Posted by: patenttranslator | October 4, 2014

A Short List of Warning Signs on Websites of Translation Agencies for Cautious Translators


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.


  1. Thank you Steve, you opened my eyes!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A significant Warning Sign: Late payment.


  3. “Late payment” – yes, but I meant warning signs that we can see on websites of translation agencies that we have not worked for before.

    So these would be warning signs that can prevent a late payment if we decide to ignore an offer of work in our e-mail.

    I just ignored a request for a price quote for a Japanese translation this morning from an agency that called me “Dear Lara”, seeing as my name is not Lara. This e-mail must have been sent to several translators, so many that the PM messed up the names.

    I’m sure that one of these translators will charge a lower rate then me, so why waste time on a price quote.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Did you know that agencies claim employer’s powers over independent contractors? They tell the Client, “We have all translators, bla-bla-bla”?


  5. @Rennie

    Not only that. NDAs often contain a clause that stipulates that agency’s representatives have the right to “inspect contractor’s premises” unannounced and one translator even told me that an agency is asking all of its “freelance translators” to sign a consent form for a background check conducted “on all of our freelance translators” that involves:

    1. Identity verification

    2. Education verification

    3. Criminal background check

    This sounds really creepy. I would immediately stop working for them if I received it myself.

    I am an independent business owner, not a slave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have this clause in the Bulgarian Labor Code:

      Obligations in performance of home-based work

      Art. 107e. (New – State Gazette, issue 33 of 2011) When performing home-based work, the employee shall:

      2. provide the employer with access to the room where the work takes place for inspection;

      So, if you were a home-based employee, only then your employer should have the right to inspect you. I suppose you have similar legislation.

      Why do you think there are no comments under the article:
      “Small companies without good human-resources advice could pay the price for calling employees independent contractors.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Be the first to comment, Rennie.


  7. My favorite half-truth translation agencies put their websites (I hope we don’t have it anywhere on ours!) is that they employ thousands of translators and editors while conveniently omitting the fact that they are all freelance contractors 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “that they employ thousands of translators and editors while conveniently omitting the fact that they are all freelance contractors”

      … and independent business owners as well 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. These are reasonable guidelines, but they are not all absolute. For instance, I know that some of my agency clients are under a lot of price pressure. One agency owner made the mistake of telling a client that he would not charge to translate repetitions. Unfortunately for him, I do.


  9. @Steven

    I never charge my client for repetitions. That would be just wrong!

    Never, ever, provided that I don’t have to repeat them in my translations.


  10. Thank you, Steve. Interesting real issues to ponder on.


    • You could as well ponder on another interesting issue. In order to lure clients, the agencies need to lure translators. And vice versa, in order to lure translators, they need to lure clients. What is first, the egg or the hen?


      • I think it is pure dialectic. On general consideration, disregard and disrespect for our profession ought to be paid more and better attention.


      • “On general consideration, disregard and disrespect for our profession ought to be paid more and better attention.”

        Couldn’t agree more.

        As for the egg and hen puzzle, I don’t think it is pure dialectic, not when referred to translation industry, not at all. This is pure fraud! The agencies claim they are employers, sort of “Come to us you poor, tired translators, you homeless, tempest-tossed wretches!”

        Translators send diplomas, CVs, etc., fill long questionnaires, do free translations on the pretext of being tested. Then what? Few of them will ever get a full-time employement, and if they do after all, it will only be to their disadvantage: overwork, low pay, extra work to finish at home late at night, etc.

        Meanwhile, the agencies advertise agressively that THEY can translate from/into ALL languages, that THEY have TEAMS counting thousands of highly-skilled, carefully selected translators.

        The clients, misled by this flagrantly false advertising, get in contact with the agencies and sign contracts, where the agency is a Contractor. The clients believe that the agencies do translate (use their own staff). The Client signs a contract with the Contractor (the fraudulent agency, that shouts “It’s me that translates, me, me! In all languages!).

        Then, behind the client’s back, the Contractor suddenly turns into a Client. The agencies assign translations to independent contractors. They stand as impervious barrier erected between our Clients and us, translators. They tell us, “We feed you! It it wasn’t for us, you’d go hungry”. That’s gross, isn’t it?


      • What too many of us do not consider or even do not know at all is what they want to be. Being a translator, do we want to be employees or independent professionals? The answer to this question is our starting point of our “future”. On considering option 1 (we want to be employee), we need to take care of our further education and of our CV and send it to as many agencies and companies as possible, until one of them hire us with all pros and cons. By option 2, we need to take care of our further education PLUS entrepreneurial skills to develop our own business. We do not need a CV. We a flyer and a translation-portfolio instead. We are further supposed to get ready a business plan, a marketing plan, a financial budgeting, a public relations, and so on. The entrepreneurial features of our profession are undervalued or not known at all, which is one of the determinants of the present situation. This “identity and know-how problem” vouches for misuse and malpractice.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Vinchenza, I don’t seem to understand the meaning of “identity and know-how problem”. Would, you please, explain? Or maybe you, Steve?


    • The “identity problem” is inherent to basic position in the translation industry: in-house translator (employee) or independent translator? With all pros and cons. Some of us think or want to be independent professionals but, in actual point of fact, behave and interact as employee in the translation market. The “know-how problem” inheres to the action required to build up the “professional future”: in-house translator (employee) calls for option 1, independent translator ought to call for option 2 and cannot ignore the adoption of ENTREPRENEURIAL SKILLS, in addition to the linguistic and intercultural competencies.
      Failure to comply this central premise with the consequent approach to the profession is one of the determinants of given situation:
      “… 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 … “.


      • Vincenza, just try to think out of the box, please. Don’t you know that the present model, where the agencies call independent contractors “their employees”, is wrong (illegal)? See above: “Small companies without good human-resources advice could pay the price for calling employees independent contractors”

        Here’s an article, published a few hours ago, which presents some valuable ideas on the legal forms for translation business organization: (in Bulgarian)

        And here’s something in English (part of my correspondence with a certification body in Austria):

        “It is a key requirement, explicitly set in EN 15038, that a TSP shall have carefully selected human resources for each translation project. Why, do you think, it is exactly in the Human Resources sub-clause that the standard sets clear selection criteria, if not to facilitate TSPs’ search for employees? Nowadays, there are even professional HR companies which bring employers and employees together. They only ask for clear selection criteria and set out to create a database of candidate-employees.

        TSPs, however, do not need employees, nor HR companies. They themselves compile databases of candidate-employees and then present the translators from those databases as their human resources. TSPs refer to them as “their translators”, “their teams”, etc. For example:

        “Unsere Spe­zia­li­tät sind Über­set­zun­gen aus allen in alle Spra­chen, ohne Ein­schrän­kung des Fach­ge­biets. Als gut ein­ge­führ­tes Über­set­zungs­büro sind wir auf zuver­läs­sige externe Part­ner für die Bereit­stel­lung hoch­wer­ti­ger Über­set­zun­gen ange­wie­sen. Mit den meis­ten unse­rer Sprach­pro­fis haben wir lang­jäh­rige, gut ein­ge­spielte Bezie­hun­gen.”

        All Languages is one of the 20 EN 15038-certified Austrian TSPs. Their actual team consists of 7 persons, of whom only 3 translators: Do you think three or four project managers can manage translation projects in tens and hundreds of foreign languages?

        All Languages offer a Speziali­tät which is the same as the Specialität of all other micro-sized TSPs (staff < 10): they make false claims that they can translate everything or manage all kinds of translation projects simply because they have access to a worldwide network of professionals, many of whom are self-employed, others have their own TSP with their own database of unlimited resources. The internet has enabled all of us (I say "us" because I also work in a micro-sized TSP) to claim "the sky is the limit", so there is nothing unique in their approach.

        You say, you do not understand what I am aiming at. Hindrance of free competition is one issue. Protection of clients' rights is another. Theft of intellectual property is the third.

        I expected, and still expect, that certification bodies would exert some control over the unfair business practices in the field of translation services. Instead, you are asking what I am aiming at. Do you really not know that the term "human resources" means employees (staff, personnel)?

        The EN 15038 standard is a powerful tool. Properly used, it may put an end to unfair practices in the field of translation services. And vice versa, used improperly, it may contribute to their proliferation.

        In the standard, there is 3.2 "Human resources", and under this heading are 3.2.1 "HR management", 3.2.2 "Professional competences of translators", 3.2.3 "Professional competences of revisers", 3.2.4 "Professional competences of reviewers". Why do you see all these highly-qualified professionals simply as "various functions". What do you mean by "functions'? Job positions, I hope?

        There is also 3.2.5. "Continuing professional development", quote: The TSP shall ensure that the professional competences required by 3.2.2 are maintained and updated. Can you imagine a TSP that would invest in the continuing professional development of translators who are employed by other organizations or are self-employed, independent contractors?"

        All the correspondence is published at:


      • “Vincenza, just try to think out of the box, please. Don’t you know that the present model, where the agencies call independent contractors “their employees”, is wrong (illegal)? See above: “Small companies without good human-resources advice could pay the price for calling employees independent contractors”

        Dear Rennie, you ought to try to think and, above all, get out of the “box-trap” of agencies. You think that agencies are the only chance for a translator to get projects. I could not disagree more on that point. Since 1983, I have actually looked for and acquired direct clients to work and earn my living in the “translation jungle”. There are only two agencies in my portfolio who do not belong to the biggest ones in the market too. That is why I needed to learn and adopt entrepreneurial skills and abilities, in addition to further education and subjects of expertise. With all pros and cons, this has kept me away from the agencies’ gate.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. “Since 1983, I have actually looked for and acquired direct clients to work and earn my living in the “translation jungle”. There are only two agencies in my portfolio…”

    I have been doing the same thing since about 1990 and at this point the great majority of my clients are direct clients, mostly law firms.

    I work only for a few agencies, all of them tiny to quite small, and basically for only for 1 agency regularly.

    That is also why I can also criticize some of their more nefarious practices on my blog without a fear of reprisal.


    • What do you mean when you say “agency”? Can you give me a description of an agency? What is your answer to the question:

      Why should agencies make us sign long contracts for services? They are not our clients, are they?

      As I see them, they are nothing more than sort of secretaries (technical assistants), an auxilliary (logistic) link between us and our clients.

      However, instead of helping us get in touch with our clients, they claim they feed us. We are hungry and they feed us, huh!

      The humiliating myth of the hungry translators is entirely their fabrication, for nobody knows how many the qualified translators are. Probably fewer than the agencies.

      How do the agencies actually feed us? Where do they take the money from to pay us? From the pockets of our clients, of course. They gobble first, then throw crumbs to us (peanuts).

      Moreover, they lie to our clients that they themselves have done our translations. And I find this lie the most revolting.


    • I like your blog and appreciate your commitment, Steve.
      I cannot understand how the most of us can love and feel comfortable in the “ice-cold gate-trap” of agencies. I simply cannot afford the luxury of working on the basis of their “nice and lovely” conditions. Of course, there are good and bad agencies: unfortunately, the good ones are exceptions.
      why are other potential target groups alternative to agencies so disregarded? Direct clients pay at once and before delivery, sometimes even in advance. Agencies do that thirty days after the delivery, if we consider the best case scenario. Moreover, I can use my CAT tools and benefit from advantages of repeated words or sentences, without having my fees cut off to the benefit of agencies. Do we get a discount by a lawyer or other professionals, whenever there are repeated words and sentences? I do not think so. Why are we expected to do that? There would be much more to write on this point. Furthermore, profession and expertise deserve more and better attention.


  13. “You think that agencies are the only chance for a translator to get projects.”

    No, I don’t think so. I’m just trying to draw attention to the unfair practice of agencies claiming employment rights over independent contractors. Actually, this is not my observation only. Did you read the article ” “Small companies without good human-resources advice could pay the price for calling employees independent contractors”. The link is given above. No need to complain of misuse and malpractices. Concerted action is needed.


    • They do that because the most of us allow them to do so, when we act as employees and not as professionals (= option 2).
      Whenever I realize that a target group affects or even prevents me from earning my living, I do not waste my precious time and energies on them any longer. I just leave them aside and focus my attention and energies on the other target groups in the market.
      It midnight and need to sleep now. Have a nice evening.


  14. Great work, Steve! I’m trying to think what warning signs I look for… Here’s a couple I also look out for, in addition to your great list above. Nearly all of yours and nearly all of mine also apply to marketing agencies, which are direct clients in terms of the relationship, rates, terms and responsibilities, but are still outsourcers at the end of the day.

    1) The quality of writing on the website
    This is a very good indicator of how well they understand my market. If they are not good at writing in German, they clearly won’t be attracting the sort of discerning clients who will be able to afford my rates. Their texts will likely be a bit ugly, too, which makes my work harder.

    2) The quality of any existing translations on the website
    I usually forgive small marketing agencies this sin, provided it’s “just” non-native errors rather than serious signs of Google Translate and MT, and sometimes I will point things out and offer to help get them a translation that befits the quality of their German texts.
    If this is a TRANSLATION agency, on the other hand, this is a BIG no-no. This betrays everything about their attitude to translators and translation as a whole. A terrible translation suggests they have no idea about quality. Even if they can pay my rates, that’s not to say they will appreciate the difference, or be in a position to understand or defend my work in the rare event of client complaint (never happened to me, but I am sure it will, one day – it happens to the very best!). If other signs are positive, and it’s a smaller agency, it might be worth mentioning it to them to hear their side of the story. Any agency large enough to have PMs, however, especially staff that are native in these languages, should be expected to have something that is at least acceptable.
    Just as above, the quality of the writing – beyond accuracy and moving into how well-written and effective the translations are – really says a lot. If the translations are truly excellent, I’ll cut them more slack on any other red flags I see.

    3) Membership or involvement in certain organisations
    I shouldn’t need to say which, but there are two in particular that raise red flags for me. Another couple raise yellow warning flags.

    4) Quoting Common Nonsense Advisory as if it’s law, right on their front page
    I’ve seen this happen. It’s put me off otherwise nice people.

    5) Listing an unfeasible list of high-profile clients for a company of their size and/or location
    I’ve seen Chindian agencies in particular, but also British, French, Belgian and German agencies list big names as their clients, who are supposedly happy with their work. Well, we freelancers, too, get the odd big name, but some of these lists are rather suspicious, especially when we already know how some of the companies mentioned handle translations and who their main providers are.

    6) An agency marketing itself as small, quality-focused and local has a disproportionate number of project managers (and perhaps offices in less-expensive economies)
    This happens a lot. Check out their marketing. Some agencies use their few in-house staff as a marketing tool to suggest all their work is handled in-house. The number of PMs and foreign offices suggest otherwise.

    7) Words like “affordable” and “cost-effective”, or even “cheap”
    Anyone saying things like this is competing on price, even if they think otherwise, even if they charge three times as much as the bottom-feeders they are comparing themselves to. Good agencies (like successful freelancers) are often employing tactics to put off bargain-hunters, not the other way around. Anything that clearly says “We’re not cheap”, conversely, attracts my interest, especially when combined with a high degree of specialisation and great website texts.

    8) Instant quote systems
    Totally unprofessional.


  15. Hi Rose:

    Thanks for your comment. I like your list very much, but I don’t understand why an instant quote system is unprofessional.

    Or maybe I don’t understand what an instant quote system is.

    I have a quote button on my website and I generally provide a quote within 30 minutes if a prospective customer includes an attachment with the file to be translated.

    Is that what you meant, and why would that be unprofessional?


  16. I clicked on the link and I was duly impressed.

    It’s one big lie after another.

    But what else can one expect from a company claiming that it is working with “100,994 professional translators and 48,729 customers” (about 2.1 professional translators per customer, they should have the formula patented), that its translations are “ISO certified” and “EN certified”, and to top it off, it is a proud member of the American Translators Association.


    • I did that too and had a look at some of the professionals in Italy, in the given world map. In the pictures (small ones), they look really young and have at least ten or more years of professional experience already. I wonder at what age did they start with their activity.


  17. […] 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 h…  […]


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  19. […] leggevo il post di un traduttore che seguo, Patenttranslator’s Blog (qui) , dove venivano elencati i cinque segnali indicatori sui siti delle agenzie di traduzione che […]


  20. […] 14/11/2014 A short list of warning signs on websites of translation agencies for cautious translators by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]


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