In a previous post titled Seven Unmistakable Signs That A Translation Agency Is A Fake, I listed some of the most telling signs of an agency operating based on the rules of the corporate translation model. Many agencies clearly belong to this category, but definitely not all of them, although to my knowledge, the business model of all large translation agencies is at the present time based on the principle of blinding, insatiable corporate greed.
In this business model, translators are considered easily replaceable, cheap hired help (Kevin Lossner calls them HAMPSTeRs, I call them nanolators, among other choice titles), not as highly educated and highly valued professionals who must be paid and treated accordingly if you want to keep them motivated to work for you.
Large translation agencies are typically owned and run by monolingual people who know nothing about translation per se. While they may not know anything about foreign languages, they know how to maximize their profit, generally at the expense of the busy bees who are working for them. These people are very good salesmen who would be able to make very handsome profits for example by selling refrigerators to Eskimos, I’ll give them that. But still, because the only business they understand is the business of making money, I consider them ignorant parasites who are generally unable to add value to translation. Their main contribution is that they add to the cost – a lot.
So how can a poor translator tell that a translation agency does not subscribe to the holy credo of the corporate translation agency model?
I think that there are several signs that a translation agency may be based on a different model, a model that competes mostly on quality rather than mostly on quantity and price.
I will list seven such telling signs indicating that a translator may be dealing with another kind of translation agency, the kind that is in fact sabotaging the corporate translation mold by using the many weaknesses of the corporate translation model, which is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, only about two decades old.
1. The Translators Are Paid Very Quickly
I work for three such agencies, one mails me a check immediately when my translation has been delivered, one pays within a few days, and the third one pays me on the first and fifteenth of the month, by a transfer to my bank account. These are the only translation agencies that I still work for on a regular basis. The fact that they pay so quickly is very healthy for my cash flow given that some of my customers let me wait five to six weeks before they finally pay me, especially large patent law firms. The stack of bills that would accumulate in five weeks while I am waiting to be paid would be otherwise very thick and all of them would be past due if I did not have clients who pay very quickly.
2. The Translators Are Paid Good Rates
What is a good rate is of course eminently debatable, but you know what is a good rate for you. If your rate is accepted immediately, without haggling and without stupid tricks that not even a somewhat intelligent dog would fall for, such as “full and fuzzy matches” based on advanced CAT mathematics (although many translators fall for these tricks), you are being paid a good rate.
3. The Translation Agency Is Often Run by Former or Current Translators
Unlike the salesman and saleswomen in the corporation translation model, the people who manage the translation business in this model actually know a lot about translating and foreign languages. That is why they don’t need for example to do what ignorant brokers who know nothing about translation have to do, such as give “translation tests” to translators. Once current or former translators take a look at a résumé and send a prospective translator a short, paid job, they can tell easily whether they have a winner, a pitiful plodder, or a total loser.
4. The Translation Agency Specializes in Something Rather Than in Everything
The corporate translation agency model “specializes” in everything and anything as long as there is a potential for major profit in it for the agency. These outfits translate financial materials, patents, they do “transcreation”, subtitling and interpreting, from and into all languages. And why not when they don’t need to know anything about the languages from and into which they are translating, let alone the subjects that the translators will be dealing with. Their motto might just as well be “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist”.
But there are also translation agencies that do specialize in only a few defined areas, such as patents and technical translation, or financial translation, and the best ones usually only translate from a few languages, namely those that the people who run the agency understand.
5. Confidentiality Agreements Are in Fact Confidentiality Agreements
Confidentiality agreements did exist two or three decades ago, before the advent of the corporate translation agency model. But they were only a few dozen words long because these were in fact confidentiality agreement whose purpose was to ensure that confidential information will not be leaked out to third parties by dumb translators.
Recently I was contacted by a translation agency interested in finding out what I would be able to do for the agency’s bottom line. The “Confidentiality Agreement” had almost seven thousand words, and the payment terms were “60 days net”.
Needless to say, I told them to take a hike as I did not want to waste any more time with them.
6. You Are Not a “Dear Linguist” (They Remember Your Name)
I used to translate validation protocols for tests of new pharmaceuticals from Japanese to English for a tiny, highly specialized translation agency, run by a husband and wife team. Sometime it was hard work as some of the documents were handwritten, but fortunately, they were mostly written in a neat handwriting. The husband, who had a PhD in chemistry, was the proofreader, and the wife was in charge of accounting. They paid me very handsome rates, especially since they paid 1.5 times my usual rate for rush translations, defined as work on Saturdays and Sundays or more than about 2,000 words per working day.
Then the elderly couple retired and sold their business to another translation agency. The change in the attitude of the new owners toward translators was really striking. Shortly after the transfer of ownership, I received an e-mail asking about my availability for a small translation addressed to a “Dear Linguist”. When I answered the e-mail within about 10 minutes, the project manager in this new agency that in fact paid among other things the old owners also for information about my services informed me that the translation was already assigned to another translator. When I asked how was that possible since I responded to the first e-mail very quickly, the project manager told me that the work is assigned first to “first responders”. I told her to delete me from their database of translators because I would never work for the agency again. The owner of the agency actually called me, apologized for “an oversight” and tried to pacify me to keep me working for him, but I just gave him a piece of my mind and hung up on him.
When you receive an e-mail addressed to a “Dear Linguist” or a “Dear Translator”, the agency does not really give a damn who will do the translation because the e-mail is sent to several warm bodies to find out which one of them will bite first and quote the lowest rate.
7. Personal Accountability Is Not a Problem in a Small Agency
When you work for a translation agency that is based on the corporate translation model, it is very difficult to ask questions and solve problems because the tasks are divided, distributed and delegated to different people who may not understand what the problem is, or who may prefer not to make themselves available if there is a problem. For example, if a payment is not received on time, it is generally very easy to establish what went wrong if you are dealing with an agency consisting of a husband and wife team.
But when you deal with the large, corporate translation agency type, you may not even know how to contact the accounting department, and even if you do that, they may or may not get back to you within a reasonable period of time with a reasonable explanation.
Part of the advantage of this structure – from their viewpoint – is that nobody is really accountable and responsible for anything. As usual, an advantage for them is a disadvantage for the translators.
Given that the translation model of some, or possibly many, small translation agencies is diametrically opposed to the large, corporate translation model (paying good rate and on time instead of peanuts in 60 days, real specialization instead of “specialization in everything”, absence of incredibly long agreements designed to turn translators into subservient, cheap hired help, emphasis on the qualifications and capabilities of individual translators instead of emphasis on the profit margin and on the bottom line über alles), one could say that the translation agency model described above is sabotaging the corporate translation model.
But that’s not how I see it. We should not forget that the large translation agency model is a relative newcomer, while the old model, described above, has been pretty much the norm for a very long time. Thirty years ago, large translation agencies simply did not exist. It was only the advent of Internet that made it possible for brokers who don’t really know anything about translating to start businesses, small, not so small and huge, called translation agencies.
Small, specialized, accountable translation agencies may be sabotaging the corporate translation model, but they are not sabotaging the translating profession. It is the large, corporate translation model that is sabotaging what not so long ago was a promising and rewarding occupation. This model is also the main reason why the quality of so many translations is often so poor.
Translators who refuse to work for the corporate translation behemoths are thus playing a small but important role in helping to restore a healthier balance to the translation market, healthier not only with respect to the incomes that we are able to achieve as translators, but also with respect to the quality of translations that can be provided by individual translators and highly specialized translation agencies to their clients.