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.