing the service. Quality of service is usually directly related to the experience that said entity has in a given field, and it so happens that large entities often provide the worst service at the highest cost because they are driven mostly by the bottom line, or in other words by greed.