Posted by: patenttranslator | October 8, 2013

Five Essential Characteristics of a Good Translation Agency

 

If you run a search with the keywords Awhat are the characteristics of a good translation agency?@, you will be assaulted by a dozen articles written by translation agencies emphasizing characteristics such as Awe are using only native translators@ (as opposed to translators who don=t really know the source and target language?), Awe are using the latest technology@ (by which they mean translation memory tools such as Trados, something that I would not touch with a ten foot pole), “we have implemented strict and highly effective quality controls” (including mendacious claims of several layers of Acheckers@, usually from 3 to 7), Awe are ISO-certified” (which makes absolutely no sense to anybody who actually knows something about translation), and other bogus claims.

All of these articles are transparent, self-serving puff pieces designed to attract to an agency=s website clients who are looking for a reliable translation service. These characteristics, emphasized with enthusiasm in these puff pieces masquerading as objective analyses, in fact have no bearing on the quality of translations produced by these translation agencies.

I think that the main characteristic ultimately determining the quality of translation is how an agency is treating translators who are in fact the persons responsible for excellent, good, or terrible quality of the translations that they produce.

So what are the characteristics of a good translation agency? And is there even such a thing as a good translation agency, or is that merely an oxymoron these days?

I think that good translation agencies still exist, although from what I read on discussions of translators online, they must be few in number.

For example, here is today=s LinkedIn reading menu of active discussions:

1.         Nasty rates offered by T.M. Solutions

2.         Unacceptable Rates Naming and Shaming Group

3.         Black List of Agencies to share

4.         A.B.H.: are their rates always this low?

5.         TRANSLATOR SCAMMERS DIRECTORY

6.         An Exposed Cheater

7.         Non-payment for services rendered

The menu is very similar on LinkedIn and other discussion groups of translators just about every day because about 90% of agencies offer nasty rates, many rightfully belong on a black list of agencies to avoid, and some commit outright fraud.

But that still leaves about 10% of agencies which are run by generally honest people who understand that the best and the only way to ensure that the best translators will continue working for them is to treat their translators well.

So here is my list of essential characteristics of a good translation agency from this translator’s viewpoint:

1. Translators Are Not Asked to Sign Demeaning “NDAs”

Legitimate “Non-Disclosure Agreements”, designed to protect confidentiality of documents, have been in the last few years turned by many translation agencies into what I called Declaration of Acceptance of Servitude in this post.

It is better to stay away from an agency that wants to force translators to sign something like this.

2. Very Good Rates Are Paid to Translators

Most translation agencies are always on the lookout for translators who charge lower rates, who can be often found among the young and the inexperienced, as well as in countries where the cost of living is low, unlike for instance in Western Europe, Japan, or United States.

Low rates paid to translators obviously translate into higher profit margins for the broker. However, they are  generally accompanied by exceedingly poor quality of the translations.

In contrast to that, a good translation agency is on the lookout for translators who charge rates at or near the top rates being paid to translators by agencies, because the agency knows that the fact that a translator is not exactly cheap is the best indication that the quality of the translation is likely to be commensurate with the remuneration.

3. Translators Are Paid Very Quickly

I myself work for several such agencies. They come in all shapes and sizes, although fast payment is typically a characteristic of small operations. But one fairly large translation agency pays me twice a week by a transfer to my bank account just like its employees. Another agency that pays very quickly is a one-man operation. The guy has been mailing me a check within a day or two from the delivery of my translation with my invoice for about 20 years now.

4. Translators Are Not Asked Stupid Questions About Their Translations

I have no patience with proofreaders who ask me stupid questions, such as “what is the correct spelling of the name in English, “Navrátil”, “Navrátila”, or “Navrátilovi”, when all of these spellings of the same person’s name are in the original document? I know what spelling to use in English and it is not my job to train an ignorant proofreader or project manager.

If he does not know anything about languages, he should look for a job in a field in which knowledge of foreign languages is not necessary, such as parking lot attendant, bridge toll collector, or dog catcher.

Similarly, if your proofreader wants to use the words “circular stamp” instead of “round stamp” (or vice versa), that’s fine with me, just don’t bother me with your dumb questions. And if your proofreader thinks that he is a better translator than this highly experienced, yet quite modest, almost self-effacing mad patent translator, well, why didn’t you ask the genius to translate the damn thing in the first place?

5. Translators Are Not Lied To

When you tell me, “We have not paid you because we have not received your invoice on time, but the payment will go out next month”, you think I don’t know that you are lying because you are broke?

Another frequent lie is “We can only pay you 15 cents per word on this project, but we can pay this much only for you. Everybody else is paid less”.

This happened to me last year with an agency that used to be one of my favorite agencies for about 7 years. So I called my friend Rich, a translator who I knew also worked for the agency because I gave them his name. “Yeah, they told me the same thing”, said Rich with a chuckle.

I am no longer working for this agency, and neither is my friend Rich, because we both know that once they start lying to you, everything goes down the hill very quickly. The relationship between an agent and a freelancer is built on trust. It is not unlike the relationship between a husband and a wife. Once one side starts lying, the trust is gone, usually for good.

*********

Although most of my income is derived from my own translations, I am also a translation agency. I try to practice what I preach – I don’t ask translators who work for me to sign one-sided, demeaning agreements, I pay them as quickly as I can, and I don’t lie to them.

I am not really doing that out of the goodness of my heart.

Whether I am a nice or nasty person has nothing to do with it.

I just want to make sure that once I find a good translator, he or she will always try to find the time to fit in a project from me if at all possible.

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Responses

  1. We must have been lucky! During the five years that my partner and I have been translating together for a wide variety of agencies, the large majority of which are based in the Czech Republican I can count the total number of times that we’ve been messed around by any of them on the fingers of both hands. My personal work for direct clients which dates back to the early 1970’s has been entirely free of any misbehaviour on their part -and on mine :).

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  2. You must have been lucky!

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  3. Hi. Great article and I totally agree, particularly about the recent increase in demands for the signing of lengthy NDAs. The smaller the job, it seems, the longer the NDA and various other documents to be signed. I rarely bother with these anymore. Also the terms of payment seem to be creeping up as well. I’ve come up against quite a few that impose 12 week payment terms. Again, best to ignore.

    Like

  4. Most of what one can find on the internet today in response to a “what is the best of anything” search is a SEO-oriented rubbish absent any real value, and written by those whose interests it serves. Another example is the “How to work with an agency/PM” or “Best practices when working with an agency” pieces and propaganda that are being spread around and explain to interested readers/listeners how to become a more obedient (=i.e. lucrative for the purpose of their brainwash) serfs. The internet has became broken this way a while back.
    Most agencies nowadays are not even agencies. They are merely brokers/resellers of translation services and not professional practices. These businesses work to profit from the increased demand for translation (and the increase in the lower segments for “cheap” translation) and the end justify the means, or so it often seems. The marketplace as a whole suffer form other inefficiencies that don’t help.

    Professionals should look for (or establish) professional practices and not for agencies/LSPs/whatever-they-will-come-up-with-next-to-replace-the-previous-title-whose-reputation-has-been-tarnished-by-their-actions.

    The lying and manipulation that some agencies use is ridiculous and a clear evidence of their true “value” (such as those who fake interest and sometimes even suck up to one, just to turn completely around when one says No! or otherwise “dares” to interfere with their intended plan).

    Like

  5. […] Awe are using the latest technology@ (by which they mean translation memory tools such as Trados, something that I would not touch with a ten foot pole), “we have implemented strict and highly effective quality controls …  […]

    Like

  6. A must-read for every translator! Should be retweeted again and again… 🙂

    Like

  7. Your positive experience emphasizes everything that is wrong with so many translation agencies today.Thanks a lot for this insight, every new or struggling translator should know about this; and these practises should be rules in the industry.

    Like

  8. @TE

    Thank you.

    I read your post on your new blog, tweeted it and added you to my blog roll.

    Good Luck!

    Like

  9. I am yet to understand why signing “NDAs” is demeaning or asking translators questions about their work is improper or somehow wrong. The article has a few commonsense points, but overall gives off fumes of disappointment.

    Like

    • Let me take a wild guess – you have or work for a translation agency.

      Like

  10. One of the most important characteristics of a good translation agency is:
    Good agency never advertise for new translators (all is done by referrals and word of mouth)
    Therefore we most probably never heard of its existence )-:

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  11. @Radovan

    Either that, or it doesn’t exist.

    Like

  12. […] I think that the main characteristic ultimately determining the quality of translation is how an agency is treating translators who are in fact the persons responsible for excellent, good, or terrible quality of the translations that they produce.So what are the characteristics of a good translation agency? And is there even such a thing as a good translation agency, or is that merely an oxymoron these days?  […]

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  13. Hi, first off I need to be upfront and openly say I work for a translation agency, I have done so for about 4 years (not in a translation role). I accept my views are probably quiet naive and stress they don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer.

    I feel I have to address the idea that LSPs are just brokers reducing the profits of translators. While I cant speak for every agency, this isn’t the case.

    We need to cover our costs therefore we have to negotiate rates and remain competitive with other LSPs in terms of pitching for work. This is key as the majority of clients often put price above anything else so we need to strike a balance between losing business and upping our translator’s rates.

    We are more than just brokers and suppliers must take into account that we don’t just sit in the middle blindly passing documents between clients and translator.

    Project managers are employed to manage teams of translators, often working in different languages. If an agency was not involved, the burden of responsibility would fall on the client themselves to manage those translators, proof readers, designers and developers. If this client does not have an ongoing requirement for translation then it will likely result in someone in the company without any language industry experienced filling the role. I can assure you that you will receive a lot more of those ’dumb questions’ you refer to in that situation.

    ‘If he does not know anything about languages, he should look for a job in a field in which knowledge of foreign languages is not necessary, such as parking lot attendant, bridge toll collector, or dog catcher’

    This is offensive and ill considered. For one thing the project manager may be working with many languages and it is unreasonable to expect they will have a good knowledge of all of them. Similarly, they may have focused skills outside foreign languages that benefit the running of the project, such as people management, negotiation, customer service & organisation/time management. I myself was a DTP project manager that meant I was required to typeset and design many of the projects I was working with, I have little knowledge of foreign languages but I have 12 years’ experience working with clients in the creative industry.

    We actively market our services. If agencies didn’t exist translators would need to do all their own PR and promotion work to ensure they were visible to potential clients. Of course some people do this already, but 9 times out of 10 if you were to compare a translators’ commercial visibility with that of an agency, the agency will win hands down (rightly or wrongly).

    We are able to provide additional services, like design and web development. Having worked with hundreds of exceptionally skilled linguists I can assure you that very few of them had a good command of typesetting and fewer still knowledge of coding. Again by shifting this responsibility to the client, they need to hire designers/programmers with specific knowledge of foreign languages.

    While you may not be a fan of translation tools they are becoming intrinsic to the industry. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another matter. What they do is allow us to be more efficient on the whole. We don’t require translators to use them but it helps us and it helps our clients, we offer our translators who use them more work simply for this reason. Clients who require a lot of translation are starting to deploy TRADOS and memoQ internally so chances are some translators will be pushed towards them in future.

    I strongly agree that translators are the key asset, without which obviously the industry cannot function. Yes the rates should reflect the skill of the individuals involved but its not uncommon for the demands of translators to outstrip the budget available. In my experience if the rates you are offered are lower than you expect it’s not because the agency staff are getting fat on the proceeds of your work but because that’s what they can afford.

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    • As a professional translator I’ve always been quite shocked by this argument you bring forward as a classic selling point Jonathan, which is: “Yes the rates should reflect the skill of the individuals involved but its not uncommon for the demands of translators to outstrip the budget available. In my experience if the rates you are offered are lower than you expect it’s not because the agency staff are getting fat on the proceeds of your work but because that’s what they can afford.”
      The truth is agencies are in competition to win tenders and often propose unsustainable rates in their rush to win a contract, resulting in a tiny budget without yet having a translator for it. Then they try to find someone desperate enough to accept this donkey work. And sometimes, cannot find anyone. SO they hire a student or someone who’s very hungry. And try and pass it for professional work. (Of course they don’t want their client to know that)
      So if you negociate a low budget, it’s your problem (or rather your “fault”). Don’t use this as an excuse to pay someone a demeaning, insufficient rate. If the demand of the translators outstrip the budget available, thats because the agency negociated badly. The translator should not pay the price of your miscalculations. They are service providers who charge what their service is worth and that’s it really. So I’m curious to know, Jonathan, have you ever ended up with a project you could not find a translator for? What did you do then?

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      • “The truth is agencies are in competition to win tenders and often propose unsustainable rates in their rush to win a contract, resulting in a tiny budget without yet having a translator for it”

        Yes to a degree, this does happen. Although no agency will be able to sustain this practice as once they get a reputation for poor quality, business will dry up and no one will want to work for them after a short while.

        We are actively trying to address this pricing issue at our agency, we don’t want to compete for lowest cost, we want to demonstrate the value in having the best translation.

        “Don’t use this as an excuse to pay someone a demeaning, insufficient rate. If the demand of the translators outstrip the budget available, that’s because the agency negotiated badly”

        Again I cant speak for every agency but from my own personal experience our rates were not demeaning in any way. Of course we negotiate as any business does, but never with the intent to run anyone into the ground. I worked regularly with many experienced professional translators who I hope would agree that my dealings with them were upfront fair and honest. It’s also very much dependant on your own personal view as to what actually constitutes a fair rate, most of those I worked with were on rates equating to that of the average UK wage.

        Some clients set budgets for translation with no room for movement, this can be set in contracts that span long terms so don’t always reflect changes in translation costs.

        I appreciate some translators may rely on specific agencies for work so feel they cannot negotiate. Most of the translators I worked with freelanced for a number companies and were not afraid to politely decline an offer of work. That’s fair enough I never forced anyone to work for less than they were prepared to accept. All our translators set their own rates or negotiated a contracted rate in return for more regular work.

        ‘So I’m curious to know, Jonathan, have you ever ended up with a project you could not find a translator for? What did you do then?’

        Yes I have. But very rarely because of budget, usually because it was a minority language combination or an incredibly tight deadline. In these situations I have negotiated prices and schedules with clients to ensure the project is still delivered.

        I think its in everyone’s interests to address the anonymity between translators and agencies, the relationship is beneficially symbiotic. Bad examples exist on both sides that negatively impact on this, and shouldn’t represent either sector as a whole.

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    • @Jonathan

      “This is offensive and ill considered. For one thing the project manager may be working with many languages and it is unreasonable to expect they will have a good knowledge of all of them.”

      Would it be also offensive and ill considered to say that every car salesman should at least have a driver’s license, and that every soldier should at least know how to fire a gun?

      A monolingual translation agency project manager whose job is to “handle” projects in foreign languages is like a pet store employee who is allergic to cats and dogs.

      None of the people mentioned above are likely to do a good job, which is why I think that they are in the wrong profession.

      Like

      • I accept your point of view, but equally you don’t necessarily expect a Nascar team manager to be able to race the cars.

        Yes it helps to have first hand experience of the industry but it is just one component of the whole and just because it may be absent does not necessarily mean they will not be good or successful at their job.

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      • Just like car salesmen, race car managers should have a driver’s license and know something about cars, and people who handle project in foreign languages should know something about foreign languages.

        If they don’t, they may unwittingly do a lot of damage without even noticing.

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      • I think we are getting hung up on similes 🙂 I agree for a monolingual agency it is largely beneficial to employ Bilingual PMs. What I’m trying to allude to (albeit unsuccessfully) is that for agencies managing projects in multiple languages it is not always a feasible option.

        Agencies rely on the skills of translators and reviewers to provide the language component. Much of the PMs role is to source the team to complete the project, ensure that same team understands the clients requirements and are managed effectively to deliver the project on time.

        I’m sure you will agree and may have experienced yourself that allowing input from unqualified bilinguals can introduce its own issues. For instance when a client has in-country personnel questioning aspects of the translation, we need to manage both the clients and translators concerns. Translators are often fiercely defensive of their work when criticisms or queries arise and its a skill in itself to try and manage this to the satisfaction of all parties, this is just part of the job as it is with any industry that involves a degree of creativity, there is always subjectivity involved.

        To jump back to the smilies id argue a more accurate comparison would be to that of a project manager on a building site. They are responsible for putting plumbers, carpenters, electricians etc in place to complete the project to the clients required specification. They are not required to have the skills required to complete the project themselves only to ensure that the experts are put in place to achieve the goal.

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    • Like

  14. “What I’m trying to allude to (albeit unsuccessfully) is that for agencies managing projects in multiple languages it is not always a feasible option.”

    If course it is not feasible for an agency to be able to translate all languages competently.

    This is precisely what is wrong with the concept, and why so many agencies do such a poor job.

    The problem is that agencies who do not specialize and who “translate every subject and every language”, which would be most of them, often have no idea what they are doing and do a lot of damage without even realizing it.

    I think that this problem is particularly acute in English-speaking countries, where there is often a noticeably contemptuous attitude to knowledge of foreign languages on the part of project managers who speak only English.

    Project managers of translation agencies in Germany, France, Japan and other countries usually at least understand another language. That is how they got their job in the first place.

    But project managers of translation agencies in US and UK are often proudly monolingual, and just like you, Jonathan, they see absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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  15. Firstly as I said at the very beginning I do not represent the entire LSP industry. The majority of our PMs are multilingual, the exception are those who work in specific areas such as transcription, design or web development. In my experience this is generally the case throughout the language industry and not an exception regardless of where the LSP is based. I accept that in a perfect world of course everyone would have a key niche and operate solely in that field.

    But for the sake of argument…
    A middle weight company wishing to translate their 2,000 word brochure into 20 languages would therefore need to employ 20 different project managers (either via an agency or internally) specialising in commercial PR translation to handle each language combination (assuming they were only bilingual). 20 different bilingual design specialists would then need to incorporate the new translations into the new designs. Another bilingual design team would then have to ensure that every translated brochure maintained aesthetic consistency with the source.

    Are you honestly suggesting that this client would be best served by outsourcing this one project to 20 different monolingual (ie specialise in one language combination) agencies? the logistics involved in managing it alone would make it a pointless exercise.

    An agency specialised in PR translation is unlikely to be able to afford 20 PMs to run a single 2000 word project let alone the designers, the cost for just the PMs would exceed most clients translation budget.

    Say you skip agencies entirely, the client hires translators directly they have the same 2000 word project, a one off job… they still have to hire someone to manage the project, by all accounts a project manager, do you think they will hire a multilingual person for this, moreover one who has experience of 20 different languages or will they just use their procurement team with little if any experience of languages. This doesn’t factor in all the vetting systems that agencies have for translators, qualifications, past experience etc.

    It is categorically impossible to implement this kind of structure in any sort of cost efficient way. This is why translation agencies, language regulation checkers, cat tools etc exist…

    Like

  16. “The majority of our PMs are multilingual”

    Then I must have been dealing with the minority who don’t seem to know anything at all about the languages that I am translating for them.

    For 27 years.

    My bad luck.

    Obviously, the best project manager to handle a job into 20 languages is a monolingual one.

    This is what I saw today on a translator’s blog (whose first language is not English):

    “Finally, I have no problem saying to project managers that a job is shoddy since I don’t consider these people as my “fellow translators” but as incompetent amateurs. This may sound harsh but these people are damaging the profession and dragging it down. They obviously should be doing something else, which is anything but translation.

    I’m afraid your examples are so absurd and absolutist that I am no longer interested in continuing this discussion with you.

    Like

  17. I apologise if I have irritated you in anyway, I can assure you I was only trying to present an alternative even handed view of what agencies do in my experience.

    I am unsure if I have lost track here, but I never suggested a monolingual project manager was better than a multilingual one. Only that it was difficult to find one who was fully fluent in more than 2 languages who was also a qualified project manager with experience of other technical areas.

    Infact, In my experience the project manager has very little to no influence over the quality of the translation, that is the role of the translator and the reviewer alone (also a qualified translator). The PM may present questions from involved parties, as you would have from working directly with a client. The translators always have the final say, if issues are raised by a reviewer then a 3rd party translator is asked to give their opinion. This process is that of the ISO that you mentioned.

    What do you believe the role of a project manager to be? This maybe an area where some of the industry differ but for most of the European operations I have encountered it is similar to the way we work.

    You say I’m being absurd and absolutist, I apologise if I come across that way but I am simply trying to respond to your points openly.

    Are the PMs responsible for the quality of a translators work? they shouldn’t be. Sure they have a bearing on ensuring the brief is properly structured and the clients requirements and expectations are communicated fully to the language team. We primarily work with clients translating from or into English so there is no reason why there should be any miscommunication between PM and translator.

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    • @Jonathan : “Are the PMs responsible for the quality of a translators work? they shouldn’t be.”
      Unbelievable! Yes you ARE. As a service provider, you sell services. You as a PM are responsible of the quality service you deliver to your client. That’s why you should know more than ONE language!!
      The only reason why the quality is bad is because you did not recruit a competent translator (by refusing to pay the price of a good translation).
      If the translator is providing it directly to the customer He/She as a BUSINESS is responsible for the quality. That’s the basic rule of subcontracting!!

      Like

  18. @Marie

    Thank you for your comment.

    But let’s try to see it from an agency’s point of view: the beauty of being ignorant, monolingual, and knowing nothing about the subject either because “it is not possible when you translate a printer manual into 20 languages” is that they are not really responsible for anything.

    So if something goes, which will inevitably happen with this kind of approach, you can always shoot the translator.

    It’s not the agency’s fault that they picked the wrong man or woman for the job!

    They’re just an agency!

    Like

  19. @Marie

    Apologies I think my statement has been misinterpreted, of course the agency is responsible to the client. Which is of course why any decent agency will align a project to a translator best suited to the job with the credentials and relevant past experience, not just someone who offers the lowest rate.

    Quality should always be the primary concern of a translation agency bar nothing, costs and rates should of course reflect this. I am in no way, and I cant stress this enough, condoning the use of non professionals at substandard rates.

    “The only reason why the quality is bad is because you did not recruit a competent translator (by refusing to pay the price of a good translation).
    If the translator is providing it directly to the customer He/She as a BUSINESS is responsible for the quality. That’s the basic rule of subcontracting!!”

    Precisely, I totally agree with you. That same translator should still assume that commitment to quality if working through an agency though, correct… regardless of the linguistic skills of the PM?

    Apologies it all feels a bit personal, I am only trying to get a better understanding of the relationship between agencies and translators to provide a better service on the whole.

    Like

    • “I am only trying to get a better understanding of the relationship between agencies and translators to provide a better service on the whole.”

      So am I. And this is the understanding I have gotten by now:
      Who does non-certified translations, is generally unknown. The agencies say, “We do them”, intercept the materials for translation and send them along illegal channels to anonymous people worldwide. None of those anonymous people will stay long on the market, but as soon as one has left, another appears, so the channels go on functioning – to the Client’s detriment.

      Translation industry operates on a simple principle. Clients are misled to believe that LSPs are staffed with all kinds of translators, editors, revisors, reviewers, consultants, DTP experts, web designers, etc. Staff is the key word here. Most of those so-called LSP or TSP consist just of a few people. They lack human resources.

      A nice, eye-opening article:
      “Small companies without good human-resources advice could pay the price for calling employees independent contractors.”
      http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20140610/SMALLBIZ/306089993/crackdown-leaves-firms-wary-of-freelancers

      Like

  20. […] Get Started As A Freelance Translator Translation credentials: what are they and do you need them? Five Essential Characteristics of a Good Translation Agency Συνηθισμένα εκφραστικά λάθη σε συνηθισμένες […]

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  21. […] as I wrote in this post, not every customer is worth having and keeping. And since I already wrote a post about the characteristics of a good translation agency, I thought it would be useful to put together a list of things that I look for (and often find) on […]

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  22. […] Original post by: Patent Translator < To view the full article, visit: Patenttranslator’s Blog […]

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  23. very good post!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Most translation agencies are always on the lookout for translators who charge lower rates best translation service

    Liked by 1 person


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