It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.
Gore Vidal, American writer (1925 – 2012).
Every translation agency receives daily dozens if not hundreds of e-mails from translators who are hungry for work. Unfortunately, the world has always been and always will be full of hungry people, including translators.
Most translators who have been plying their noble although mostly unappreciated trade for a long time, including this translator, also frequently receive e-mails from translation agencies who are hungry for translators. But 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 the website of a translation agency that is offering me work before I decide to bite or to ignore the e-mail.
1. The address comes first, of course, because it usually tells the whole story.
It is obviously important where the agency is located. If it is located in Chindia or in a country where most people have to survive on the equivalent of a few dollars a day, it is best to ignore it because the agency will be offering a very low rate. Not that I have anything against Chindians, but I simply cannot survive on a few dollars a day.
To fool prospective customers and translators, some translation agencies located in countries where the cost of labor is very low have a fake address in a western country, for example in New York or in Paris, but that is not where they are really located. A part of due diligence is paying attention to little details like this.
2. A half truth is a whole lie.
The second thing that I look for on the website of translation agencies is how many lies and half truths the agency has on its homepage. Many of them have at least half a dozen lies and half truths right there within the first few paragraphs. If the marketing propaganda on the website of a translation agency is too gimmicky for my taste, I generally ignore offers of work from such a source. Here is a list of three most popular advertising gimmicks often found in the propaganda on the websites of translation agencies:
Advertising Gimmick A: If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exit!
When people say that they are specializing in something and the list of things that they allegedly specialize in covers everything from A to Z (as in “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist”), they obviously don’t specialize in anything, and thus the chances are that they don’t really know anything about anything, including translation.
It is dangerous to work for people who don’t seem to know anything about translation because if they screw up something, guess who will be left holding the bag?
You, the translator, of course.
Advertising Gimmick B: Our translations are double and triple checked by a number of highly qualified translators.
This bombastically nonsensical statement is also frequently used as an advertising gimmick in the propaganda on the websites of many translation agencies. Many customers apparently fall for it and never ask themselves obvious questions, such as whether it would even make sense for multiple persons to be translating, checking, double checking and triple checking the same translation, and how much would such a translation have to cost.
I would never consider working for a company that is trying to feed such obvious tripe to prospective customers.
Advertising Gimmick C: Accuracy of our translations is guaranteed because we are ISO-this or DIN-EN-that certified!
ISO certification is a set of rules that has been originally designed for manufacturing of industrial products. It is possible to design a set of techniques and rules for manufacturing of products, but the problem is, translation is manufactured, if you will, in the head of a human being. If you pick the right translator, you will get a good translation. You pick the wrong one, and you will get garbage. That is the only technique that makes sense when it comes to ensuring quality of translation.
Certification for thinking processes taking place in the heads of people called translators who may or may not know what they are doing is obviously nonsense. However, since most clients don’t know much about translation, it is a popular and apparently useful advertising gimmick.
To say that the accuracy of translations is guaranteed because a translation agency is using a certain method, a method designed for manufacturing of industrial products that has nothing to do with the actual translating process, is to be dishonest in order to fool prospective customers. I may still decide to work for an agency that is using this gimmick, but this is definitely a negative sign as far as the trustworthiness of the agency is concerned.
3. A large translation agency is generally not a desirable client.
An inexperienced translator may think that it would be a good thing to have a large translation agency as a client because a large business entity should have a lot work, right? Maybe, but the problem is, all of the large translation agencies, however one would define the term “large”, are based on the corporate method for “mass production” of translations in which translators are relatively unimportant cogs in a huge profit making apparatus who are invariably paid very low rates to keep the profits high for the people at the top of the food chain.
The corporate method for producing large quantities of low-quality translations to generate high profits for people on the top, sometime referred to as “hamsterization of translators”, has already been described in blog posts of translators, so I will not go into details here.
As an independent small business owner, I am interested only in working for people who will not treat me as a hamster whose main job is to keep pushing the wheel of profit at higher and higher speeds in perpetuity, which is why I stay away from large translation agencies.
4. If a translation agency promises on its website to cut the cost of translation for its clients with new technology – how do you think the cost cutting will be done?
By paying the translators as little as possible, of course.
One method that can be used for this purpose is by ordering translators to use a certain CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tool. For about the last decade or so, many translation agencies have been forcing translators to accept the notion that since word count is a common method for determining the cost of a translation, certain “repeated words” should not be counted because “it would not be fair to the client”. This fuzzy concept is referred to as discounts for “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”.
Based on this fuzzy logic, the actual word count is just a starting point for obligatory discounts that naturally must be exacted from translators for certain words because all words have not been created equal.
Since the discounts are almost never passed on to the end clients, obedient translating hamsters are thus compelled to push the profit wheel at higher and higher speeds.
If a translation agency promises on its website to save its customers money with wonderful new technologies, tools and techniques, the e-mail will be ignored.
5. A website full of photoshopped images of sexy, smiling young people who never translated anything is a bad sign.
A really good sign is when the website explains the background of the people who work in the agency because this means that they are accountable for good or poor quality of the service, and one can usually see from their background why they are willing to take on this responsibility. When nothing is said on the site about the people working in the translation agency or its translators, that means to me that this is a generic intermediary who most likely does not know anything about translating, which is why they would prefer to remain anonymous.
It is best to stay away from generic outfits also functioning as a temporary employment agency, or some kind of another intermediary. Translation may seem like an easy field for expansion to people who know nothing about it, but people like that are likely to make one mistake after another, and in the end they will blame the translator for all of the problems that they themselves created.
When something goes wrong with a translation, it is always the translator’s fault, and shooting the translator has always been a very popular sport. It is best to ignore e-mails from these outfits to stay out of trouble.
As Gore Vidal put it, for some people to succeed, others must fail, and I don’t want to be associated with outfits that are destined to fail.
After all, the world is full of hungry translators, or people who say that they can translate, so even the most ignorant fly-by-night operation should be able to find a hungry but still somewhat warm body for its expansion into the fabulous translation business.
I hope my short list of warning signs frequently found on websites of translation agencies was helpful, and please let me know if you can think of other warning signs that should be included in my short list.