Posted by: patenttranslator | May 8, 2014

Many translators have a one-dimensional view of who they are


I have noticed that many translators have a starkly one-dimensional view of who they are and what it is that they can do.

A long time ago, when I was starting out as a freelance translator 27 years ago in San Francisco, back when a 20 MB hard disk was an elitist luxury (my first computer, called “Leading Edge”, had only two floppy drives), and noisy dot matrix printers were hungrily eating whole boxes of special, perforated computer paper, I thought of myself as a guy who will simply concentrate on translating, which naturally meant that I would be working only or mostly for translation agencies because I had no idea how to go about finding direct customers on my own.

Without giving the matter much thought, I accepted as perfectly natural a division of labor in which translators concentrate on translating, while translation agencies concentrate on finding work for translators and channeling it to the best translators who then don’t have to worry much about anything, other than the quality of their work, once a relationship of trust has been established between a translator and a translation agency.

And it worked like this, at least for me it did, for many years. The problem is, the relationship of trust between a translator and an agency has been severely damaged by the corporate translation agency model. And because trust based on past experience is not even a valid argument in this new bottom-line-trumps-everything-business model, simple Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), which used to have only a hundred words or so when their primary purpose was still to protect clients’ confidential information, were turned into what I call Declarations of Acceptance of Servitude which these day can easily run well over 3,000 words. The last one I received from an agency in Europe had almost 7,000 words. Needless to say, I did not sign it and I will never work for them.

To be sure, there are still agencies, usually small ones, which are often but not always run by translators or former translators who continue the tradition in which trust based on past results and experience forms the most important content of the relationship between a translator and an agency, but they are probably in a minority now. In the modern corporate business model, people are controlled and ordered around by machines as even interpersonal relationships are controlled and evaluated by computers based on algorithms because it is much cheaper when computers instead of people make decisions such as who should be hired.

All of this means that translators still have several choices in this new environment.

1. They can obediently and unquestioningly accept the new definition of their limited role in the translation process in which they are relegated to being cheap hired help that, once it is entered into a database as an entry among many other entries, is easily replaceable by another, cheaper “vendor” of translation services in the corporate translation agency model.

Acceptance of this role represents the path of the least resistance, and it may make sense for some people to do so, especially if they are just starting out, depending on the personality of the translator.

2. They can concentrate on working only or mostly for the traditional type of agency in which translators are sought out mostly for their unique characteristics and skills including education, expertise and experience rather than mostly on the basis of how much they charge.

To me it makes much more sense to refuse to work for the bottom-line type of translation agencies mentioned under point 1. No matter how little one charges, somebody out there will always charge less, which means that the translators in this kind of relationship will constantly be exposed to the pressures and continuous demands to lower their rates.

The traditional business model of agencies that could be called “translation agencies with a human face” is less sensitive to the pricing pressure, although obviously, it is not immune to it either. It is much harder to find these agencies because they seem to be in a minority now. However, this is the only kind of agency that I am still working for now.

Because every translator has a different background, different education, different experience and skills, and different languages and translation fields are offered by different people, once a “good fit” is found between the capabilities of a translator and an agency, a relationship which can last for years or even decades is often established in the traditional type of translator-agency business model.

3. But there is also a third choice that many entrepreneurial translators are making. Instead of concentrating all of their efforts, energy, resources and time on trying to drum up business only from translation agencies, they also actively pursue direct customers.

Identifying direct customers is even harder than trying to identify translation agencies that still pay good rates and treat translators as valued professionals rather than as easily replaceable obedient cogs in a complicated machinery designed to generate the maximum profit as quickly as possible.

But it can be done, and different translators use different methods for this purpose. I rely mostly on my website, (I am not sure that the blog helps much as it is aimed mostly at translators rather than clients or potential clients), and on traditional methods such as direct mailings and referrals from my existing clients, mostly patent law firms.

While it is much more difficult to determine who and where the direct clients are, once they do figure it out, translators can use basically the same methods, or at least very similar ones, to advertise their presence and capabilities to these direct clients instead of to agencies.

A translator who works only for translation agencies has only one kind of income: the income that is generated from his or her translations, after the agency has taken its cut. A translator who works also or mostly for direct clients should be able to eventually generate three kinds of income:

A) Income generated from translations for translation agencies (after the agency has taken its commission).

B) Income generated from translations for direct clients (at higher rates because no agency commission is involved).

C) Income generated by other translators working for or with a translator who performs the function of an agency.

Although it is generally better to be able to rely on three types of income instead of just one, many translators, perhaps even most of them, would not be interested in working as an agency in addition to doing the kind of work that they prefer, namely translating. Management of translation projects involves a different type of work and there is a learning curve with many hidden dangers, especially during the initial phase.

But I believe that to those of us who enjoy both translating and managing translation projects, the decision whether to learn how to run a translation business that is oriented mostly or only towards translation agencies, or mostly or only toward direct clients, should in this case be a no-brainer.

Instead of a one dimensional view of what translators can do for a living, a three-dimensional view emerges of a small, specialized translation business (the fashionable term is “a boutique”) that unlike the bottom-line, corporate translation model is much better suited to cater to many niche markets in which large translation agencies are not able to perform very well, partly because most of the people who are managing and working in these mega agencies (from monolingual owners to young, inexperienced and usually also monolingual project managers) are due to their limitations simply unable to tell a good translation from a mediocre or pretty a bad translation.


  1. As always, Steve, you are right on the money.

    If my reading of the many blogs and questions from workshop attendees is anywhere near correct, many of our colleagues are desperate to escape, or at least reduce, their dependence for work/assignments from increasingly rapacious international LSPs, if only they knew how.

    As I pointed out in my article on ‘defining ourselves rather than letting other define us’, a good start would be to stop calling ourselves free-lancers working for (piece) rates (a wage):

    Being a buyer of services during my long and varied business career in management, I and my colleagues always regarded freelancers as para-professionals willing to work (carry a lance) for anyone (warlord) who is willing to offer a wage, now known as a mercenary [WikiPedia defines a wage rather well: We regarded them as casual/temporary employees, hired for a specific, limited task, working at our direction and control.

    If we want to be regarded (identified, engaged and remunerated) as translation professionals, we need to start building up our ‘status’ in the public’s mind. LSPs are more interested, if not hell-bent, on reducing our status (read: cost, i.e. remuneration).

    A good start would be to call ourselves something like ‘(Certified) Translation Professionals/Practitioners’ or ‘(Certified) Translation Professionals (CTP)’, which is my preference until somebody comes up with a better idea.

    I ran a workshop on the subject of the professionalisation of our occupation in Brisbane last Saturday. It was an interesting exercise to say the least. A great response from highly professional, experienced and well-educated colleagues who needed it least, but also fear and misapprehension from those who have come to see the world as described by LSPs and other intermediaries in the translation ‘industry’.

    Keep up the good work, Steve, we have a long read ahead of us 🙂


    • I understand your point, but freelancer also has good connotations, because unlike employees, self-employed freelancers are free to dump a client and work for somebody else.

      I was looking for a translator for an upcoming project two days ago, and at the end of my conversation with him he told me, “Oh, if you have been in business for 27 years, I will just trust you” [to pay him, and pay him on time].

      I have been in business for 27 years as a freelancer, and I am proud of that.


      • I was looking at it from a (potential) client’s point of view. The ability to ‘dump a client’ is hardly a good connotation from THEIR point of view.
        A (certified) translation professional (in private practice) is also free to choose his or her clients, of course, so calling yourself a ‘freelancer’ does not improve your chances of finding direct clients, indeed, my thesis is that it does the opposite.
        Direct clients are looking for an ‘expert’ capable of ‘solving their problem’ in an area where they lack the expertise to do so themselves, or even to judge what is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ outcome.
        A client needs a professional he or she can trust.


  2. I meant a long ‘road’.


  3. Entirely agree, and I am trying to identify more direct clients but still it is not easy…But I am quite tired of translation agencies sometimes, where you have no control over the communication with the end client, and when there are misunderstandings the blame’s often put on the translator as that’s easier for the general low level agency etc.


  4. “… and when there are misunderstandings the blame’s often put on the translator”

    The golden rule in the “translation industry” is: If something goes wrong, you can always shoot the translator.

    That’s why anybody can start a translation agency – if something goes wrong, which often happens when the wrong translator gets the job because a project manager does not understand the source language, everything is blamed on the translator, and because the agency is blameless, the translator is simply stiffed.

    Most agencies will never even try to defend a translator, for example when the client simply does not like the translation for any reason at all, because the client is of course never wrong.


    • Here too, it will be easier for agencies to criticize a freelance translator (just a casual worker picked up from the internet ‘car park’), than someone who is regarded/respected as an expert/specialised professional. Major international agencies are clearly trying to reduce the profile/status of translators by insisting they are ‘just’ freelancers/vendors and are treated a casual workers (provide a CV instead of a professional profile, paid piecework rates instead of a fee, forced to bid for jobs on blind auction sites (wait in the car park (internet) like fruit pickers), etc.
      You will find that for most professions, perceived status closely correlates with trust and hence potential income (e.g. “trust me, I’m a doctor” :-).
      Perceived status has to be built.


  5. @Louis

    Regardless of which terms, such as freelancer, may be preferred by you or myself, nobody is forcing translators to beg for work on blind auctions.

    They do it because they can’t figure out what else to do.

    The more important question is, who would do it the certifying of translators?


    • Only WE can do it, peers.
      I am working on a certification system for this purpose, but it is going to take time, and it needs to go hand-in-hand with other professional structures, and most importantly, it must free of influence from vested interests such as the ‘industry’ and from governments.


  6. ‘We’ does not work. Only “I” work (smile)


  7. I couldn’t agree more with Louis Vorstermans. I can see the day when senior translators will establish firms having specialized, dedicated departments attending clients in sectors like, say, law, mining, energy, environment, health and so on, adopting the “employee-owned, consultancy” business model (as opposed to the “agency” or LSP model), where junior translators enter one of these departments to start gaining experience from working directly on client projects, managed by a more senior translator, by first performing basic tasks and eventually developing specialized skills, say, in subject area expertise, terminology management, translation-memory management, quality control, business development, etc. Such firms, which should aim to be global, but being able to operate locally, should and can create value for clients by delivering tailored solutions that could be a combination of services including interpreting, translation, editing, technical writing, terminology management, linguistic/cultural advice… the sky is the limit. The point here is to abandon, from our perspective, the agency/freelancer model and embracing the client/consultant model, where “consultant” stands either for a firm or an individual, but who is capable of delivering such tailored solutions or being an specialist in a certain area of expertise. Actually, just being an excellent technical writer is more than enough for a start. Or maybe I am just talking nonsense…


  8. “Or maybe I am just talking nonsense…”

    You are not talking nonsense, and you are definitely describing a much better model, from the clients’ viewpoint, than what the so called translation industry is delivering now, especially when we are talking about mega agencies.

    But there are a few minor problems with your concept as well, not the least of which is the question of who would be actually issuing certifications for “certified translators” and on what basis.

    Louis said that translators would be “peer-certified”. I did not want to argue with him, but I do think that it would be a little bit more complicated….

    On the other hand, the model that you are describing already exists … small, specialized (“boutique”) agencies, often run by former translators, are already doing most of the things that you described and in my opinion they are delivering a much better product and often at lower rates to their customers.

    They do use freelancers, which is evidently a concept and a word that Louis does not like, but I personally don’t think it is such a bad thing to use freelancers.

    I am a freelancer myself, I also use freelancers in my business model, which is very different from that of a large translation agency, and there must be hundreds of people out there who do exactly the same thing that I am doing.


  9. Beautifully put, Hector, and differentiating between (certified) professionals and LSPs using (uncertified) freelancers (casual workers), will be a pivotal requirement to ensure that potential clients will confidently engage a professional translation ‘practice’ to do any quality work. Perceptions will be the key.

    @ “which should aim to be global, but being able to operate locally” can be achieved by building a global network of independent translation practices/professionals who will be able to rely on (certified) colleagues world-wide to get the support they need for global projects, and do so with confidence. Layers, accountants, engineers, architects, etc. do so now to handle international projects. This is not possible without accepted international (professional) standards and certification.

    One of the great competitive advantages we have, is that we do not need to charge any more than LSPs do already, and still increase our income by 40% to 60%.


  10. “One of the great competitive advantages we have, is that we do not need to charge any more than LSPs do already, and still increase our income by 40% to 60%.”


    And one of the biggest disadvantages we have is that most of us have no idea how to find direct clients, although we can easily increased our rates by 50% if we can do that.


    • Once we have learned to collaborate rather than compete (among (certified) professionals), we will be able help each other in this respect.
      It’s not going to be easy or quick, but as I said during a recent workshop presentation, even getting half-way to our ultimate goal, we will be way ahead of where we are now (and where it’s clearly headed).


  11. Well, what do I know, you could be right.


  12. When I was 15, I knew all the answers (I now realise I was only aware of a handful of questions at the time). Now I am aware of many, many questions, but only know a handful of the answers. It feels as though ignorance is winning 🙂

    However, I have worked as an Executive Director of two industry associations for 10 years, and my master’s thesis (MBA 1998) was on the ‘strategic issues faced by industry associations’, so I have a little bit of experience with the subject.

    I have also served as the the national treasurer of our professional association (AUSIT) for four years (long enough to learn that we are not getting our strategies (my words: to protect and advance the professional interests of translators and interpreters) right, and that herding cats ain’t easy :-).


  13. Thank you for the post! I love both translating and managing translation projects. It seems very interesting to me to try different kinds of work, not to mention the financial side.


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