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.